Researching Early Modern Women’s Work in a Time of COVID

Alice Tomlinson, University of Manchester

When I started researching women’s changing work patterns in the early modern period for an essay last autumn, I had no idea the rabbit hole I would end up exploring. Initially, I found that much work on women’s employment suggests that either women have been marching slowly towards emancipation and getting slowly more involved in work-tasks, or that the early modern period was a golden age of women’s work before the horrors of Victorian separate spheres. However, the more I researched women’s work in this period the less viable these two options seemed.

As historians like Amy Erickson and Penelope Lane have shown, until well into the 20th century women were not considered by their contemporaries to be inside the economic realm. Instead, women were often seen as housewives or simply oppressed workers. This perception has been exacerbated by the relative dearth of data available on women’s work in the early modern period, while men who were more often defined by their occupation and left more detailed sources about their work.

However, we are still facing the implications of this imbalance. While historians and political thinkers are constantly reworking our theories of capitalism, the lack of representation of women in these sources has real life implications. Our language dictates what we can study and by not including women in these theories and case studies it becomes much harder to study them and we miss women’s valuable contributions to the workplace. It also means that ‘typical’ women’s work is then labelled as ‘low skilled’ or even be placed outside the realm of work altogether, for example, housework.

My challenge was to find a way to effectively integrate women’s work into my analysis, a task made harder by limited access to archives during the past year. Fortunately, the incredible generosity of Jane Whittle and Mark Hailwood, who kindly shared their currently unpublished database on women’s work, helped save the day. This allowed me to conduct my research, and Whittle’s and Hailwood’s innovative ‘verb-oriented approach’ allowed me to dig deeper into exactly what it was that women’s work involved in the southwest of England 1500 to 1700. This approach involves analysing court depositions, coroners’ reports, and quarter sessions. These early modern courts have records of crimes from hedge cutting to murder. As witnesses were often called to give testimony, we see aspects of their lives coming through. Whittle and Hailwood have looked for verbs describing what tasks people were doing in their everyday lives, as detailed in these reports, as opposed to more traditional ways of gathering information about employment. Using this approach means paid and unpaid work is included and allows for a better understanding of the different tasks that made up a typical working day.

Already, Whittle’s and Hailwood’s initial findings have made some incredible differences in how we understand women’s work. They identify an obvious gender division of tasks, and their data also shows that this division may have been much more fluid than many have previously argued. They have used this data to show that while some parts of the economy had a relatively stable percentage of women workers throughout the 200-year period, other parts of the economy, particularly craft, changed vastly at this time. The percentage of craft workers that were women dropped by 44% during this period and craft had the biggest gender division of labour.

Figure 1: Spinning wool, a larger-than-life painting of the wool trade in Leiden with a view of two small workers’ homes, 1595, by Isaac van Swanenburg

Using this as a starting point for my own analysis, I used this database to analyse women’s decreasing involvement in craft work. Gender divisions were clear in this sector, and most of women’s craft work was in the textile industry. Between 1500 and 1700, the percentage of textile workers that were women decreased by 50%. By observing this shifting demographic some key questions appear. First, did textile work decline in comparison to work in the rest of the craft sector? It did. It declined from 7% to 3% of all work-tasks. Second, was there an increase in men’s textiles jobs without a growth in jobs available to women? Again, the answer is yes, men’s work in textiles increased by just over 50% in this period. Changing export laws in the 1600s, that had previously been very strict, increased focus on exporting finished textile products. Before this Britain had mainly exported undyed products that would be finished in the destinations they were shipped too. This increased demand for workers to finish and dye the wool in Britain- traditionally men’s work. Lastly, were these jobs being moved elsewhere? While the dataset can’t prove this conclusively, it suggests the beginning of a large shift from small scale textile production to large scale textile production that is often associated with the industrial revolution – especially in the north of England. Therefore, while the percentage of women working in textiles declined in the southwest this does not mean there was not an increase elsewhere.

Graph created using Whittle’s and Hailwood’s ‘Women’s Work’ dataset. Using a 50/50 multiplier.

Without access to Whittle’s and Hailwood’s dataset, this analysis would not have been possible – and this only scratches the surface! This dataset could be key for understanding changing patterns of women’s work in a more nuanced way. By enabling historians to recapture a picture of women’s activities we can more effectively understand the local factors that played a role in changing work patterns while also observing long term trends. The two main theories about women’s work (slow progression vs the golden age) miss these regional factors and the important work many women were doing throughout this period. This perspective needs to be brought into how we study women and work so that we can build a bigger, more nuanced, and more deeply textured picture of women’s work in the early modern period.

Conducting this research in a time of COVID has shown me the brilliant, collaborative outcomes that can be achieved through the generosity of scholars. However, it has also served as a warning. Long-term perceptions that place women outside the economic realm continues to affect how their contribution to the economy is understood today. During COVID, women were more likely to be furloughed, do more unpaid housework, and spend less time doing paid work from home. The parallels are clear. By recognising women’s work more effectively, new language and theories of capitalism could do better to encapsulate all workers’ experiences.


About the author: Alice is currently studying for an MA in History at the University of Manchester and is in the process of completing her dissertation on the Early Modern Menopause.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *