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The Humanities Conference 2003

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Young Women, Work and Family in Interwar England

Selina Todd.

Throughout the interwar period in England (1919-1938) young women workers were motifs of socio-economic continuity and change. The figurative ‘clumping of the mill-girls’ clogs down the cobbled street’ in Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier spoke evocatively of depressed northern England, while the combined optimism and disquiet caused by the development of new industries and mass consumerism was embodied in the young factory workers ‘with lipstick copied from actresses’ (Priestley, 1934).

Recent studies have highlighted the importance of the interwar period in the emergence of the modern, independent young woman, in Western Europe and North America (Langhamer, 2000). Young women have been identified as prominent leisure consumers. However, this focus has neglected the significance of this group as a section of the workforce, and the importance of paid work in shaping their social identities.

This paper synthesises quantitative material, including the Census, and qualitative material, including 59 testimonies of women who began work during this period, to examine young women's employment patterns, their importance as household breadwinners and the effect of their work on their social identity. The paper suggests that age and gender are, like class, formed in historically specific relationships. Its methodology highlights the importance of combining humanities and social science research approaches to examine social life in both past and present.


Selina Todd  (United Kingdom)
Postdoctoral Fellow
Institute of Historical Research
University of London

I have recently completed a PhD in Contemporary History at the University of Sussex, entitled 'Young women, employment and the family in interwar England'. I am currently an Economic and Social Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research.

  • Work
  • Women
  • Youth

(30 min Conference Paper, English)