Before she said ‘I do’ The impact of industrialization on unmarried women’s labour force participation 1812-1932

Boter, C.

Recent research based on Dutch marriage records shows a steady decrease offemale labour force participation from the 1840s until the 1930s. However, this researchrelies on combined data from several municipalities. Analysing the sources in this wayaggregates the development to such an extent that local variation is completely overlooked.This article contributes to our understanding of regional variation in unmarried women’slabour from 1812 to 1932. The purpose of this research is to isolate the developments inindustry from those in agriculture and the service sector. I use marriage records from fourregions that list the occupation of the bride to determine the amount of working unmarriedwomen throughout the research period. My data show a different development from thepreviously mentioned research. Unlike earlier results, I found that unmarried women’s labourforce participation in the industrial centres did not decrease gradually throughout thenineteenth and early-twentieth century. Moreover, labour force participation was remarkablyhigh compared to the other sectors, especially during the first decades of the twentiethcentury. I argue that industry developed in a specific way because it required a cheap labourforce which was mostly found among young women. This statement is supported by showingthe percentages of brides with a recorded occupation in two industrial centres. Furthermore, Ishow that in these centres, the younger a woman was, the higher the chance that she stated anoccupation in her marriage record. This was not the case in the agricultural and serviceorientedregions I have investigated. I therefore argue that research on the history of femalelabour should be approached from a comparative perspective for a proper understanding of itsdevelopments.

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