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The UK Bible Students Website

Christian Biblical Studies






By W. Resume

First Instalment

Scripture references are to the New International Version, UK edition, unless noted otherwise.


In this series we will consider the role of the woman in the social and religious spheres throughout various phases of history. This first instalment outlines the events which led to her adjusted and progressive status in the modern western world during the period of industrial and technological upheaval from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth. In following instalments it will address the emerging role and power of women in secular western society during the inter-war years and the frenetic decades that followed the Second World War. Lastly, it will analyse her place and responsibilities in the church at large, and ask whether women belong in the pulpit.


THE HISTORY OF the world is to a remarkable degree the Story of Woman. Versatile and adaptable, it is little exaggeration to say that Woman makes the world work. Someone has joked that had she been created first, there would have been no need for Man.


By turns praised, tolerated and feared, she has been characterised as Doyenne, Diva, and Devil rolled into one. But a more noble description is that assigned to her in Genesis 3: 20 as ‘mother of all the living’. Profound in its prediction of her influence on a world thenceforth under condemnation, and transcending the mere facts of reproduction, the ascription hints at the essence of compassion, care and the complexities of nurturing, which would be her principal domain. More than a mere alter ego of the man, the woman would in her own right help to weave the rich tapestry of history, encouraging and supporting those who had a more immediate and visible role than she, even to bearing the Saviour and rocking His cradle.


When assuring Israel of His affection for His chosen people, Jehovah employs the imagery of the nurturing mother, suggesting that hers is the highest human form of altruistic love (Isaiah 49: 15):

Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!


In the highs and lows of the shifting landscape of human experience, what is wanted by the wayfarer, the lonely, the fearful the child crying in the night is the fixed point, the assurance of unconditional love. Such is a mother’s devotion, it is a practical illustration on earth of God’s unflagging compassion for His children not for Israel alone, but for all who have ever lived, those for whom He sent His beloved Son, born of a woman, to suffer and die, while they were yet the enemies of heaven (Romans 5: 10).


The common misrepresentation of the fall in Eden as one due to sexual misconduct has much to do with the vilification and suspicion of the woman as temptress.

And that first accusation directed against her by man (it’s her fault – Genesis 3: 12) set the historic trend.


Yet the narrative of that descent from grace contains enough information to diminish both male and female.


But the woman has received a double-dose of condemnation and she has been much put upon over the centuries.


The conflict thus created lies at the root of the relationship between man and woman, at both the secular and religious level.


There were theoretical elements in the subjection of women and a large contribution was made to them by the Church. In part this was a matter of its traditionally hostile stance towards sexuality. Its teaching had never been able to find any justification for sex except the link with the reproduction of the species. Woman being seen as the origin of Man’s fall and a standing temptation to concupiscence, the Church threw its weight behind the domination of society by men. Yet this is not all there is to be said. Other societies have done more to seclude and oppress women than Christendom, and the Church at least offered women the only respectable alternative to domesticity available until modern times; the history of the female religious is studded with outstanding women of learning, spirituality and administrative gifts. The position of at least a minority of well-born women, too, was marginally bettered by the idealization of women in the chivalric codes of behaviour of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. There lay in this a notion of romantic love and an entitlement to service, a stage towards a higher civilization.[fn1]


Women standing with a jar in her hand


The dark satanic textile mills of nineteenth-century Britain brought not only plumes of black smoke and the dislocation of the population at large, but relief from centuries of grinding labour in the cottage industries in which fabrics were made.[fn2] Long before the burgeoning age of mass production yarn was spun by hand from wool or flax, using a variety of primitive implements.


The fibres were woven together on a hand loom to produce linen and fabrics of various styles.


 Spinning was usually a female occupation and is alluded to as such in the Old


Testament (Proverbs 31: 19): ‘In her hands she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers.’ While thus engaged, the mother could rock the cradle and stir the cooking pot (an early example of ‘multi-tasking’?). The woman who spent her days in this employment, married or not, became known as a ‘spinster’, the word eventually acquiring the faintly uncomplimentary sense it has today.


 In the process of spinning, raw fibres were fed onto the spindle from a stick or paddle called a distaff. Thus it was that the females in the family were collectively styled the ‘distaff side’.[fn3] Distaff work came to define the place and the role of woman in the home and in society at large. For a woman to aspire beyond this station was regarded with disdain by men. ‘She rampeth in my face’, writes Chaucer, ‘and crieth, “I will have thy knife and thou shalt have my distaff and go spin”.’ Shakespeare puts into the mouth of his female character, Goneril, the bold declaration, ‘I must change arms at home, and give the distaff into my husband’s hands’.[fn4]


Elsewhere, and showing little deference to female sensitivities, we read that the making of linen was an ‘employment for the weakest people not capable of stronger work, being widows and aged and decrepit people, now the most chargeable, likewise for beggars and vagrants, who now live idly and by the sweat of other men’s labours’.[fn5]


By the seventeenth century the spinning wheel was in widespread use throughout Britain, making it easier to draw the thread. Still, it remained a home-based, manual industry, and it was not until the latter part of the 1700’s that the process was automated.[fn6] The cotton industry grew up in the north-west of England, mainly around Lancashire and its fringes. Here the dampish climate was most suitable for preserving the thread intact as it ran through the machines.


The cotton plant had been cultivated in various areas of the world for hundreds of years. The burgeoning use of mechanised spinning machines now increased demand for it, especially of the type being grown in the United States. The subsequent trans-Atlantic trade enriched both the United States (supplier) and Great Britain (finisher). In the southern United States, the cotton trade accelerated the purchase and impressment of slaves, without whom the cotton fields might have gone unpicked. The fortunes of Manchester were built on cotton, and the city rapidly became the world centre for the industry, earning the sobriquet, ‘Cottonopolis’.

Picture of factories known as Cottonpolis


This commerce and the source of essentially free and abused labour allowed the plantation system in the southern U.S. to flourish. During the American Civil War (1861-1865) the Union navy blockaded southern ports to prevent exports of the bales to Britain, heightening tensions between America and Britain. The sentiments of the British population were broadly against slavery, and workers on the Manchester and Liverpool docks expressed their support of President Lincoln’s efforts to abolish the practice, refusing to unload the southern cotton from the incoming ships, even to the detriment of their own livelihood.


In acknowledgement, Lincoln wrote:


I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the working people of Manchester and in all Europe are called to endure in this crisis. It has been often and studiously represented that the attempt to overthrow this Government which was built on the foundation of human rights, and to substitute for it one which should rest exclusively on the basis of slavery, was likely to obtain the favour of Europe.

Through the action of disloyal citizens, the working people of

 Europe have been subjected to a severe trial for the purpose of forcing their sanction to that attempt. Under the circumstances I cannot but regard your decisive utterances on the question as an instance of sublime Christian heroism, which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country. It is indeed an energetic and re-inspiring assurance of the inherent truth and of the ultimate and universal triumph of justice, humanity and freedom.

I hail this interchange of sentiments, therefore, as an augury that, whatever else may happen, whatever misfortune may befall your country or my own, the peace and friendship which now exists between the two nations will be, as it shall be my desire to make them, perpetual.


Building on its early lead in industrialisation and backed by its established strength in finance, maritime power, and in possession of captive colonial markets, Britain surged ahead in the production of textiles, iron and steel, in what became known as the Industrial Revolution, its ample supplies of coal and iron ore feeding the factory maw. Dirty work it may have been, but it brought prosperity to the nation on an unprecedented scale. From the exigencies of this astonishing period of economic expansion arose many of the inventions which laid the foundation for the technology of the modern capitalist world.


The development of the railway, too, brought mobility to the population, introducing the notion of the commuter. Easier and quicker travel and the better wages on offer in the big city enticed rural populations into London, Sheffield, Liverpool, and Manchester and their satellite mill towns. Sprawling suburbs and urban poverty followed as a consequence, and it was not long before socially conscious reformers began to see that along with the benefits of automation came many disadvantages. Single women and mothers with children now toiled in enormous brick buildings, operating and maintaining huge, dangerous machines, with hourly threats to life and limb.


Votes for women in 1913


This migration of woman into the broader domain of the man had begun and could not be reversed, though it would be decades before she would be regarded as his practical equal. Even by the early twentieth century, adult women in Britain (like most western countries) did not have the right to vote. The women’s suffrage movement, championed by women and some men across the social groups, sought to win public support for a change in the law, pressurising  politicians through mass meetings, marches and a variety of disruptive activities. Public, politicians and police responded with vilification and incarceration. Locked up in gaols, the suffragists went on hunger strikes and were force-fed by the prison authorities, in brutal fashion. Several decades would pass before the movement achieved its aim of adult female franchise. (New Zealand would be first to grant it, in 1893.)


As a rising tide lifts all boats, the industrialisation of Britain had stimulated similar developments in Europe and North America. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Germany and the United States had caught up with and, in some respects, overtaken Britain. Notwithstanding the disruptive technologies and the social problems which came with it, there was widespread optimism that the new century would usher in a bright new world, an automated demi-paradise with justice for all (especially for the men). Politics and national interests declared otherwise, and ominous signs of war began to drift over the horizon.


Like the mechanised age which had spawned it, the war that loomed in the early years of the 1900s would be different from all previous conflicts. Giant armoured battleships, long-range cannon, and motorised vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine would be the new harbingers of destruction. The cataclysm burst forth on August 4, 1914, when Britain declared war on Germany.


As young men were despatched by the millions to the grisly battlefields and vermin-infested trenches of the Great War, waves of women moved from the halls of domestic service and household drudgery to replace them on the buses, in the factory, and in the office. This new phase of the shift in the lot of woman both adjusted and amplified her role in the social hierarchy.


Things would never be the same again.

To be continued


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  [fn1] J.M. Roberts, History of the World (New York: Oxford University Press: 1993), p. 416.

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[fn2] ‘Jerusalem’, a poem written by William Blake (1757-1827), refers to ‘those dark satanic mills’, contrasting them with the ‘green and pleasant land’ of England. It evokes the early influence of Christianity on the island (including the speculative assertion of a visit by Jesus). The words were later set to music by Sir Charles H.H. Parry (1848-1918). The hymn has become a quasi-national anthem and is a firm favourite on the last night of the Promenade Concerts, broadcast annually by the BBC since 1927.

<http://www.artofeurope.com/blake/bla21.htm> retrieved Dec. 25 2012

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[fn3] The opposite term, applied to the male, is ‘the spear side’. In defining ‘distaff’, the Oxford English Dictionary has: ‘Old English distaef: the first element is apparently related to Middle Low German dise, disen ‘distaff, bunch of flax’; the second is staff.

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[fn4] From The Monk’s Tale (The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400); Goneril to Edmund, King Lear, Act IV, Scene 2, by William Shakespeare.

<http://www.william-shakespeare.info/act4-script-text-king-lear.htm> retrieved Dec. 25 2012

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[fn5] England in Transition, Dorothy George (Penguin Books, 1964), p. 104.

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[fn6] Notable innovations in mechanisation were made by James Hargreaves (1720-1778; the Spinning Jenny); Richard Arkwright (1732-1792; the Water or Spinning Frame); Edmund Cartwright (1743-1823; power loom for weaving); Samuel Crompton (1753-1827; Spinning Mule). In the United States, Eli Whitney (1765-1825) invented the Cotton Gin (en-gin-e), which reduced the time needed to clean the cotton before spinning. Whitney helped to lay the foundation for the later development of the textile industry in the United States. Of all the inventors in this field, Whitney may be the only one memorialised in contemporary song. Ira Gershwin, alludes to him in the line, ‘they all laughed at Whitney and his cotton gin’. (‘They All Laughed’; lyrics by Ira Gershwin, music by George Gershwin; published 1936).

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[fn7] <http://www.dingquarry.co.uk/location--geography/cotton-famine-road.asp> retrieved Dec. 25 2012 (link broken)


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Copyright January 2013 ukbiblestudents.co.uk

You are free to reproduce this article, but please let us know if you do so and acknowledge the source.

 Illustrations used herein reside in the public domain, unless noted otherwise.

For identification purposes: Woman with Distaff – William-adolphe_bouguereau_the_spinner;

Cottonopolis – <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cottonopolis1.jpg> (from an engraving by Edward Goodall (1795-1870), retrieved Dec. 25 2012. Votes for Women: 1913 – private collection.


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