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Understanding the Relevance of Working Class History

Posted by Jesika Arseneau
15 Avril 2014 - 9:17am

The mention of working class history stirs up images of factory workers, construction labourers, and other physically demanding and low-income types of work. Working class history is typically misinterpreted as a male domain of history, with major history textbooks often ignoring the work of working class women inside and outside of the home. Last year, as part of my Master’s program, my colleagues and I curated an exhibition for Museum London dedicated to the history of labour in London, Ontario. In particular, my group focused on the many contributions that women made to the city's history of labour.

 The two primary avenues of employment for women in London prior to World War One were that of homemaker or domestic service. The daily work of a domestic servant was not easy: the hours of work were very long, hard, and often came with very little respect. However, despite the difficulties associated with domestic service, it remained a popular form of employment into the twentieth century. In 1901, 38% of all women in Canada with paid jobs were domestic servants. As businesses continued to grow and factories developed in London, domestic service work continued to attract more women than the manufacturing sector, especially for recent immigrants. The upper class families who could afford domestic help tended to associate their staff with criminality, prostitution, or theft. This social dynamic demonstrates that peering past the popular understandings of working class history can reveal fascinating, and incredibly relevant, ties across different sects of history.

Working class history has shaped the many urban centres across Canada—without comprehending what the daily struggles of working class labourers were like, how can we even begin to construct notions of progress, understandings of development, or of social dynamics? These are important questions to ask, as the working class is not something that has entirely eroded; there are still fights for wages, benefits, and recognition that are occurring across the world. Today’s students need to understand history as context in order to address and understand these modern issues.

How can you tie working class history into your lessons and engage your students with these issues?

Photo: A toaster, author's photo.