The Gender Pay Gap: an (Early) Modern Reality

This post on the value of household accounts as a source documenting the gender pay gap comes from Imogene Dudley, a current doctoral student at the University of Exeter and a member of the Women’s Work in Early Modern England project led by Professor Jane Whittle and funded by the Leverhulme Trust. She has a Master’s degree in Medieval History from St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, and a Bachelor’s degree in History from Swansea University. You can follow her on Twitter: @imogene_dudley

Imogene Dudley (University of Exeter)

Recently, an Australian café made headline news around the world by charging men 18% more in order to reflect the gender pay gap. Whilst many supported this move to open up the conversation about wage inequality, the café and its owner also attracted widespread opposition, with people branding it divisive and illegal. The BBC has also come under fire in recent weeks as it was revealed that its female stars are paid significantly less than their male counterparts. These are just two examples of the gender pay gap which have hit the headlines lately; one would have to live under a rock to have missed the rising visibility of this issue across mainstream and social media in the last several years.

It would come as a surprise to no-one that the gender pay gap is rooted firmly in our historical past. Hopefully, by studying this issue in relation to the past, we can begin to understand its presence in our own times. My doctoral research focuses on women’s work in the south-west of England from 1500 to 1700, looking at household account books to explore the gender division of labour, the effect of the life-cycle on women’s work and (you guessed it) women’s wages. It is an accepted historical fact that there was a gender pay gap in early modern England and it was pervasive at all levels and regions.[1] In their work on early modern women, the historians Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford have stated that “it was an economic axiom that female workers should be paid no more than one-half to two-thirds as much as males for comparable work.”[2]

This reality becomes more personal when looking at a detailed case study.I have transcribed and analysed the household accounts of Dame Philippa Gore from Barrow Gurney, near Bristol, which were kept for the year 1666 and then again from 1686 to 1688.[3] The Gore family were a large employer in the village and their accounts feature wage payments to both men and women, for a variety of tasks. The gender pay gap is evident: the average daily wage for male labourers was one shilling (12d) whilst for women it was approximately half that figure, 6.1d. For example, on 30 June 1666, Jane Councell was paid 2 shillings for 4 days unspecified labour, or 6 pence per day. Two weeks later, on 14 July 1666, Henry Collins was paid 6 shillings for 6 days unspecified labour: in other words, 12d a day, exactly double Jane’s earnings. Notice that the details of Jane and Henry’s labour were not included – the only differences between them are their gender and rate of pay. This is not an isolated example; this discrepancy in wages occurs again and again.

We can see it in another case study, of the Chipley estate near Taunton in Somerset. Its master, Edward Clarke (later MP for Taunton), kept a wages book from 1679 to 1681.[4] In these accounts, the average daily wage for a woman doing an unspecified labour task was 3.06d, whilst the same figure for men was (like the Gore estate) 12d. This is an extremely significant difference. The human face of this: on 4 October 1679, Agnes Weeks was paid a shilling for 4 days work, at a daily rate of 2.5d. Nell Turner was also being paid 2.5d a day, for 6 days work. At the same time, John Gready, Ned Turner and Humphrey Wyatt were all being paid 12d a day. And this is just one payment in a two-year long wages book!

These case studies are just two of hundreds of early modern wage books and account rolls which testify to the existence of a gender pay gap. Naturally, this issue and the explanations for it have generated much scholarship, and the debates deriving from such study are too complex and varied for a single blog post to explore.[5] What this short piece does do is inform and remind us that the gender pay gap has its roots in the historical past, as well as serving to illustrate the human side of the issue in early modern Somerset. If we could make windows into the souls of Jane, Agnes and Nell, what could we find out about their thoughts and opinions regarding the fact that they were paid significantly less than their male friends, family and neighbours? Would they have seen it as an inevitable fact of life or a gross injustice? One wonders whether they would start charging men fifty per cent more than women in the local ale house.




[1] Jane Whittle, ‘Servants in Rural England, c.1450-1650: hired work as a means of accumulating wealth and skills before marriage’ in The Marital Economy in Scandinavia and Britain, 1400 – 1900 ed. by Maria Agren and Amy Louise Erikson (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2005), p.95.

[2] Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford, Women in Early Modern England, 1550 – 1720 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), p.103.

[3] DD/GB/113, Somerset Heritage Centre (Taunton).

[4] DD/SF/3/1/4, Somerset Heritage Centre (Taunton).

[5] For those interested in studying the topic further, some debates and views are outlined in these articles: Joyce Burnette, ‘The Wages and Employment of Female Day-Labourers in English Agriculture, 1740-1850’, Economic History Review, 57 (2004), 675 – 677; Penelope Lane, ‘A Customary or Market Wage? Women and Work in the East Midlands, c.1700 – 1840’ in Penelope Lane, Neil Raven and K. D. M. Snell (eds.), Women, Work and Wages in England, 1600 – 1850 (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2004), pp. 102 – 118; Donald Woodward, ‘The Determination of Wage Rates in the Early Modern North of England’, Economic History Review, 47 (1994), pp. 36 – 8. For the same debate regarding the medieval period, see Sandy Bardsley, ‘Women’s Work Reconsidered: Gender and Wage Differentiation in Late Medieval England’, Past and Present, 165.1 (1999), 3-29; John Hatcher, ‘Debate: Women’s Work Reconsidered: Gender and Wage Differentiation in Late Medieval England’, Past and Present, 173 (2001), 191 – 198; Sandy Bardsley, ‘Reply’, Past and Present, 173 (2001), 199 – 202.






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