Gender discrimination in 19thc England: evidence from factory children

Mar 2015 | 133

Authors: Sara Horrell, Deborah Oxley

Gender bias against girls in nineteenth-century England has received much interest but establishing its existence has proved difficult.  We utilise data on heights of 16,402 children working in northern textile factories in 1837 to examine whether gender bias was evident.  Current interpretations argue against any difference.  Here our comparisons with modern height standards reveal greater deprivation for girls than for boys.  But this result cannot be taken at face value.  We query whether modern standards require adjustment to account for the later timing of puberty in historical populations and develop an alternative.  Gender discrimination remains, although its absence amongst younger children precludes an indictment of culturally-founded gender bias.  The height data must remain mute on the source of this discrimination but we utilise additional information to examine some hypotheses: occupational sorting, differential susceptibility to disease, poorer nutrition for girls, disproportionate stunting from the effects of nutritional deprivation, and type and amount of work undertaken, specifically labour additional to paid work in the domestic sphere.  Of these, we favour housework as the main culprit, factory girls undertook more physical labour than factory boys and this was reflected in disproportionate stunting.  The 'double burden' was, and remains, a form of gender discrimination.

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