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Young Women, Work, and Family in England 1918-1950$

Selina Todd

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780199282753

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2007

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199282753.001.0001

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Work Culture

Work Culture

(p.145) 5 Work Culture
Young Women, Work, and Family in England 1918-1950

Selina Todd (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter challenges the recent marginalization of work in studies of social and personal identity. It uses personal testimonies and social investigations to analyse relations and friendships between workmates. It argues that the collective experience of work forged a collective, social identity that was formed partially in opposition to employers' demands.

Keywords:   work, social identity, culture, friendship

In his journey around England in 1933, J. B. Priestley observed of young women factory workers that ‘nine out of every ten of those girls working at the long rows of machines only see their factory life as a busy but dreamy interlude between childhood and marriage’.1 Representations of young women workers in contemporary social surveys, government reports, and newspaper articles throughout the period also suggested that young women lacked engagement with their workplace or the labour process. These women were construed as apathetic with, as feminist Ray Strachey asserted, a ‘meanwhile attitude to work’,2 attributed to their identification with domesticity and marital aspirations. Against this, but equally damning, young women were portrayed as potentially or actually delinquent, the ‘boisterous workers’ noted by the Leicester Evening Mail's report on young women strikers in 1931.3 These representations in fact posed a false dichotomy, for the young women strikers in Leicester were the very same workers Priestley found ‘dreamy’ and apathetic less than two years later. Clearly, both offered a one-dimensional view of young women in the workplace, arising from the assumption that work played only a minor role in the lives and identities of this group.

This chapter and the following one are directly concerned with refuting that assumption and with highlighting the complex relationship that young women forged with the workplace. While chapter 6 focuses on young women's engagement in workplace militancy, and their relationship with the labour movement, the present chapter is concerned with their daily work culture. It contends that it is true for young women as well as for men that, as Willis points out, ‘work, and the massive experience of it, is right at the centre of our living culture…. It affects the general social (p.146) nature of our lives in the most profound ways’.4 Young women's workplace culture is analysed as a site of complex, historically specific, and changing generational, gender, and class relations. It is argued that coping with, circumventing, and at times resisting employers' demands were vital in forging a working class, youthful, feminine identity.

This chapter draws on but also challenges the models used by previous studies to explain young and women workers' workplace behaviour. The conflictual model, used by Humphries5 and Willis,6 suggests that work culture developed out of young workers' dissent from employers' aims. The domesticity model, common to labour historians, suggests that women workers failed to engage with workplace relations (for example, through low trade union participation) because they saw their futures as being outside the workplace.7 One weakness of both models is that they collapse the discrete categories of workplace culture, resistance, organization, and militancy. As Whitston points out, ‘“worker resistance” … has been used indiscriminately to refer to everything from a refusal to work overtime to participation in the general strike, and influences the struggles of reactionary craftsmen, revolutionary engineers, and pragmatic pieceworkers.’8 To avoid doing so here, trade unionism and militancy are dealt with in the following chapter, whereas the present chapter is concerned more generally with workplace culture.

This division also enables a more nuanced approach than the previous models allow. The motivations of those who conform rather than rebel, or who act outside the parameters of the organized labour movement, have been neglected or generalized as ‘passive’ by historians seeking to identify class conscious resistance. The material presented here suggests that Stephen Humphries' compelling study overstates the amount of young workers' militant resistance to their employers. In doing so, he overlooks the reasons young women often conformed to their employers' wishes, as well as neglecting the fact that deference was itself a complex relationship mediated between workers and employers, enshrining some obligations (p.147) for employers as well as limited rights for many workers. Nevertheless, Humphries' account is a salutary reminder that work culture was strongly shaped by class relations, a fact neglected by more recent studies such as Fowler's history of The First Teenagers, which suggests that a high degree of satisfaction with work existed among young workers and assumes that relations between young women and their employers were very good.9 Langhamer's valuable study of the workplace as a leisure venue has highlighted the importance of workmates as friends during this period, but again, does not analyse the implications of this culture for class and labour relations within the workplace.10 This chapter argues that tension between workers' and employers' interests was important in forging alliances between young women. Their responses to the workplace, individual and collective, were multifaceted, being strongly influenced by their family background as well as by the nature of their job.

Young women's experiences of employment, and their workplace relationships, underwent significant change in this period. As earlier chapters have shown, the young female workforce at the end of the First World War was concentrated largely in residential domestic service and, to a lesser extent, in the textile industry. By the late 1940s, the majority were employed in large factories, offices, and shops. The limited number of existing studies that reflect on women's attitudes to work and on their relations with workmates and employers are confined to single occupational groups, generally in the industrial sector. Sarsby's study of the pottery industry,11 and Glucksmann's examination of assembly-line production,12 are among the most valuable. Their methods and conclusions are drawn on in this chapter's examination of the importance of the family in structuring attitudes to work; gender relations within the workplace; and young women's methods of enduring or enjoying their jobs. However, this study's remit is deliberately broad, covering factory workers but also shop assistants and clerks, and the long-neglected domestic servants who constituted the largest group of young working women until the 1940s, and who have too often been dismissed as simply ‘deferential’ in their attitudes to work.

(p.148) Paternalism and Deference

Workplace relations varied according to sector. The benevolent employer, often heading a family-run firm, who encouraged the workers to feel that personal bonds existed between themselves and their managers, was still a common feature of British industry during the 1920s.13 Although such paternalism declined in the 1930s, the demands of wartime production temporarily halted this trend. Summerfield has pointed out that women war workers were encouraged to feel that they and their employers were ‘a family’, facing hardship together and engaging in equal sacrifice.14 As Mrs Somerville said of her chemical firm, ‘everybody was a family and everybody would tell experiences [of the blitz]’.15 Paternalism also characterized relations between clerks and their employers. Women who worked as secretaries were frequently in closer contact with their boss than with more junior workers and the work relations this forged, together with the relatively high social status of white collar work, meant that trade unionism remained low among clerks throughout this period.16 However, paternalism was most characteristic of the older occupation of domestic service. The experience of living in a family's home, servants' limited social networks, and the strict hierarchy within such households encouraged the formation of strong bonds between a servant and her employers, characterized by deference. Winifred Foley was reluctant to leave her first domestic service position owing to her elderly employer's dependency on her, despite Foley's recognition that her mistress exploited her.17 Such ambivalence is common in servants' accounts of relations with their masters and mistresses.18

Domestic service highlights the complexities of deference. Servants were generally obedient and compliant, but kindness and generosity on the part of employers were often essential in winning their servants' co-operation.19 A fine balance was struck, and repercussions could follow if an employer (p.149) transgressed this, demonstrating that stoicism or an acceptance of the status quo cannot be interpreted as an abnegation of dignity. Repercussions were likely to take the form of covert acts of individual resistance rather than a collective response. The most drastic was resigning from a post, a well-established pattern of negotiation by the interwar years as chapter 4 noted. Eileen Balderson, who worked as a servant after leaving school in 1931, believed that high labour demand was one of the most positive aspects of the job, stating, ‘Domestic servants are said to have been exploited. I do not agree. Exploitation applied much more to other workers…. Girls sought advancement through domestic agencies, always asking for a bigger wage than they expected to get. There was no need for a girl to stay where conditions were poor.’20

More covert strategies were also used to challenge unacceptable behaviour on the part of employers, and to maintain servants' ‘good character’, essential in a sector where respectability was the main prerequisite of employment. After discovering that her aristocratic employers placed coins under the carpet to test the honesty of their maids, Jean Rennie glued the coins to the floor: they subsequently disappeared.21 The frequency with which variations of this story appear in domestic servants' autobiographies and were passed between servants over this period22 indicates that this was frequently an apocryphal, anecdotal signifier of discontent with employers. The story emphasizes the importance of trust in the relationship between employers and servants. To cast doubt on a servant's trustworthiness was not simply to suggest they were unfit for their job, but to slur their character. It was therefore bitterly resented. Mrs Hughson, for example, left her first job after being accused of stealing milk by the housekeeper and receiving no support from her employers: ‘I said “I do not drink milk—and I do not steal—and I don't tell lies.”’23 However, other servants could not afford to cause a confrontation. Mrs Halliday was incensed when her employer locked up a cake so that she would not eat it; consequently ‘I thought, “I will find that cake!”’ and determined to have a small slice, unknown to her employer.24 The story about the coins juxtaposed employers' distrust with their servants' honesty and also their ingenuity; sticking the coins to the floor indicates that the servant (p.150) was wise to her employer's tricks—and was able to circumvent them. Moreover, the servant in the story gets the better of her employer within the bounds of the deferential relationship. She continues to do her job efficiently, and is, during both her work and her action, unseen and unheard—qualities demanded of the model servant, and which make it difficult for her employer to initiate confrontation. The anecdotal nature of the story does not detract from its significance. The oral tradition it highlights was itself a reaction to the subservience demanded by employers. Such anecdotes indicated to younger servants that certain transgressions were popularly condoned by other servants, and suggested means of negotiating the deferential relationship with their employers. The telling of and listening to such stories provided an outlet for discontent with aspects of the employer–servant relationship. This highlights the important interaction between women's personal employment experiences and their social networks in shaping their workplace behaviour.

The Family and Workplace Culture

Young women were socialized into work primarily by their family. Kinship recruitment networks were fostered by employers to strengthen workers' loyalty. Young workers were aware that misbehaviour might affect and be censured by their families, or by the worker, often an older sibling or friend, who had ‘spoken for’ them to their employer and secured them their job. Lucy Lees discovered this as a 14-year-old mill worker in Lancashire in the early 1920s, when her elder sister was censured for Lucy's practical joking and their father was informed.25 Elsie Lee, a factory operative at Courtaulds, was sympathetic to attempts by the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) to recruit workers there in the early 1930s, but, she recalled, ‘[you] muttered and mumbled amongst yourselves but—you hadn't got the confidence. You weren't brought up at school to be confident, not at home … seen but not heard.’26 Obedience and deference were thus taught at an early age and subsequently reinforced by workplace relations.

The inculcation of obedience and deference did not reflect the full scope of parental influence, however. Gramsci offers a model for understanding the complexities of socialization. His ‘man-in-the mass’ was (p.151) shaped by ‘two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness)’: the economic imperative of conforming to the status quo, but also the ‘common sense’ that emerged from shared experiences with neighbours, family, and fellow workers, of oppression and exploitation, and which shaped dissent.27 Many parents encouraged self-sufficiency and hard work, but also an ability to ‘stand up for yourself’. Mrs Halliday, who had to take work as a domestic servant in the early 1930s, was continuously reminded by her mother that her employers ‘have more money than us, but they're not better than you’.28 Many daughters were directed by their parents to leave jobs at various times, despite the importance of their earnings.29 Betty Ferry's mother advised her to ‘liven up!’ when she began her working life at a leather factory, but when Betty's supervisor made her work through the lunch hour, ‘my mother came to the firm, asked to see the Boss, and told him what she thought of him. I remember her saying to him, “No wonder you can have posh cars outside here when you're working the girls in a lunch hour.”’ Betty's employer assured her mother he would speak to the supervisor concerned.30 Parental authority thus at times challenged the more oppressive aspects of workplace discipline. Employers' promotion of young workers' dependency on their parents, to justify low wages and paternalistic management techniques, meant that they had to pay at least lip service to such parental concern. Such encounters highlight what Smythe rightly calls ‘the continuing strength of the child–parent relationship’31 for young wage-earners.

Workplace Networks

Changing employment patterns also influenced workplace behaviour. An increasing proportion of young women found themselves employed in large, industrial workplaces, where networks of mutual support flourished. Middle class observers underrated their significance, concurring (p.152) with Ray Strachey's disapproval of girls who gave their attention not to their work but ‘instead to lipstick and the fashions, and the efficacy of a permanent wave.’32 In fact, workplace socializing was an important means of developing an inclusive identity characterized by a set of shared values.33 Moreover, as a Mass-Observation survey of 1943 astutely noted, ‘Economic pressure is the greatest single factor making women work. The compensations are mainly company and experience which work gives’.34 Olive Jones recalled that as 12-year-old half-time mill workers in 1918 she and her workmates played playground games in the lunch hour, emphasizing their youth.35 Women also stressed the support offered by workmates. In many shops and factories, as at the shop where Marjorie Gardiner worked in interwar Brighton, women relied on their workmates covering for them while they took unauthorized breaks.36 Many war workers negotiated shift work so that those with boyfriends on leave could take as much time off as possible.37 An investigation into Scottish war workers transferred to England's Midlands highlighted a strong sense of solidarity and found that ‘their desire to help each other’ helped to overcome homesickness and sustain morale.38

Workplace culture should not be romanticized, however. An unofficial workplace hierarchy, based upon age, longevity of employment, and (in firms which employed married women) marital status, frequently existed. Initiation rites emphatically introduced young workers into this structure. They were particularly common in male-dominated trades and in those sectors in which women were likely to remain in employment in adult life, signifying the long-term importance of the workplace in these contexts. Linda Thew had her face scrubbed raw in her first days as a Co-op shop assistant in the early 1930s by male apprentices who had undergone similar rites. This custom had declined by the 1940s as her workplace began to employ more young women who, like her, expected to leave work on marrying and felt simply that ‘we were there to do a job’.39 Some women viewed such rites as a light-hearted introduction to the (p.153) world of work that emphasized a sense of belonging: Emily Money was determined not to be caught out by the ‘laughs with new girls’, which she knew to be characteristic of factory employment, and recalled with pride that when asked to fetch a bucket of steam, ‘they didn't catch me’.40 Other girls had less happy memories of the authority sometimes antagonistically wielded by older workers: Nellie Oldroyd's unhappiness at work was worsened by the ‘very unfriendly’ girl meant to instruct her in her duties.41

Initiation rites had multiple meanings. Willis has pointed out that they marked the progression from schoolboy to worker among men; emphasized a young worker's subordinate position in the workforce; and reflected the harsher side of the production process while simultaneously forging a loyalty with which to face, and possibly resist it.42 An examination of young women's employment indicates that such customs were not simply a signifier of masculinity. The seniority conferred on older workers could conflict with the formal authority structure, but also reminded young workers of their subordinate position in the workforce, promoting deference and stoicism. Rites could signify worker solidarity, but also antagonism, based upon older workers' fears of being displaced by young women. Linda Thew experienced this as one of the first young women to be employed as a Co-op grocery assistant: ‘most men saw my appointment as a threat to their jobs and livelihoods’.43 The women questioned by Glucksmann recounted similar experiences from their interwar factory jobs, recalling that initiation rites could involve having tools or materials hidden, indicating a level of hostility amongst older workers, women as well as men.44 Similarly, while some young pieceworkers benefited from workmates' support in helping them meet targets, others attracted antagonism when they were new, and slow, particularly if production bonuses were awarded collectively.45

Social divisions fractured relations between women workers. The problematic relationship between femininity and the workplace could reinforce divisions between the workforce, as women sought to distance (p.154) themselves from the ‘rough’ reputation of factory workers. Mrs Mullis was among many of Courtaulds' Coventry employees who judged workers from Bedworth—a relatively poor area—‘rougher’ than those from Coventry.46 A desire to distance themselves from the prevailing stereotypes of industrial work could lead to a degree of collusion between women workers and supervisors. Winifred Cotterill remembered fondly her foreman's compliment, ‘Winnie, it's so nice to see clean underwear’, which she felt distinguished her from ‘crude and dirty’47 workmates. During the Second World War, similar feelings could also fracture the sense of unity that employers and government sought to promote. Kitty Burn, a Durham munitions worker, got on with everyone at her factory apart from ‘the girls from Middlesbrough…. Their language was a bit strong…. it was hard work, and it was hot work … but the Middlesbrough girls were always off skiving—running outside for smokes and so forth.’48 Such testimonies demonstrate that localized identities continued to interact with class, gender, and generational relations.

Gender Relations

Gender relations within workplaces changed between the 1920s and the 1950s. The sexes were segregated in many interwar workplaces, either as a result of the sexual division of labour—typists, for example, were unlikely to meet men aside from managers—or because of a firm's strategy. Courtaulds and Rowntree were among those industrial firms to segregate women manual workers from male employees.49 When this was eroded by wartime labour demand in the 1940s, Summerfield suggests that gender antagonism was experienced by many women workers, with adult men resenting the threat apparently posed by younger, female employees.50 Harassment was certainly a feature of many workplaces. Arthur Excell recalled that the foreman at Morris Motors intimidated young women who worked there, insisting they go out with him.51 (p.155) However, personal testimonies suggest that such antagonism was only one facet of gender relations, albeit an extremely important and often overlooked one. Some young women, like Betty Ferry in the 1920s and May Hobbs in the 1950s, valued friendships with young male co-workers.52 However, having a large female support group was also often important in mixed workplaces. For Betty Ferry, the companionship of other young female factory workers provided support and relief from the flirtatious and prank-playing relationships she established with her male peers.53 Excell noted that the increased presence of women at Morris Motors during the Second World War, and the firm's need to maintain good relations with them, meant that harassment of women diminished during the 1940s.54 The assertive image of the factory girl was thus partially explained by her strategies for dealing with male workmates or managers.

The workplace, particularly when it employed a large number of adult as well as younger women, was more often a venue for social education than the parental home. Elsie, a factory worker, was one among many who ‘didn't know we were poor—until I started work.’55 As well as raising women's consciousness of their class position, the oral culture of larger workplaces provided many with a rudimentary education in sex and courtship. Mary Welch, a leather worker, recalled of her London factory in the 1920s:

The machinists were nearly all married and middle aged. They were over on the other side of the room and they'd all chat to each other…. I learned quite a lot about sex and marriage from the married women. But they were doing us a special favour. They wouldn't let you listen to them talking.56

This aspect of work could compound the culture shock experienced by many young entrants to employment, particularly those who only started work in their later teens, as became more common in wartime, when conscription brought young adult women into the workplace who had previously been kept at home. Kathleen Holland stayed at home helping her invalid mother until the age of 18 when she was conscripted into a war factory:‘I thought it was dreadful, they made fun of me. They thought I was somebody posh because I'd stayed at home.’57 Woman's Own magazine printed several letters from young women shocked and surprised at the (p.156) sex education they received from their war work, like the young factory girl who wrote: ‘I am working among a lot of girls and am full of fears of all sorts. They talk about things that frighten me.’58 However, others found it valuable. Evelyn Haythorne was confused by her first meeting with a gay man in a wartime British restaurant, but her mother refused to tell her what ‘homosexual’ meant. Consequently, ‘Next day at work I asked a woman, who was a lot older than me…. She looked a little taken aback but took me and Betty to one side and told us’.59 Gittins's suggestion that the transmission of information on reproduction and birth control partially explains the low birth rate among women employed in large industrial workplaces60 is difficult to conclusively prove, but the material presented here and in studies by Humphries and Langhamer strongly supports her hypothesis.61 As increasing numbers of women entered large retail and industrial workplaces, so their social education became more expansive than that of their mothers' generation, a process that possibly changed their own attitudes towards parenting. Kathleen Holland's experiences led her to decide that ‘when I get married, if I have daughters, they'll never be like me. They won't be as green, won't be sheltered.’62 Many of the 103 young women questioned by Jephcott in the mid-1940s expressed similar views; exposure to GIs led some to compare themselves unfavourably with young Americans, who were felt to be better informed.63 The increase in large workplaces thus supplemented the social and sexual education given in the family home, and shaped young women's own ideas about sex and courtship, but also about the role of mother–daughter relationships, thus prompting greater willingness to transmit such information within families in the 1950s and 1960s.

The workplace became an increasingly important venue for courtship. As chapter 4 highlighted, the lack of opportunities to meet young men was one reason young women found domestic service unattractive, particularly as they entered their late teens. Sex segregation could also make relations difficult between women and men in some larger, industrial interwar workplaces. Women who worked at Coventry's Courtaulds firm, (p.157) for example, were segregated from men during breaks as well as on the factory floor. Elsie Lee rarely met men employed at Courtaulds due to these rules and also because ‘you didn't want to go in where there was machinery and dirty work, you see.’64 My own sample suggests that women were increasingly likely to meet husbands in the workplace during the 1940s, because of the erosion of sex segregation. Many women who worked nights had liaisons with male workers; Kitty Burn, who worked at Newton Aycliffe Royal Ordnance Factory, remembered that ‘During break times—meal times, which was sometimes on night shift, early hours of the morning [other women workers] would disappear over the fields with these men.’65 Elsie Bell courted her husband, who worked at the same factory as herself, on the train to and from work.66 The workplace, particularly in larger factories, offices, and shops, could provide a degree of freedom to socialize with the opposite sex away from watchful parental eyes.

Despite the importance of the workplace in their daily lives, women workers, particularly in communities characterized by a strong sexual division of labour, identified themselves less with the workplace than many male workers did. Most young working class women continued to aspire to marry, and in so doing, to retire from full-time paid work. Bobbie Gardiner, who worked at Courtaulds, was given the option of staying on when she married in 1939 but refused; ‘I thought, I've had enough, I'm getting married! [Laughs] I'm posh, I'm getting married.’67 Her view reflects the importance of marriage as an initiation into adulthood for women, and the idealization of the male breadwinner model, but also emphasizes the unpleasantness of many paid jobs, which heightened the attraction of marriage for women in their late teens and twenties.

For this reason, rites surrounding a woman's marriage were far more common than initiations into the workplace. Brides-to-be were put in fancy dress and had balloons attached to them as they were leaving work on their last day,68 or a woman's friends provided cakes and drinks.69 The notion of marriage as an initiation into sexual independence and adulthood was also prominent. Joyce Shaw, a wartime munitions worker, was (p.158) one of several factory workers who recalled having to

… go and climb up—you went up this ladder and at the top was an article. And you had to get that and bring it down before they'd give you your present. A jerry![chamber-pot] I must tell you, because it made me laugh so much…. I had to climb up for the jerry! Oh dear me yes—shall I tell you what it said in it? Wash me out and keep me clean and I'll not tell what I have seen [laughs]. It was an artist what did that, what worked there.70

The interwar marriage bar, and the notion that full-time work was a ‘temporary stay’ for women, which survived the 1940s, were thus upheld with the minimum of disruption to the employers who this ideology directly benefited.

The meanings of this celebration of marriage were ambivalent. Marriage represented liberation from the subordinate role of daughter and worker for a young woman with several years' employment experience behind her, and a degree of social and sexual independence.71 Elsie Lee's forewoman warned her when she left Courtaulds to marry in 1933 that she would wish she were back at work within the year, but ‘I did not’.72 Housewifery, at least in the first few, childless years, was preferable to full-time work for many women, as the overwhelming support for going back to the home noted by Mass-Observation during the war demonstrated.73 Florence Rosenblatt, who enjoyed being a factory supervisor in wartime Liverpool, nevertheless suffered depression in the final year of the war because ‘my whole life was work’ and she was glad to finish when her husband returned from Burma because ‘I was so tired. I didn't have a career after that, I had a baby instead [laughs]. And that was that…. I was so happy to have him [her husband] home.’74 Although young women might idealize marriage, particularly in wartime, their marital aspirations also indicate that for many working class women, full-time paid work was endured, rather than fulfilling.

Ultimately, however, marriage was a contradictory state, an initiation into adulthood that simultaneously reduced the (limited) social and financial (p.159) independence that waged work allowed young women, as Margery Spring Rice's 1939 survey of Working Class Wives indicated.75 Moreover, the large number of married women who became part-time workers in the 1940s and 1950s emphasized that the male breadwinner model was a myth, demonstrating that many households continued to rely upon a married woman's wage. Nevertheless, the tenacity of such celebrations, which sociological studies have shown survived the lifting of the marriage bar and remained a pervasive element of women's industrial workplace culture into the late twentieth century,76 demonstrates the continuing centrality of heterosexual romance and domesticity to the construction of femininity.

Attitudes to Work

As chapter 4 pointed out, many young women were concerned to find work that was intrinsically interesting, particularly as their employment opportunities—and aspirations—expanded during the 1930s and 1940s. For a minority of women, particularly those employed on tasks considered skilled, their work was a valued component of their identity, from which they derived a great deal of interest. Nora Holroyd, who began work as a weaver in Lancashire in the 1920s, commented, ‘It was interesting, I enjoyed what I did, you know’.77 Elsie Brown, who worked in a Manchester factory during wartime, ‘loved it, every minute of it…. We riveted the Lancaster bombers, went on at 7 at night, till 7 in the morning…. Believe me, it was hard work.’78 Although Summerfield does not highlight such a distinction between skilled and unskilled workers in her sample of war workers, their testimonies clearly offer similar examples.79 As this indicates, pride in one's work was not the prerogative of men, but tended to be common to many workers employed on jobs that were varied or interesting, offered promotion prospects, and were defined as skilled.

Young women who were employed on more repetitive, monotonous work did not generally express such satisfaction. Nevertheless, many were capable of questioning their employers' definitions of skill, which, as Zeitlin (p.160) has shown, has always been a contested term.80 Many women recognized that speed and dexterity were skills, rather than simply biological characteristics as employers often suggested. Emily Money recalled of her work in a liquorice factory that ‘making Pontefract cakes was quick work, you needed nimble fingers … you had to cut off the sides like lightning’.81 As Joan Harley found in the mid-1930s, young women employed in the clothing trade valued their opportunity to acquire dressmaking skills, which enabled them to make their own fashionable clothes.82 Although these women did not generally express the same degree of interest in their jobs as those whose work was more varied and widely recognized as skilled, they demonstrate that in some important ways skilled and semiskilled workers' attitudes to their work did not necessarily differ markedly.

The majority of young women, however, were more concerned with simply enduring their work. The labour processes on which they were engaged differentiated workers' strategies to survive the working week. Unlike adult women, a large proportion of whom were paid by the piece, a sizeable majority of young women were time workers, like young men. Time workers had less control over the labour process and their earnings, but they could also take time to ‘lark about’, which pieceworkers could ill afford. Distracting themselves from the monotony of the labour process was the main aim of many young workers. Their talking, singing, and joking, disliked and often forbidden by employers, provided a distraction from tedious work, was a means of reappropriating work time, and undermined supervisors' authority. Many young women took unauthorized breaks by ‘pretending you were going to the toilet, like’, following a trend noted by Collier's First World War investigation.83 Mrs Mullis worked at Coventry's Courtaulds factory in the 1920s, where young women were strictly supervised. Nevertheless, as time workers, she and her friends took as long as possible to deliver material from one room to another, giggling, whispering, and dancing the Charleston up the factory stairs.84 During the Second World War Mass-Observers noted that factory afternoons were characterized by ‘lavatory-mongering’, when women ‘drift out (p.161) to the cloakroom, and stay there for half an hour or more, eating sandwiches, talking, reading, and often just doing nothing at all…. Anything is welcome, so long as it provides a change from sitting at the bench.’85 Office workers frequently adopted similar strategies when they were able. Joyce Musgrove, a secretary in the Second World War recalled, ‘It was routine most of it—the same thing every day. If I got an opportunity to get out of the office, to go to take a message to another section, I'd be “yes I'll do it, shall I go”.’86 Young women workers showed similarities with male colleagues, who used workplace lavatories as a place to escape for short breaks, a smoke, and a chat.87 The desire of these young women to take short breaks from tiring or monotonous work was made subversive by the strictness of their employers, who permitted no, or very few, breaks from the job.

As well as attempting to make time go quicker, some, particularly manual workers, relished the limited opportunities for resistance to productivity objectives that this reappropriation of their time afforded them. Emily Money recalled that at her factory, ‘There were seven of us girls round a table and we did have some laughs, chattered all day. Somebody would hiss “Sshh, Mr Baxter's coming!” and we'd all go right quiet then crack out giggling as soon as he'd gone.’88 This could conceal real antagonism towards supervisors, as was the case at Courtaulds where Doris Addicott resented the fact that, ‘All they wanted was your work out…. Nobody wanted to know if you'd got any problems.’89 In 1937 the Factory Inspectorate disapprovingly noted that in large factories, ‘the “herd” effect renders it more difficult to maintain discipline and attention to work.’90 Music could also be important as a means of passing and wasting time. From the late 1930s an increasing number of firms introduced Music While You Work for industrial workers, as the link between workers' morale and raising productivity began to be noted. In the Second World War this trend and factory workers' own propensity for group singing at their benches when permitted were frequently noted in propaganda as signifying high morale; however, such singing was, as one Mass-Observer (p.162) noted, frequently ‘a symptom of boredom more than exuberance’.91 At Newton Aycliffe Royal Ordnance Factory, ‘if the danger woman [supervisor] walked in we used to sing to let everybody know to calm down, you know, not to speak to each other and that, until they got away.’92 Their employment as time workers meant that these young women had little negotiation power over production organization, a factor that was important in shaping pieceworkers' attitudes to changes in the labour process as the following chapter shows. However, their employment patterns also allowed time workers a degree of freedom to reappropriate work time and disrupt production, which was unknown to those who were paid by the piece. As Humphries has suggested, ‘The common boast of working girls that factory work was “just a lark” was an expression of the victory of humour and devious tactics over the alienating effects of routine drudgery’.93

Absenteeism was another strategy used to reappropriate time. Prior to the 1938 Holidays with Pay Act, and throughout wartime, unauthorized absence was the only chance most women workers had of a day's holiday. Whereas married women's absenteeism has been noted as a strategy for balancing their domestic duties with their paid work, its prevalence among younger women, noted by Humphries's study of the pre-1940 decades,94 demonstrates that it could also signify dislike of work or employers, fatigue, or simply a desire to exert control over time. Kitty Burn suffered heavy nosebleeds while working at Newton Aycliffe ROF, and began to use this as an excuse to miss work regularly:

until one day I got this letter to go in front of this committee to explain the reason why I had been absent for so long. So off I went … and got the shock of my life—I was like a private standing in front of generals, captains, lieutenants, sergeants…. So I was really annoyed about this because I wasn't in the army, so I came home had a talk with my parents—went up to the doctor's and got a permanent sick note. So after that every time, whether I had a nose bleed or [not], I took the sick note in and there was nothing they could do about it [laughs].95

Large workplaces afforded scope for going missing, as May Hobbs found as a factory worker in London in the early 1950s. At one job with a particularly benign supervisor, she and her friend Jean would regularly clock into work each afternoon and then go home or shopping until it was time to return to work to clock out.96 Although these examples are probably (p.163) extreme, many women occasionally took a day off to have a lie in or a day out. Testimonies suggest that this became increasingly common from the mid-1940s, when rising labour demand and wages meant that losing a day's pay was not the catastrophe that Josie Castle has shown it could be for young workers in the interwar years.97

More young adult women were pieceworkers, who were less able to appropriate time in this manner. Many evolved negotiation strategies with employers, explored in some depth in chapter 6. However, by the early 1940s, Mass-Observation found that rising wages, combined with a lack of luxury commodities on which to spend higher earnings, reduced pieceworkers' incentive to maximize production in order to qualify for additional wage bonuses, which gave them greater control over their time in the workplace.98 Pieceworkers and timeworkers were both able to use clandestine means to appropriate materials and express dissent from employers' demands. Petty theft was an option for both pieceworkers and time workers who wished to appropriate workplace materials for personal use and to compensate for low wages. Humphries has argued that much of this pilfering was caused by familial need, citing examples of young workers who took food or saleable goods from their employers.99 Many women recall being searched on their way out of work. Meg Powell, a munitions worker in the 1940s, remembered that ‘people would take little bits, something you could use at home … one time a woman was found with a clock up her jumper, that was a laugh’.100 Mary Gregory also claimed that thefts from her factory—‘we put stuff under the boiler suits to walk out with it’—were due to workers' need to supplement their low wages, although her interview also suggests that general resentment towards an authoritarian management was an important provocation.101 Young women also seem to have used workplace theft to increase their own personal affluence and ability to engage in leisure consumption. Jephcott deplored the large number of girls who regarded ‘“lifting” from their works … as perfectly legitimate’, and cited one example of a young woman who responded ‘in reference to some useful material unlawfully acquired, that since she was “skint” she had to take the stuff of course’.102 As commercial leisure consumption became increasingly important to youthful femininity in the 1930s and 1940s, so the pressure and desire (p.164) to indulge in it grew among young women. Their use of theft to do so indicates that even by the late 1940s young women's earnings were often insufficient to provide personal affluence, and demonstrates how the demands of the family economy fractured access to leisure. It is difficult to ascertain whether McKibbin's conclusion that petty criminality was ‘intrinsic to factory culture’ can be applied to women workers, but it certainly played a part in the working lives not only of industrial workers but also of shop assistants and to a lesser extent office employees.103 For many workers, then, enduring work involved the reappropriation of time or materials, a pattern that suggests many resented the demands that paid work placed on them, and sought to create support and survival strategies that included an alternative, collective identity to the homogeneous ‘employee’.


Examining young women's culture without reference to their paid employment forces an artificial separation between culture and production, which divests an integral part of young women's lives of any meaning. Youthful femininity was fundamentally shaped by the workplace as well as by the family and by commercial leisure developments. Women's importance as reproducers of labour power differentiated their relationship to the labour process from that of men. They were aware that they might experience sexual harassment in the workplace, and many valued the support networks offered by the large, same-sex peer groups that were a feature of larger households, factories, shops, and offices. As the size of workplaces grew, and as the use of a marriage bar diminished in the late 1930s and 1940s, the ways in which work socialized young women into class and gender relations changed. In particular, workmates became an increasingly important source of social education, and particularly of advice on courtship, sex, and marriage.

Yet although most young working class women ultimately hoped to retire from full-time paid work upon marriage, close scrutiny of their workplace behaviour offers little support for contemporaries' conviction that this shaped a detached indifference towards their work. Young women's lives were clearly affected by relations with workmates and employers, which structured a large proportion of their time and shaped their social (p.165) identity. Moreover, an element of dissent from employers' objectives was central to developing work culture among young women. Some women engaged in deliberate acts of theft or sabotage, although they were a minority. More common, and often overlooked by historians, were the ambivalent attitudes of the majority towards the workplace. For many, enduring their work was their main objective. Their methods of doing so nevertheless brought them into conflict with employers, and belie contemporary and historiographical representations of them as apathetic or passive. Many women clearly attempted to negotiate relationships with employers, often in subtle and covert ways. Women's accounts point up the complexities of deference, and the ways in which relationships with family members and workmates developed shared values among young workers. The ways in which the methods of dissent that such values could help to develop interacted with formal labour relations, and developed at times into militancy, are examined in the following chapter.


(1) J. B. Priestley, English Journey (London: Heinemann, 1934), 133.

(2) R. Strachey, Careers and Openings for Women (London: Faber, 1935), 52; see also J. Blainey, The Woman Worker and Protective Legislation (London: Arrowsmith, 1928), 48.

(3) Leicester Evening Mail (7 December 1931), 7.

(4) P. Willis, ‘Shop Floor Culture, Masculinity and the Wage Form’, in J. Clarke, C. Critcher, and R. Johnson, Working Class Culture: Studies in History and Theory (London: Hutchinson, 1979), 186.

(5) S. Humphries, Hooligans or Rebels? An Oral History of Working Class Childhood and Youth 1889–1939 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981).

(6) P. Willis, Learning to Labour (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1977).

(7) S. Lewenhak, Women and Trade Unions (London: Ernest Benn, 1977), 206.

(8) K. Whitston, ‘Worker Resistance and Taylorism in Britain’, International Review of Social History, 42/1 (1997), 3.

(9) D Fowler, The First Teenagers: The Lifestyles of Young Wage-Earners in Interwar Britain (London: Woburn Press, 1995), 65–6.

(10) C. Langhamer, Women's Leisure in England 1920–1960 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 92–3.

(11) J. Sarsby, Missuses and Mouldrunners: An Oral History of Women Pottery Workers at Work and at Home (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1988).

(12) M. Glucksmann, Women Assemble: Women Workers in the New Industries of Inter-War Britain (London: Routledge, 1993), 158–97.

(13) J. Childs, ‘Quaker Employers and Industrial Relations’, Sociological Review, 12/2 (1964), 297–301; T. Griffiths, The Lancashire Working Classes c. 1880–1930 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), 160–5.

(14) P. Summerfield, Reconstructing Women's Wartime Lives (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), 167–8.

(15) Tameside Local Studies Library (TLSL), Manchester Studies collection, tape 1146, interview with Mrs Somerville.

(16) See chapter 6.

(17) W. Foley, Child in the Forest (London: BBC, 1974), 111.

(18) See for example, TLSL, Manchester Studies, 9, interview with Mrs Sandys.

(19) P. Taylor, ‘Daughters and Mothers—Maids and Mistresses: Domestic Service between the Wars’, in Clarke et al., Working Class Culture, 136.

(20) E. Balderson with D. Goodlad, Backstairs Life in a Country House (Newton Abbott: David and Charles, 1982), 13.

(21) J. Rennie, Every Other Sunday (London: A. Barker, 1955), 51.

(22) See, for example, Lancashire Record Office (LRO), North West Sound Archive (NWSA), 1999.0017, interview with Mrs Halliday; Humphries, Hooligans, 171.

(23) TLSL, Manchester Studies, tape 26, interview with Mrs Hughson.

(24) LRO, NWSA, 1999.0017, interview with Mrs Halliday.

(25) LRO, NWSA, 1999.0335, interview with Lucy Lees.

(26) Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick (MRC), Coventry Women's Work Collection, MSS 266/6/5, interview with Elsie Lee.

(27) A. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. Q. Hoare and G. Newell Smith (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), 419–25.

(28) LRO, NWSA, 1999.0017, interview with Mrs Halliday.

(29) Foley, Child, 111; LRO, NWSA, 1999.0017, Mrs Halliday; TLSL, Manchester Studies, 9, Mrs Sandys.

(30) B. Ferry, ‘Boot and Shoe Maker’, in R. Gray (ed.), Working Lives (London: Centreprise, 1976), 108.

(31) J. Smythe, ‘“Ye Never Got a Spell to Think aboot it.” Young Women and Employment in the Inter-War Period: A Case Study of a Textile Village’, in E. Gordon and E. Breitenbach (eds.), The World is Ill Divided: Women's Work in Scotland in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990), 109.

(32) Strachey, Careers, 52.

(33) M. Tebbutt, Women's Talk?: A Social History of ‘Gossip’ in Working Class Neighbourhoods, 1880–1960 (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1995), 86–97.

(34) Mass-Observation Archive (M-OA): FR 2117, ‘Women at Work’, June 1944, 28.

(35) LRO, NWSA, 1999.0343, interview with Olive Jones.

(36) M. Gardiner, The Other Side of the Counter: The Life of A Shop Girl 1925–45 (Brighton: Queenspark, 1985), 14.

(37) LRO, NWSA, 1995.0125, interview with Annie Olive.

(38) Scottish Trade Union Delegation to the Midlands, Transfer of Scottish Girls. Report to Scottish Trades Union Congress General Council and the Organisation of Women Committee (Glasgow, Scottish TUC, 1943), 11.

(39) L. M. Thew, The Pit Village and the Store (London: Pluto Press, 1985), 225.

(40) E. Money, ‘Liquorice’, in R. Van Riel (ed.), All in a Day's Work (Pontefract: Yorkshire Art Circus, 1981), 31.

(41) N. Oldroyd, ‘Sweetmaking’, All in a Day's Work, 9.

(42) Learning to LabourR. Roberts, A Ragged Schooling: Growing up in the Classic Slum (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1976), 186.

(43) Thew, Pit Village, 144.

(44) Glucksmann, Women Assemble, 109.

(45) J. Beauchamp, Women Who Work (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1937), 30–1Women Assemble

(46) MRC, Coventry Women's Work collection, MSS 266/6/5, interview with Mrs Mullis.

(47) MRC, Coventry Women's Work collection, MSS 266/3/1/2, interview with Winifred Cotterill.

(48) Imperial War Museum Sound Archive (IWM), tape 19686, interview with Anon.

(49) J. Castle, ‘Factory Work for Women’, in B. Lancaster and T. Mason (eds.), Life and Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry (Coventry: Cryfield Press, 1986), 139–40; R. Fitzgerald, Rowntree and the Marketing Revolution, 1862–1969 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 225.

(50) Summerfield, Reconstructing, 146–8.

(51) A. Excell, The Politics of the Production Line: Autobiography of an Oxford Car Worker (Southampton: History Workshop, 1981), 31.

(52) M. Hobbs, Born to Struggle (London: Quartet Books, 1973), 37.

(53) Ferry, ‘Boot and Shoe Maker’, 110.

(54) Excell, Production Line, 31–2.

(55) Elsie, quoted in Lifetimes, A Couple from Manchester (Manchester: Manchester Polytechnic, 1976), 18.

(56) M. Welch, ‘Leather Worker’, Working Lives, 56.

(57) TLSL, Manchester Studies, 1075, interview with Kathleen Holland.

(58) Woman's Own (April 3, 1942).

(59) E. Haythorne, On Earth to Make the Numbers Up (Castleford: Yorkshire Art Circus, 1991), 113.

(60) D. Gittins, Fair Sex: Family Size and Structure, 1900–39 (London: Hutchinson, 1982), 89–93 and 157–80.

(61) S. Humphries, A Secret World of Sex: Forbidden Fruit: The British Experience, 1900–1950 (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1988), 60–1Women's Leisure

(62) TLSL, Manchester Studies, 1075, interview with Kathleen Holland.

(63) P. Jephcott, Rising Twenty: Notes on Some Ordinary Girls (London: Faber, 1948), 91–2.

(64) MRC, Coventry Women's Work Collection, MSS 266/6/5, interview with Elsie Lee.

(65) IWM, 19686, interview with Anon.

(66) IWM, 19715, interview with Anon.

(67) MRC, Coventry Women's Work Collection, MSS 266/6/3, interview with Bobbie Gardiner.

(68) MRC, Coventry Women's Work Collection, MSS 266/6/4, interview with Mrs Johnson.

(69) MRC, Coventry Women's Work Collection, MSS 266/6/3, interview with Bobbie Gardiner; LRO, NWSA, 1999.0020, interview with Joyce Shaw.

(70) LRO, NWSA, 1999.0020, Joyce Shaw.

(71) N. Higgins, ‘The Changing Expectations and Realities of Marriage in the English Working Class, 1920–1960’, Ph.D. thesis (Cambridge, 2003), 124–6; S. Westwood, All Day, Every Day: Factory and Family in the Making of Women's Lives (London: Pluto Press, 1984), 102–3; J. White, The Worst Street in North London: Campbell Bunk, Islington, between the Wars (London: Routledge, 1986), 198.

(72) MRC, Coventry Women's Work Collection, MSS 266/6/5, interview with Elsie Lee.

(73) M-OA: FR 2059, ‘Do Factory Girls Want to Stay Put or Go Home?’, March 1944, 7; M-OA: FR 2117, ‘Women at Work’, June 1944, 14.

(74) LRO, NWSA, 2002.0531a, interview with Florence Rosenblatt.

(75) M. Spring Rice, Working Class Wives: Their Health and Conditions, 2nd ed. (London: Virago, 1981), 13–20, 109–19.

(76) A. Pollert, Girls, Wives, Factory Lives (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1981), 104–11All Day Every Day

(77) LRO, NWSA, 2000.0651A, interview with Nora Holroyd.

(78) TLSL, Manchester Studies, 1075, interview with Elsie Brown.

(79) Summerfield, Reconstructing, 85–6.

(80) J. Zeitlin, ‘Engineers and Compositors: A Comparison’, in R. Harrison and J. Zeitlin (eds.), Divisions of Labour: Skilled Workers and Technological Change in Nineteenth Century England (Brighton: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1985).

(81) Money, ‘Liquorice’, 28.

(82) J. L. Harley, ‘Report of an Enquiry into the Occupations, Further Education and Leisure Interests of a Number of Girl Wage-Earners from Elementary and Central Schools in the Manchester District, with Special Reference to the Influence of School Training on Their Use of Leisure’, M.Ed. dissertation (Manchester, 1937), 47–8.

(83) D. Collier and B. L. Hutchins, The Girl In Industry (London: Bell, 1918), 26.

(84) MRC, Coventry Women's Work Collection, MSS 266/6/5, interview with Mrs Mullis.

(85) Mass-Observation, War Factory (London: Gollancz, 1942), 30.

(86) IWM, 19694, interview with Joyce Musgrove.

(87) B. Jackson, Working Class Community (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 71; F. Zweig, The British Worker (Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1952), 111.

(88) Money, ‘Liquorice’, 29–30.

(89) MRC, Coventry Women's Work Collection, MSS 266/6/1, interview with Doris Addicott.

(90) Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops for the year 1937: x, (1937–38), Cmd 5802, 49.

(91) Mass-Observation, War Factory, 31. See also TLSL, Manchester Studies, 1075, interview with E. Beasley.

(92) IWM, 19688, interview with Violet Braithwaite.

(93) Humphries, Hooligans, 141.

(94) Ibid., 143–5.

(95) IWM, 19686, interview with Anon.

(96) Hobbs, Born to Struggle, 36.

(97) Castle, ‘Factory Work’, 153–4.

(98) M-OA: FR 1157, ‘What Workers Really Earn’ (March 1942), 5.

(99) Humphries, Hooligans, 169–71.

(100) IWM, 19717, interview with Meg Powell.

(101) NWSA, LRO, 1999.0292, interview with Mary Gregory.

(102) Jephcott, Rising Twenty, 128.

(103) R. McKibbin, Classes and Cultures in England, 1918–1951 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 140.