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Women in the office of yesteryear

In our  previous post we saw how during the second half of the 19th century insurance companies began to employ middle-class young women to process their expanding workload whilst cutting down their salary expenses. In this article we will look at  the challenges that women faced upon first entering the insurance profession as paid office workers.

Find out: 

  • What kind of jobs they did and in what conditions
  • How they were viewed by their male counterparts
  • The challenges of going against the Victorian gender roles 

Since the 1870s until well into the 20th century, women were employed exclusively in clerical roles of repetitive nature such as copying letters and filling in forms. Male clerks initially feared for their jobs, but as the Director of The Prudential put it in 1874, three years after the first female clerks were employed: "[female clerks] would not in any way prevent a fair development of male clerks. There had been an unusually large number of male clerks appointed last year, and the lady clerks were doing a class of work that they could not get satisfactorily done by the male clerks"  (Anderson, 1989). 

Employing women, who were obliged to leave work on marriage, had actually the opposite effect: it allowed boy clerks to climb the ladder whilst maintaining a much needed cheap workforce focusing just on menial tasks.

Women worked long days having to meet strict production quotas and kept completely segregated from men. 

These types of tasks were demanding: for example at the London, Edinburgh & Glasgow women had to work long days at high desks and sit on uncomfortable stools, having to meet strict production quotas whilst closely supervised by a senior clerk who would penalised them even if arriving only a few minutes late. Working hours were from Monday to Friday from 10 to 5 with half hour lunch (provided by the company), and Saturdays from 9 to 1. The Prudential was slightly better as it provided an hour lunch break, cane seated chairs and a library with over 300 volumes providing reading material for its staff (Anderson, 1989).

Etiquette demanded women worked in departments separate from men  - although this wasn't the case for all trades, segregation was strictly observed by the insurance employers. Female insurance clerks entered and left the building where they worked through a dedicated entrance and worked different hours than men, keeping them from seeing and being seen by their male counterparts. This arrangement made it easier for employers to keep them focused on dull work.  

Clothes where a concern too, as the Secretary of Country Fire put it in July 1916:

"The Secretary trusts that the young ladies engaged in the Office will not take it a miss if he suggests the desirability of adopting as far as possible uniformity in their attire as being more business-like and in keeping with the appearance of officials in a public office. A dark skirt with blouse (black or white in preference) is the proper costume and superfluous jewellery is out of place" (Cockerell, 1980)  

Many employers adopted the solution of supplying overalls often in dark blue or green, as you can see in the image below: 

1918 General Accident Swansea Branch Ladies Wearing Gowns . AVIVA.

1918 - General Accident Swansea branch. Women wearing gowns to cover their attire in order to avoid 'distractions'. 

But women choosing to go into employment had to work against another type of hindrance: challenging the Victorian notion of gender roles. The domestic ideology which divided society into the public and private spheres, dictated that men go out to work, make money and support their families, while women were to stay at home, creating a haven for themselves and their children and for their husbands to return to.

Women choosing to work had to not only accept fewer opportunities than men, but also challenge the Victorian notion of gender roles. 

So, even though women had always worked - as spinners, dressmakers, embroiderers, in addition to housekeeping and child rearing - these activities were performed out of sight of society, in the privacy of the home.

The controversy arose from the public appearance of wage-earning working women in male dominated environments and from the assumption about the inherent nature and function of women in society: marriage and motherhood.

Office work was seen as unfeminine, to the point where middle-class families felt embarrassed by their female relatives working and earning like a man. 

References

  • A sense of security: 150 years of Prudential. Laurie Dennett. London: Granta Editions, 1998.
  • The white blouse revolution: female office workers since 1870. Gregory Anderson (ed.). Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989.
  • Women in England 1769-1914: a social history. Susie Steinbach. Phoenix, 2005.
  • 'Women in insurance' by Hugh Cockerell, in CII Journal. London: CII, 1980.

About the Blog

This blog post is part of a series of articles in which we will explore both the roles played by women working within the insurance profession and the evolving attitudes towards them since the late Edwardian era. In the next article we will look at the role of working women during the World Wars. 

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