According to the 1881 census only 42% of women worked, but that doesn't mean that the other 58% were sitting around with their feet up. It simply reflects that women's employment was seen as unimportant and negligible. This is because it was often seasonal, part time, poorly paid or a support role for their father or husbands own work.
Many women worked in a domestic environment, taking care of their own home or other peoples. Elizabeth Burtenshaw was typical, she was born in 1866 in Albourne to John Burtenshaw, an agricultural labourer but by the age of 15 years she was working as a servant for Simeon Gumbrill. For blacksmith Simeon employing a servant was a step towards middle class status.
Many women in Sussex would have worked on the land, taking care of their own vegetable patch, working alongside their husbands or fathers or as seasonal help. Ruth Gutsell worked as dairy maid in Upper Dicker (Arlington) before she married but whilst the 1871 census entry suggests she is no longer working it is highly likely that she is still working.
The industrial revolution gave women a new work opportunity. Sussex was not at the heart of industrial growth but it was not unaffected. There were many new developing industries along with pre-existing industries. Women of all ages could work in a factory and it was a work opportunity that was available to many married women as well as single women. The paper factory in Stedham employed many local women including Ann Burns, a 35 year old widow and Jane Simmonds was still working there at the age of 65 years.
Outwork was another employment option for married women, working from home could be fitted in around caring for their children. Outwork was considered socially acceptable for women; factory work gave women an independence that worried society, farm work was too coarse and domestic work took women until other people's houses making them possible prey to immoral employers. Many women working as dressmakers and milliners would have been working at home such as 14 year old Elizabeth Deeks in Brighton and 73 year old Ann Longhurst of Angmering.
There were many other jobs women undertook, many without the recognition that they were working. A search of the census shows many families taking in lodgers to supplement the family income and it was the women who took care of the extra work involved. Maria Collis of Westhampnett earned an income as a charwomen and rented a room to a lodger whilst the five daughters of Richard Geere, a builder in Brighton, all earned an income as teachers. Some women would have earned a less than salubrious income from prostitution, it is estimated that 7% of the population of Victorian London were prostitutes (possibly as much as 15% of the female population). Whilst prostitute was generally listed in the census under occupation there might be clues to the real occupation of such women as Alex Kingston found out on a recent episode of Who Do You Think You Are?
Some women broke the mould, taken on what was usually seen as men's work. Sarah and Elizabeth Ray followed their father Daniel into the family silversmithing business in Battle whilst Caroline Burkenshaw worked as a carrier in West Itchenor.
It is reasonable to think, regardless of whether the census showed an occupation or not, that our working class female ancestors were hard workers and they contributed to the family income.