The Welfare of Women in Laboring Families: England, 1860-1950

Feminist Studies, Vol. 1, p. 107, 1973

U of Houston Law Center No. 2007-A-07

20 Pages Posted: 9 Mar 2007

See all articles by Laura E. Oren

Laura E. Oren

University of Houston Law Center


In the late 1880s, social investigators and statisticians in England unwittingly developed a new tool for analyzing the welfare of women in laboring families. They began to collect data on the budgets of individual working-class families. Historians at first followed the pattern established by these poverty surveys and discussed the standard of living of the English working class in terms of household units. In the 1970s, however, historians began to ask different kinds of questions of the same data. This article was one of the first to make these inquiries and has become a classic study of differential welfare within families. While clearly documenting the differences in access to food, health care, and "pocket money," the article seeks to put those distributions in the context of working-class needs and culture. Families often reserved the meat, for example, for male laborers who contributed to the family's welfare through heavy work. On the other hand, pregnancy and childbirth requires as much in extra calories as does all but the heaviest manual labor. Unfortunately, a growing family put a strain on the family's economy that tended disproportionately to be satisfied by sacrifices to the woman's standard of living. Cultural habits often exacerbated these patterns. In some mining villages husbands brought home their whole earnings packet and handed it over to their wives in plain view of the community, receiving a fixed sum back for pocket money. More commonly, however, especially in households where the husband worked irregularly, he handed his wife a fixed allowance, but reserved the balance for his own necessities and leisure spending. One consequence was that increases in income often were lost to the family budget. Even when the advent of the welfare state intervened and dramatically changed welfare outcomes in the twentieth century, customary allocations of welfare within the family persisted. Programs like National Health Service, however, meant that medical care became equally available to the men, women, and children of working-class families. Some aspects of the welfare state even deliberately targeted women's needs, such as the family allowance that was paid directly to mothers.

The uneven distribution of welfare within the family in the nineteenth century allowed some relief for the physical and mental pressures on the husband's standard of living. In part it constituted an active effort by laboring people to defend themselves against the economic system without abandoning family life. Although the form that defense took was not inevitable, it was understandable in a society where men were the highest earning family members, even though women and children also worked. The wife's elastic standard of living also served as a buffer for the larger economic system. Unskilled laborers were not paid adequately. Without the wife's availability to absorb a disproportionate share of the economic insufficiency, the husband would have been a less efficient industrial worker. This was especially true at a time when the State largely refused responsibility for alleviating poverty. By the mid to late twentieth century, however, the social function of the working-class family's economy was less evident. But the consequences for the welfare of women were still apparent. Social historians who want to understand the allocation of individual welfare in modern Britain must not stop at households. Rather, they must take into account arrangements within the family that distributed benefits unequally to the men, women, and children who lived together.

Keywords: Welfare of women, Great Britain, Working-class Families, Women's History

Suggested Citation

Oren, Laura E., The Welfare of Women in Laboring Families: England, 1860-1950. Feminist Studies, Vol. 1, p. 107, 1973, U of Houston Law Center No. 2007-A-07, Available at SSRN:

Laura E. Oren (Contact Author)

University of Houston Law Center ( email )

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