Women and Movement

Emma Schroeder

The traditional idea of movement that changes the world is global movement: the explorers and adventurers that sailed around the world, the people who moved and colonized new lands. Michael Adas in Machines as the Measure of Men stated that the ideas that drove the European colonization were the "products of male ingenuity and male artifice" (14). Most of the exploration and first colonization was done by men. It would not have been socially correct for women. But women did have an integral role in other processes, mainly in the social transformation of countries. While men set up the first connections and created global trading, small changes were happening with in countries. Women helped in these, especially in England.

The women alive during the European exploration were not very involved in physical traveling. They sat around, keeping houses together as husbands discovered new lands. But while they made none of the early contributions to traveling, they played an integral role in drawing cultures together, especially when England began to focus on a mercantile economy. Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, the world economy was beginning to grow, and England needed to make a place for itself in the world. To do this, it needed a product that it could use at home as well as export to other countries as material for trade. The English economy found this in its textile industry, although the industry had to be changed slightly. And so England began to establish itself as a textile provider.

The process of making cloth requires many different steps. First a material needs to be grown and collected. England used three of these: cotton, wool, and flax. Cotton and wool were soon taken over by the flax industry. Cotton had to be imported, and the supplies could not always make it. Wool was not as comfortable as linen, which is made from flax. Also, flax could be grown in England, which kept the first step entirely contained within the country. The next step was to dye the flax, which could be done in the same location as the flax was grown. Then it had to be spun into thread and then woven into cloth which could be used for clothing.

This process had a bottle neck however: the step that took the most time was the spinning, directly in the center of the flow of production. It took eight spinners to keep one weaver in business, and therefore the English producers focused on making this one of the biggest sections of the industry. In order to do this, they found a new sector of the economy: the women and children. As women and children were two previously unexploited work forces, the shift towards using them as labor created a shift in the entire culture.

Factories were set up to provide a work space for the production of cloth. These mostly occurred as a place of child labor: many orphanages set themselves up as linen factories. Women also entered the work force in factories, but that was not the only way. In order for many women to get involved, it had to become acceptable within society. Because of this, women began to spin in their own homes and the homes of their neighbors as well. This was the beginning of the spinning bee: women were encouraged to visit each other, spinning and talking to each other. Working together was a way to save fuel, and as the workers were happy, they would hopefully produce more spun flax. This form of production also became something that allowed the women not only to make money, but it became a social experience as well.

Besides being amazingly productive, this subtle movement had a wide effect. The gatherings became a place for men and women to socialize and find future husbands and wives. This allowed for increased movement within a society; women would meet and marry people that they might not normally if they impressed men with their spinning and social skills. In this way the spinning created social movement: women now had an acceptable place to be besides their husband or fathers house, and they were meeting more men than they could have traditionally. Not only was socialization increasing, but the number of marriages rose drastically as well as industry increased and more people had jobs. As Schneider noted in Rumpelstilzkin's Bargain, spinning improved "girls chances for status mobility through marriage" (195). Spinning allowed women to become more independent both socially and financially, and began their movement toward total independence. But this social movement was not always viewed in a favorable light: some groups still thought that a woman working out of the house was wrong, and that becoming financially independent was a low status symbol. This is also how the word spinster came into being: when a woman had to support herself (if her husband was dead), she spun to make money.

But social movement was not the only thing changed by the beginning of the female labor force. At about the same time, in 1750, 40% of English women could read. This statistic helps explain the increased intellectual flow that must have started when people began gathering together. Because of the gatherings and socialization that were encouraged, people had plenty of time to talk. Spinning does not stop talking or thinking, and so women talked. As there was a large population that could read, they had more ideas to talk about. But they did not get ideas only through books. In fact, word of mouth was most likely the prominent carrier of ideas. Women could talk about new ideas that came in with the new order of materials, and then spread the word to all of the people that they worked around. It was a giant gossip circle that helped tremendously in spreading the new ideas of religions from other places and the ideas of social equality.

Women became a central link in communicating things through out the country.
While women did not travel to far away places or break boundaries between cultures, they did provide an integral link in the new world economy, especially in England. Women had been ignored as part of the work force because of tradition. But when industries needed more workers in something that was considered proper work for women, they were immediately drawn into the system. This slight shift changed many things about English society. It provided a way in which women could move socially without repercussions, grow financially independent, and created a link through which ideas could flow. Much social and intellectual movement was done by women, even if it was under the guise of simply walking over to a neighbor's house to spin flax.

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last updated 3/14/03