Women’s Work Across Time and Place, Workshop Report Part Two: Conceptual Foundations for Comparison

We mentioned in the first post that this website is partly the result of a workshop held at the University of Glasgow on the 11th and 12th of September this year called Women’s Work Across Time and Place: Foundations for Comparison in Pre-Census Europe. Last time we presented a summary of the first thematic section of the workshop, and today we turn to the second: conceptual foundations for comparison. This is the starting point for constructing new and better narratives about work, gender and the early modern economy. The first panel of the day focused on definitions of work, formal/informal labour, commerce and space.


Maria Ågren and Alex Shepard started things off with two incisive papers about what counts as work. Maria expanded on the Gender and Work Project’s ground-breaking verb-oriented approach that focuses on tasks rather than occupational identity, and their accompanying definition of work as: ‘time-use for the purpose of making a living’. That definition allows them to study micro-practices. The task of ‘closing the door’ for example, is not ‘work’ if you do it keep a draft out in the evening, but is ‘work’ if closing the doors forms part of a maid servant’s daily tasks last thing at night. Paying attention to these small acts is key to their project, and has offered them a way of making connections horizontally and vertically when they look at the enactment of authority. Alex turned to early modern conceptions of work, suggesting they were not exclusively about occupational identity. Instead early modern people prioritised ‘having’ a living over ‘getting’ a living. Asset and resource management including preserving, protecting and saving household goods, was a form of work and women were the ones who held responsibility for those resources. This may have been changing, but we need more research to determine what a ‘living’ meant to contemporaries over time.


Much of the discussion in this session focused on the words used by historic actors – and on an attempt to access contemporary understandings of ‘work’. In this vein, Amy Erickson offered up a critical analysis of the use of the modern dichotomy between formal and informal labour in a pre-modern setting. According to this dichotomy, women’s work appears as ‘hidden’, ‘shadowed’ and ‘marginal’ despite the fact that the first requirement for economic sufficiency and development has always been food, clothing and health care: oeconomy as it was understood in the early modern period revolved around female figures. Raffaella Sarti agreed that formal/informal were anachronistic terms, and suggested that they should be seen as a spectrum rather than as binary terms. She asked how we could conceptualise the ‘formal’ in terms of education and training, and how we might use concepts of formal and informal labour to understand how people coped with crisis situations.


Adding to the discussion about the need to think cross-culturally, Darlene Abreu-Ferreira shared her research on women’s economic activities in Portugal and what they reveal about early modern commerce. She found that women were deeply imbedded in commercial transactions, even when they did not have designated occupational titles. Family connections and support played an important part in commercial transactions. Parents often guaranteed loans for their children, for example, and married women lent out money earned from trading in Brazil and elsewhere.


Concluding the session, Marla Miller and Allyson Poska led a lively discussion of conceptualisations of space in studies of gender and work. Marla showed us what is gained when we take account of space in studying the workings of gender, generation and race in her case study of Hadley Mass farm. She traced the changes in the architecture of the farm house over time, outlining how attempts to gain privacy and control over space reflected on the relationships between servant and master. Allyson Poska also addressed space at the household level, suggesting that the idea of ‘separate spheres’ still lurks in the background of many studies. In her research on Spain, she found that seasonality, or space in time was as important as the model of separate spheres mapped onto discrete spaces in place, and that women did all kinds of work in all kinds of spaces. These local spaces were directly connected to the global picture, where in a time of trans-Atlantic slavery, ideas about work, race and leisure impacted directly on labour.


The remainder of the workshop focused on the practicalities of conducting research. Part three of the report covering data, data collection and future directions to follow!



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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