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.
- 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
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
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. Women wearing gowns
to cover their attire in order to avoid
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
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.
- 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,
- Women in England 1769-1914: a social history. Susie Steinbach.
- 'Women in insurance' by Hugh Cockerell, in CII Journal. London:
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.