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The Industrial Revolution's Impact on Family Life in the UK

Updated on June 5, 2013

The Industrial Revolution was the single greatest period of economic growth in UK history. It can be claimed that this had a massive impact on gender roles and power relationships within the family. The changing nature of economic and social conditions are often interlinked. Social and economic philosophers have debated this; Polanyi stated that the modern market model of economics and the social development of a modern state are undeniably intertwined (Polanyi, 1944). The Industrial Revolution created opportunity and motive to move away from traditional family units. It should be noted that when using ‘family’ its referring to the nuclear family defined by G.P. Murdock(1949), as ‘a social group characterised by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction. It includes adults of both sexes, at least 2 of whom maintain a socially approved sexual relationship, and one or more children – own or adopted, of sexually cohabiting adults’. As it is more commonly used by social and economic historians, whose work will play a key role in this deconstruction.

The majority of those considered the founding fathers of sociology considered the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, as a key time of rapid economic and social change. Using the Industrial Revolution is effective because of the rapid economic growth and change. The UK’s Industrial production index grew from 63, in 1730, to 361 by 1830 (Jackson, 1992). To put that in perspective by 1850 there were 331,000 factory workers in cotton alone and the population had nearly tripled (Crafts, 1985). This rapid urbanisation and population growth were outcomes of rapidly expanding economy. Urbanisation, population growth and more economic opportunity would change the roles and relationships of all within the family, again, particularly the women and children (Crafts, 1985). But do economic changes have an immediate or lasting effect on the structure of the family? If the structure of society is a patriarchy it is based in power, both economic and social. Therefore, gender roles and power relationships within the family and wider society will repress, both economically and socially, women and children. So to analysis how economic changes have impacted gender roles and power relationships within families the focus should be on change, or lack of change, to the lives of women and children because of economic growth.

Firstly, it is important to understand how micro-economics take place within family relationships and how the family unit fits into macro-scale economics. When individuals take economic action, they do not think of global consequences, they do however act with family in mind. For example, where to work and live, what education to strive for, how much can be spent and how much saved (Canning, Mitchell, Bloom, & Kleindorfer, 1998). In these terms, a family is a financial unit that lives together and shares resources for their own common benefit, because two can live more cheaply than one (Canning, Mitchell, Bloom, & Kleindorfer, 1998). It allows risk sharing, production and organizes the division of labour to be shared between its members, often based on gender. As such resources within the family are based on a bargaining system in which how much an individual gets depends on their power, particularly on the threats they can credibly employ. It is obvious that in these kind of economic based power relationships groups with weaker bargaining positions will suffer most, namely women and children (Pujol, 1998). They will get a smaller share of food and other resources. Indeed, several studies have indicated that in many countries, female children do get less food, less free time, less education, and fewer inputs from their parents than their male siblings (Bauer & Mason, 1993). Applying this model of thought to changes during the Industrial Revolution will allow gender roles and power relationships within family units to be analysed.

The Industrial Revolutions rapid growth constantly increased the need for labour, which population growth alone couldn’t keep up with. Therefore women were pushed into economic participation and the division of labour outside the home. Now women had an opportunity to earn an income, instead of doing domestic tasks for free. It’s important to note however they got significantly less than males (Crafts, 1985). This meant that although women could technically be viewed as economically independent they were not; to survive and support children would have been extremely difficult alone. However, it should have at least meant more power if they added to financial health of the family, according to the bargaining model (Smith, 2011).

Indeed, some social historians have argued that families became more egalitarian in day to day life because of the increasing number of women workers. Caring for the home and children, earning a wage and public life were equally split between the household, not by gender roles. Many wives started working outside the home, just as many husbands started sharing tasks to maintain a household (Martinson, 1999). Because of this it could be argued traditional gender roles were dying. Before the economic growth of the Industrial Revolution society placed near all responsibility on women as mothers. Yet with reduced numbers of pregnancies and children meant the potential of men and women sharing duties increased (Honeyman, 2000). In reality however, cultural norms and the physical power of men restricted women’s opportunities. The traditional gender roles and power relationships managed to stay in place even as the economic growth and division of labour intensified.

As well as women, there was a push for more economic participation by children both in the factories and at home. Violence from within the family was used to drive children, but often it was the responsibility children felt for family wellbeing that motivated them. Children often felt powerless to stop the suffer of the siblings and mothers, from illness or from within the family. In the family unit, although psychologically stressful, a job allowed children to participate in the family more (Canning, Mitchell, Bloom, & Kleindorfer, 1998). They were contributors much the same as their parents. In opposition, similarly to with women, although the bargaining model states they should’ve had more say, they did not and employers often exploited such family relationships. They’d employ the whole family but only pay the male head whose responsibility it was to make sure that all members of the group worked hard. This system was particularly damaging towards children who would be forced to work by one parent while the other cared for them (Berg & Hudson, 1992). Bringing a purely economic power struggle within the family, in which traditional gender roles were reinforced and power given exclusively to men.

However, not all power was taken from all children. Some, instead of being tied to the home lives because they were need farm or family tasks, were now more free to explore their own paths (Berg & Hudson, 1992). They need education, no longer could they rely on working in the same town and farm as their father before them but would need to become the new industrial work force. Towards the end of the industrial revolution children were no longer seen as primarily economic assets, but instead as dependents requiring education and nurturing (Davis 1984: 403).

It cannot be denied that during the rapid economic growth of the Industrial Revolution that the gender roles and power relationships within families were changed. But whether or not this was for the better, or indeed more liberating for women and children is a point of debate. Most argue that new changes occurred in terms of both gender and generational roles but only so much as to move from traditional agricultural family roles to the male breadwinner model (Hertz & Marshall, 2001). Which in terms of impact on gender roles and power relationships has little to gain for women and children.

Bleakly, it would appear that although gender roles shifted slightly and power relationships had the economic potential to change, very little in the way of positive change took place. A move from one socially and economically exploitative model to a different, breadwinner, exploitative model (Hertz & Marshall, 2001).However, family units have different levels of sensitivity to economic changes, dependent on many variables. So examples and theories outlined are not universal, but may be applicable to the majority of society (Canning, Mitchell, Bloom, & Kleindorfer, 1998). Critically, much of the information used was from social and economic historians; who are not, usually, social scientists. Relying on accounts and histories written by of those who, often, had never experienced what they were writing about (Pujol, 1998). Similarly, economists often treat men and women as equal, but as the bargaining model shows most societies do not.

The very link between economic change and family change can be called into question. Economic institutions can fluctuate rapid over time, and many have fallen. Others differ greatly dependent on political, geographical and cultural conditions. Yet, family units are one of the most robust institutions; existing for all of human history (Aguirre, 2001). It can be argued that the impact of economic growth on gender roles and power relationships isn’t as rapid as the economic growth itself. Economic changes may add to the potential for social change, but not be the trigger. Some argue the erosion of patriarchy was an outcome of wider economic and cultural processes (Canning, Mitchell, Bloom, & Kleindorfer, 1998). Traditional societies placed the burden of children completely on women. Modern societies have used some of that potential for men and women to become more equal in divisions of labour related to children and the home (Canning, Mitchell, Bloom, & Kleindorfer, 1998).

Perhaps the key impact of the Industrial Revolution on gender roles and power relationships was to enable further economic growth into modernity (Burguière, Klapisch-Zuber, Segalen, & Zonabend, 1996). but in the short term, the Industrial Revolution had very little to offer socially and economically repressed members of the family.


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