It is a truth universally acknowledged that women do not always get paid the same as men for doing the same job, and this is in the 21st century. In the 18th century, women were often paid less than men, and had less recourse to the law than we do today to fight for a fairer deal.
Yet the fact that women were paid less, and sometimes paid a wage that they could not live on, was not a secret. Many knew it; and some had considerable sympathy for the plight of the female in the workplace.
One anonymous writer in 1796 argued that there was a clear correlation between the disparity in male and female wages and the likelihood of a woman turning to thieving as a result. He wrote that women were paid a quarter of what they should be, and added:
“I beg to remind the public that sempstresses had the same wages sixty years ago that they have now…while the wages of the men have been considerably advanced, those of the women had remained as before.”
In addition, legislation had regulated the wages of men, “while the poor neglected females have had none to plead their cause”.
And what was the result of this unfairness? The writer recognised the desperation of those who were out of employment, and who knew “the cravings of hunger”. He asked,
“Is there one man in a thousand who knows the cravings of hunger, who if a convenient opportunity offers to gratify his appetite even by means of theft, could withstand the temptation? No wonder that we heard of so many female thieves.”
The writer was relatively unusual in recognising why some women might be compelled to steal – not through a failing in their personality, or a lack of respect for society, but out of hunger, poverty, or lack of other choices.
Yet he still linked the criminality of women to that of men, unable to continue his argument that a woman could act independently of men. He concluded:
“The path of honesty once deserted, is very difficult to regain: but then entirely lost female virtue follows, and the consequence is, a connection is formed with the most infamous of the other sex, who then carry on the trade of thieving jointly.”
So once the female had set off down the path of thieving, it would be difficult to live an honest (poorly paid) life again; but if she met with an equally thieving man, she would be completely lost.
Source: The Oracle and Public Advertiser, 18 August 1796