Women's work

Wed, Oct 17, 2012, 01:00

Having room and board enabled a servant to save for marriage to a sweetheart at home or to one of the tradesmen she had ample opportunity for meeting in town. The great advantage domestic service had over factory and shop work was that the servant could pace herself and work unsupervised; the downside was that she was always on call. But servants were not cut off from the spirit of the age, and employers’ complaints indicate that by 1911 they were becoming more insistent on their time off. Many rural domestic servants bought bicycles on hire purchase, shortening the distance to friends, dances and home. Most adult women carried out daily life-maintenance of cleaning, cooking, organising and foraging, usually alongside looking after the young, old and sick.

Most dwellings in town and country, even the modern local authority “cottages” built from the 1880s onwards, lacked piped water (not to mind gas/electricity), which made this work unimaginably hard. Many of these women were the wives of farmers, shopkeepers and artisans, and often worked the farm or business with their husbands. Farmers’ wives moved increasingly into poultry-rearing towards the end of the 19th century and the money they made was theirs to dispose of, giving them a degree of economic independence unknown to many urban women. Also, female farmers in their own right made up 14.7 per cent of all farmers in 1911. Some were single, but most were widows living with married offspring and their families. The fact they were deferred to as heads of households, if only on the census form, indicates the authority that went with the title “farmer” was not necessarily masculine.

Females often wielded formidable authority in the home, but females as figures of public authority – the national teacher, the community nurse – were also becoming commonplace at this time. Most authoritative of all were the thousands of nuns working as teachers, nurses, outreach workers and administrators. Often representing state as well as church authority, they set a powerful example of a path that diverged from marriage and motherhood, and normalised spinsterhood as a way of life.

And what about Mary Ann Kelly? Her drapery business thrived, with plenty of custom from farmers’ wives in Rathangan’s prosperous hinterland. However, her husband, left in charge of the money, spent most of it on the Curragh racecourse. One of their many children was the novelist Maura Laverty (1907-1966), who wrote about the sharp-tongued mother she feared and respected and the gentle, idle father she loved. Mary Ann’s story is an example of how women’s working lives, whether married or single, were hedged around by family concerns and constraints.

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