A Transatlantic Gap

A gap the size of the Atlantic Ocean divides the literature on early modern women and work. On the one side, scholars of European women are increasingly engaged in the debates on industrialization and economic development, focusing on the role of women’s work in the economic changes leading up to the Industrial Revolution. On the other side of the ocean, scholars of women in the Americas, deeply engaged with the scholarship on race and imperialism, are fine-tuning their understanding of the impact of slave economies mostly on non-white women outside of Europe. With very different historiographic trajectories, these two groups of scholars rarely find common intellectual ground. The dramatic difference in approach was particularly evident to me, a scholar of the Iberian Atlantic, when I attended the conference on women and work in Glasgow in September 2014. I was astonished to listen to scholar after scholar discuss women’s work in early modern Europe without reference to early modern imperial expansion and/or transatlantic slavery.

It is important to conceptualize changes in women’s work and economic status in the context of broader transatlantic (and even global) transformations.[1] During the early modern period, the Atlantic economy connected and expanded markets in Europe, Africa, and the Americas and transformed labor systems with the rapid expansion of African slavery. In this blogpost, I want to provide just an introductory discussion of some of the ways that the creation of the Atlantic economy reconfigured European women’s work.

At the most basic level, Atlantic expansion created an extensive supply-focused economy in Europe. It is certainly possible that these industries provided work directly to women, as Gordon DesBrisay has shown with the Aberdeen textile industry.[2] However, even if those industries primarily employed men, as may have been true with the Irish salt beef industry, which prepared food for consumption by slaves in the Americas, the increase in male employment created other opportunities for women.[3] Across Europe, women retailers supplied food, clothing, and other necessities to the growing numbers of European men engaged in different aspects of the transatlantic trade.

The transatlantic economy also influenced the goods with which women worked. For instance, Eddy Stoll has noted that European women used sugar, produced almost entirely by slaves in the Americas, to expand the small-scale retail production of jams, jellies, and candies.[4] In Portugal, the expansion of the slave trade was followed by an increase in the popularity of tobacco. In the late seventeenth century, when the Crown created a state tobacco monopoly, women controlled at least seven of the official tobacco outlets and many other women ran tobacco shops.[5]

Moreover, the Atlantic economy did not just affect women’s work in the major imperial powers (Spain, Portugal, France, and England). With the expansion of international trade, women in Italy, the German-speaking lands, and Scandinavia experienced the ripple effect of changes in production and consumption. Sweden provided iron for Britain’s Atlantic empire.[6] German linen, exported by the English, clothed slaves and poor whites in its American colonies.[7] Swedish iron, Italian beads, and German linens were re-exported by England to Africa as a part of the slave trade.[8] Again, whether or not women were directly involved in the production of these items, their economic circumstances and working lives were inevitably affected by the economic changes that accompanied the development of those sectors.

These are just a few basic ways that European women’s work was implicated in the expansion of the Atlantic economy. Further research will, no doubt, reveal even other connections between imperial expansion, slavery, and European women.


Allyson M. Poska

University of Mary Washington

Fredericksburg, VA USA


Allyson M. Poska is Professor of History at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  She is a specialist in early modern Spain, colonial Latin America, and early modern women’s history.


[1] Susan Amussen and I have begun this discussion in two different articles, Susan A. Amussen and Allyson M. Poska, “Restoring Miranda: Gender and the Limits of European Patriarchy in the Early Modern Atlantic World,” Journal of Global History 7:3 (November 2012): 342-363 and “Shifting the Frame: Trans-imperial Approaches to Gender in the Atlantic World,” Early Modern Women: An Interdisciplinary Journal 9:1(October 2014): 3-23.

[2] Gordon DesBrisay, “Aberdeen and the Dutch Atlantic: Women and Woollens in the Seventeenth-Century,” in Women in Port: Gendering Communities, Economies, and Social Networks in Atlantic Port Cities, 1500-1800, ed. Doug Catterall and Jodi Campbell (Leiden: Brill, 2012): 69-102.

[3] Bertie Mandelblatt, “A Transatlantic Commodity: Irish Salt Beef in the French Atlantic World,” History Workshop Journal 63:1 (2007):18-47.

[4] Eddy Stoll, “The Expansion of the Sugar Market in Western Europe,” in Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450-1680 ed. Stuart B. Schwartz (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 240.

[5] Carl A. Hanson, Economy and Society in Baroque Portugal, 1668-1703 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981), 59.

[6]  Chris Evans and Göran Rydén, Baltic Iron in the Atlantic World in the Eighteenth Century (Leiden: Brill, 2007).

[7] Margrit Schulte Beerbühl, The Forgotten Majority: German Merchants in London, Naturalization, and Global Trade 1660-1815 trans. Cynthia Klohr (London: Berghahn Books, 2015), 35.

[8] Kenneth Morgan, Slavery, Atlantic Trade and the British Economy, 1660-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 23.








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