Men’s Work: A Comment by Jonas Lindström on Tawny Paul’s, ‘What’s in a name? Men, work and occupational identity’

The evidence collected by the Swedish Gender and Work project supports Tawny Paul’s point about men’s work. It certainly deserves the same kind of detailed analysis as women’s work.

The verb-oriented approach, which uses descriptions of activities instead of occupational titles as the key source to how people in the past made their living, was initially developed in order to tackle the very same problems that Dr Paul describes: few women had occupational titles and common designators such as ‘labourer’ and ‘tenant’ are vague. Very soon, however, the collection of verb-phrases made it obvious that people who did have occupational titles made their living in more ways than their title suggests. We also find tailors who were engaged in retailing, as well as shoemakers who sold beer, a hat-maker who delivered a clock on behalf of someone else and a goldsmith who cut down trees, to name a few examples. Again, this is impressionistic evidence, but it urges us to do more empirical work on what people actually did. Moreover, and more substantially, it calls for a theoretical understanding of early modern life that does not reduce work to occupation.

In the Gender and Work project, we have avoided the terms ‘main occupation’ and ‘by-employment’. Instead, we have used the Swedish word mångsyssleri (literally, ‘many task’), which can be translated into English ‘multi employments’ or ‘pluri-activity’. In other parts of Europe, historians talk about pluriactivité (French), pluriattività (Italian) and Mehrfachtätigkeit (German). All these terms stress the fact that early modern people made their living in a number of ways. This diversity was neither exceptional – characteristic only of the economy of the poor, for example – nor anything that came with proto-industrialization, the industrious revolution or the like, but the typical way of making a living throughout the early modern period. The diversity of livelihood applies to households as well as to the everyday pursuit of both women and men, regardless of occupational or other social labels.

The under-registration of women’s work is an all too familiar problem to the gender historian. Much painstaking and much valuable research has been devoted to adding female occupations to the male occupational structure. But we need, also, to take seriously the question of how much of men’s work is hidden in the official records. This would be to go the other way around and start from the assumed experience of women in order to analyse the working life of men. For instance, much female work has been described as auxiliary and intermittent. So was the work of many men too. Such an approach would probably result not only in a more nuanced understanding of men’s economic activities, but in a more dynamic vision of the early modern economy as well as of gender identities of both women and men.

 

Dr Jonas Lindström is deputy coordinator of the Gender and Work database at Uppsala University. His research interests include peasant society, resource distribution, geographical and social mobility, household structure and labour. His current research concerns survival strategies of landless and semi-landless families in seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Sweden.

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