Women’s Work Across Time and Place, Workshop Report Part One: Upsetting Macro-narratives

This blog is the result of a workshop held at the University of Glasgow on the 11th and 12th of September 2014 called Women’s Work Across Time and Place: Foundations for Comparison in Pre-Census Europe. Our aim is to provide a space where conversations that were started at that workshop can be continued, where we can share sources and ideas with each other as well as with other interested people, and where definitions of work can be scrutinised and described afresh. Our first posts will report back on that workshop, summarising each session on the themes of upsetting macro-narratives, conceptual foundations for comparison, data collection and future directions.


Part of the remit of the workshop was to assess women’s work across geographical space and to bring together international scholars to discuss how we might be able to pool resources and methodologies to produce genuinely comparative research. Participants had gathered in Glasgow from across Europe from Sweden, Spain, France, Italy, Norway and the Netherlands, as well as from Canada and the US. One conclusion from the workshop was that we would benefit collectively from more regular contact with each other and other scholars of gender and work around the world. Sharing knowledge of our current research and methodological approaches is the first step towards generating comparative research and larger, collaborative projects. This blog is one outcome of those discussions.


During the two days, Alex Shepard continually brought participants back to a question that united the diverse research interests present at the workshop: how do our understandings of ‘work’ differ if we put women at the centre of analysis? The workshop opened with two panels entitled ‘Upsetting macro-narratives’ which began to unpack the narratives we tell about women and about the economy. Participants suggested that by focusing on women’s experience, normative male narratives can be challenged and overlooked aspects of men’s as well as women’s work can be brought to the fore.


Jane Whittle and Jonas Lindström tackled the frameworks of proto-industry and by-employment in an English and Swedish context. Jane Whittle pointed out that while approaches which focus on proto-industry, household economies or the ‘grand narratives’ of women’s work have provided valuable insights, they also have their weaknesses. They tend to obscure the separate occupations of wives, they lack clarity about who performed specific tasks and they make comparison across time difficult. Jonas Lindström, a researcher on the Gender and Work Project at Uppsala University, rejected the use of the terms ‘proto industry’ and ‘by-employment’ as unrecognisable to early modern Swedes. Instead, the Gender and Work Project offered a contemporary Swedish term -‘mångsyssleri’ – to suggests the variety of ways in which individuals – both male and female – made their living in early modern Sweden. It translates (very roughly) as jack-of-all-trades, and it was normative for all members of society to draw on the diverse resources of their agrarian society and perform multiple occupational roles. More detailed studies at this level would undoubtedly help us to build new narratives about men’s and women’s work.


The ‘industrious revolution’ was another of the ‘macro-narratives’ of economic development that came under scrutiny. Danielle van den Heuvel deftly led us through the advantages and disadvantages of this approach to research on gender and work: which she described as both an ‘eye-opener’ and a ‘blind fold’. For her, De Vries’ ‘industrious revolution’ was significant in finally creating a macro-narrative that paid attention to women and the family economy. The focus on consumer desire, however, obscured the many other motives women had for moving into gainful employment, such as supporting young families. Anne Montenach added to this critique, and pointed to the geographical limitations of concepts such as the ‘industrious revolution’. Montenach suggested that research outside north-Atlantic areas would allow us to explore more fully the role of wives in household decision-making.


Contributors to the next panel discussed how we could re-think the fiscal military state and the development of credit and finance, often over-reliant on male economist models which fail to make sense of the experience of work in the pre-industrial period. Margaret Hunt presented a challenge to the notion that the formation of the nation state was a top-down process, arguing that local, individual and family issues were linked to complex processes of change and agency. Marie Lennersand compared Sweden and Russia, making the point that part of the intention of the fiscal-military state was to get more people in gainful employment in order to raise taxes to fund war. As such, the development of the fiscal military state was closely linked to the everyday working patterns of both men and women.


Another key story about the rise of the modern world is that of credit and capitalism. Julie Hardwick reasoned that individual practice was as important to the transition to capitalism as the development of those financial institutions often identified as central to the modernisation of the economy. She drew attention to the practice of borrowing as a form of work that is often ignored in these grand-narratives of economic development, and highlighted how significant women were in networks of credit. Indeed, book-keeping was the most common form of writing that many women did. Pam Sharpe, drawing inventively on the world of work as set down by Beatrix Potter, underscored how integral credit was to early modern life. Women’s work and the financing of production have long been understood as separate issues; Sharpe and Hardwick demonstrated conclusively that such a separation is no longer tenable.


Having sufficiently upset a whole range of macro-narratives, we turned to look at how we might start to build some new ones: part two of the report to come next week!


DISCLAIMER: This post represents Tessa Chynoweth and Catriona Macleod’s recollections of the workshop. Want to add anything/clarify/challenge our summary of the day? Please get in touch and write a post!


Tessa Chynoweth is a postgraduate research student at Queen Mary University of London. Her thesis is entitled Domestic Service and Domestic Space in Eighteenth-Century London. Catriona Macleod is a postgraduate research student at the University of Glasgow. Her thesis is entitled Women, Work and Enterprise in Glasgow, c.1740-1830.


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