Hi! My name is Isabel Sykes and I’ve just finished my second year studying English Literature and History at Newcastle University. This summer I’m undertaking an 8-week research project as part of the Uni’s Vacation Scholarship scheme.
The title of my project is: ‘Women’s industrial work during the nineteenth century and its impact on working-class female identity in Northern towns and cities.’ My research takes an interdisciplinary approach to examine the impact of the industrial revolution on working class women’s social and political identities. I am looking at the writing of and pertaining to working-class women (both historical/archival and fictional) during the mid-nineteenth century to examine how women’s perceptions of themselves and their roles in society were affected by the rise of female labour in mills and factories. In particular, I am interested in how women’s work influenced perceptions of their domestic roles, their position in society in relation to men, and their political consciousnesses.
By familiarising myself with the historiography surrounding this subject, I discovered that historical research into the impact of industrialisation on the working-class has been largely male focused. Feminist historians such as Barbara Taylor, Dorothy Thompson, and Florence Boos have sought to rectify this by examining the work of working-class women poets and autobiographers, their contribution to political movements such Chartism, and representation of them in contemporary popular culture and dominant middle-class discourse. Some key questions/points of historiographical uncertainty and conflict to come out of this review of historiography were:
- Why did women’s involvement in working-class politics (particularly the Chartist movement) appear to fade in the latter half of the nineteenth century? Most historians I looked at asked this question and pointed to the pervasiveness of middle-class domestic ideology as an explanation, among other factors.
- Was there a sense of collective working-class identity in the 19th century? How did it change as the century progressed?
- Was there a collective ‘female’ identity throughout the 19th century? How did class divisions play into this?
With these questions in mind, I started to do my own research using primary sources. So far, I have primarily been looking at working-class women’s poetry published in nineteenth-century periodicals such as The Poor Man’s Guardian, the Northern Star, and Eliza Cook’s Journal. I have been able to access a lot of these through online databases that the Uni subscribes to, such as 19th Century British Library Newspapers, but I have also conducted archival research in the People’s History Archives in Manchester, and Newcastle University Special Collections.
Having never conducted archival work independently before, this was a great experience for me to get more familiar with using primary material. I was very impressed with the People’s History Museum, which had numerous volumes of a variety of nineteenth-century periodicals; a lot more than I had expected. Using Special Collections in the Phillip Robinson library was also a new experience for me, and they gave me access to four volumes of the poetry of Eliza Cook (a prominent nineteenth-century female poet associated with the Chartist movement), which has provided valuable insight into how working-class women perceived their social and political roles in that period.
Next, I plan to visit the University of Huddersfield’s archive collection, Heritage Quay. It has records from the Huddersfield Female Educational Institute 1846-1883, which claims to be the first such institute for working women in the country. So far I am thoroughly enjoying having the opportunity to independently research a topic that really interests me outside my degree and am excited to see what the rest of the project will bring.
Image: ‘A Song for the Workers’ by Eliza Cook.