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Women in early modern England played a key role in the economy

Tudor and Stuart women spent more time making money than caring for their families, new research shows

Tudor and Stuart women spent more time making money than caring for their families and were regularly employed in physically demanding jobs, according to major new research.

Women in early modern England played a key role in the economy, and did much more than just unpaid housework and care work, new analysis of previously ignored records by University of Exeter experts shows.

Cleaning, cooking and childcare were less than a third of the tasks undertaken by women between 1500 and 1700. The rest of their time they spent engaged in agriculture and making and selling goods and food such as cheese.

Almost 40 per cent of work in agriculture was done by women, and a similar proportion of work in making and transporting goods and food was female, while half of those involved in managing finances and selling goods were women, University of Exeter academics have found.

This was in addition to their role in looking after their family and home.

Jane Whittle, Professor of Economic and Social History, who led the project, said: “It’s very likely that women in early modern Britain worked longer hours than men, but it has been very hard to find exactly what their contribution was. Women’s work is often dismissed by historians as being ‘mainly domestic’ without investigating the actual tasks undertaken by women inside or outside the home. Women’s role in making food or other products at home – the main centre of production at the time - to be sold disappears from view. Activities at home then were very different, yet it’s easy to wrongly assume households were run in a similar way to those in the 19th or 20th centuries.”

Evidence of women’s work in the period has until now mainly come from records of wages paid by large farms. But most work was unwaged or carried out on small farms, so these accounts don’t reveal the extensive role women played in the economy.

The University of Exeter historians spent the past three years collecting fresh evidence about work activities carried out by women between 1500 and 1700 found in church court depositions, quarter sessions examinations and coroners’ reports from Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire, Hampshire and Cornwall. Witness statements contain 4,300 references to tasks carried out by men and women. The research team have analysed the frequency each task is mentioned for either men or women.

The court records show, for instance, that in Street, Somerset, in 1551, Margaret Parsons, a servant, helped to plough a 7 acre field, while in Knook, Wiltshire, in 1622, Robert Griffin put mutton “into the pot over the fire to make broth and some provision for his wife being great with child and their children”.  Margaret gave evidence as part of a tithe dispute, while Robert was confessing to sheep stealing.

The data shows during this period men and women did have different roles in agriculture, such as mowing or milking, but they also worked together when extra labour was needed, or a member of the opposite gender was lacking.

The South West in this period had a varied economy with fishing on the coast, mining in Cornwall and Somerset, and woollen cloth was produced for international markets in Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire. Farming ranged from cattle and sheep rearing in the uplands of Devon and Cornwall, stock fattening the Somerset Levels, and dairying in east Devon and north-west Wiltshire, to arable farming in the clay vales of Devon and Somerset and sheep-corn farming in the chalk lands of Wiltshire and Hampshire. The researchers say they would expect to see similar findings about the role of women in other parts of England with a similar economy at the time.

Professor Whittle added:  “We need to challenge assumptions. We know women played an important role in housework and care work, but this research shows they also played a significant role in male-dominated activities such as agriculture and transport, as well as commerce, managing finances and food processing.”

Dr Mark Hailwood, from the University of Bristol, a member of the project team, said: “Women’s work was an essential element of the early modern economy, but it was hidden because their roles were often not recorded in official records. Others have assumed unpaid housework and care work for their families left women little time for other work tasks, or that it is possible to guess what women’s work was by looking at men’s occupations.

“We have found that women worked in all areas of the economy; that their work was not dominated by housework and care work; that much of women’s housework and care work was undertaken either for pay or for other households; and that the women’s tasks on family farms were not the same as those undertaken for wage labour on large farms.”

Date: 8 March 2018

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