Women, Power and Iron

This post comes from Niina Lehmusjärvi, MA, who is writing her PhD thesis in Cultural History in the University of Turku, Finland. She visited Centre for Gender History in the University of Glasgow in 2016. She is currently funded by a grant from the Emil Aaltonen Foundation.

Niina Lehmusjärvi (University of Turku)

The associations between iron, masculinity, and power are archaic. From Greece to Scandinavia, mythologies represent heroic smiths hammering weapons and building fortune bringing magical artefacts.[i] Up until recently the notions about metal and technology as a male domain have been strong. These associations have possibly gained strength from the relative invisibility of women from the history of the iron industries in Sweden.[ii]

Catharina Elisabeth Kijk, née Grubb. Painting by Lorens Pasch the elder. In Ekman, Karl. Ett gammalt herrgårdsbruks historia. Tykö Bruk 1686–1936. Tykö Bruks Aktiebolag. Helsinki 1937, 161.


Women are not invisible in the histories of iron anymore. Historians Gun Björkman, Svante Norrhem, Veli Pekka Toropainen, and Kerstin Westerlund have written about early modern women who took part in the birth of early modern iron industries in Sweden.[iii] While it has been well known that the early modern Kingdom of Sweden was the biggest iron exporter in Europe during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it is now also known that there has been over three hundred women owning and running iron works and manufactures between the sixteenth and the early nineteenth centuries. Women were most active in this field from 1650’s to 1850’s.[iv]

In order to bring more light into questions of how these women could own iron works and run them, and especially how their work and ownership was related to questions of gender, power and class, I am currently writing my doctoral thesis about two such women. Countess Hedvig Eleonora Stenbock (1664–1729) and merchant Catharina Elisabeth Kijk (1721-1788) ran iron works in South West Finland, at the time part of Kingdom of Sweden.[v] My thesis contributes to the fields of gender and work -studies, but also discusses questions of women’s role in the economics from the point of view of property, power and leadership. As both countess Stenbock and Mrs Kijk belonged to the elite, albeit they had a different social status, the questions of privilege and gender are relevant.

While no detailed accounts or diaries have survived from these women, it is possible, thanks to the keen eye with which the Swedish Crown surveyed the iron industries, to find many documents concerning them.[vi] The archives of the Royal Board of Mines kept in the Swedish National Archives contain detailed protocols where comments of the board members can be found from their regular meetings. The Mining Inspectors sent in insights and evaluations in their reports and surveys about the iron works and the owners’ actions. The iron works owners views are in their letters and petitions, and the Archives of the Steel Producers’ Association reveal how iron works owners were organised. [vii] The National Archives of Finland preserve court documents, deeds and letters of privilege and reports concerning the iron works situated in Finland also from the time it was part of Sweden prior to 1809.[viii]

Countess Hedvig Eleonora Stenbock. Painter unknown. In Ekman, Karl. Ett gammalt herrgårdsbruks historia. Tykö Bruk 1686–1936. Tykö Bruks Aktiebolag. Helsinki 1937, 81.

The legislation affected the visibility of female owners in the documents, since it was the husband that represented the family property even when the iron works were purchased and created together by the spouses. It could even be the case that the iron works were part of her property, since in early modern Sweden married women could own property. But more is known about widowed, rather than married women, who owned and ran iron industries, since they could act independently.[ix] Alongside these documents I am also examining exactly what the legislation said about women’s property and rights, at the same time keeping in mind what Maria Ågren from the University of Uppsala has revealed from the variety and scale of the work and activities of early modern Swedish women.[x] 

The same sort of information and documents about female iron works owners can be found in the Swedish and Finnish archives as for male iron works owners if women were writing in their own name, or if one looks for the documents concerning a specific iron works either from the national or the local archives. In the case of gender and power the administrative documents are more revealing than mere ledgers would be, because they reveal the dynamics and attitudes between iron works owners, the Crown administration, and officials, the owners and sometimes even their family members, the iron works staff, and workers. Documents concerning early modern iron works are a relatively rich source of women’s, owners as well as workers, history.



[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sampo. Accessed November 10th, 2017.

[ii] Westerlund, Kerstin: Kvinnliga Brukspatroner. Tekniska Museet. Stockholm 2004, 208–212.

[iii] Björkman, Gun: Maria Sophia De la Gardie. Kvinna i stormaktstiden. Gyllenstiernska Krapperupstiftelsen. Krapperup 1994; Westerlund 2004; Norrhem, Svante: Ebba Brahe. Makt och kärlek under stormaktstiden. Historiska Media. Lund 2007.

[iv] Hildebrand, Karl Gustaf: Swedish Iron in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Export Industry before the Industrialization. Jernkontorets Bergshistoriska Skriftserie 29. Jernkontoret. Södertälje 1992; Westerlund 2004, 188; Du Rietz, Anita: Kvinnors entreprenörskap under 400 år. Centrum för Näringslivshistoria. Dialogos förlag. Stockholm 2013, 157.

[v] Ekman, Karl. Ett gammalt herrgårdsbruks historia. Tykö Bruk 1686–1936. Tykö Bruks Aktiebolag. Helsinki 1937.

[vi] Hildebrand 1992.

[vii] Swedish National Archives (SNA). Archives of the Royal Board of Mines; SNA. Archives of the Steel Producers’ Association.[viii] The National Archives of Finland (NAF). The Archives of the Board of Mines.

[ix] Westerlund, 2004; Du Rietz 2013, 40–47.

[x] Ågren, Maria: Making a Living, Making a Difference: Gender and work in early modern European society. Oxford University Press. New York 2016.



This post comes from Heleen Wyffels, who is a Ph. D. fellow of the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO) and part of the Research Group for Early Modern History, KU Leuven. Her thesis is entitled: The printer’s widow: gender, family and editorial choices.

Heleen Wyffels, (KU Leuven)

[…] prynted now agayn at Antwerpe, by me wydowe of Christoffel of Endhoven In the yere of oure Lorde. M.CCCCC. and .xxxiiij. […]

At first sight, imprints like these are a dream source for every scholar doing research on early modern women’s work. They contain date and place of publication, and the printer and/or bookseller. In short, they provide information on the production of early modern books which makes it relatively easy to link products to producers. As the example shows, they even regularly mention widows. Catherine was the widow of Christoffel of Ruremund (also known as Christoffel of Endhoven), and published William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament in Antwerp in 1534 and 1535.

Imprints can be a lot of fun too: not every printer wanted to be identifiable, especially not when printing illicit texts or images. They often pretended to be someone else, for example a colleague from another city, or they made something up. Books printed by “Common sense”, “Lucifer”, and “The printing house of the four chatterboxes who came down from the moon” are just a few examples that demonstrate inventive cheekiness and commentary on the printer’s part.[1]


Court record books as a source for early modern agency and work

This post is from Petteri Impola,  a doctoral student and member of Early Modern Morals – a research center at the Department of History and Ethnology, University of Jyväskylä. His thesis-in-progress entitled: “The Agency and Intangible Capital on the Edge of Estate System in Sweden during the Age of Greatness (c 1620–1720)”, examines the connections of agency, work, and estate and social status in 17th century Sweden. The focus of the thesis is on types of agency that were not attached to one single estate status in early modern everyday life, even though estate-based society and the profession privileges associated with it ideally demanded a strict distribution of work.


Petteri Impola (University of Jyväskylä)

Estates formed the foundation of most societies in early modern Europe. In Sweden, for example, it was the four estates that formed the basis of the society: the nobility, the clergy, the burghers, and the peasants. These categories functioned as legal and political hierarchies, but were also essential in the process of distributing work. Most of the privileges employed to regulate work and trade in mercantile societies were based on statuses derived from the estate-based order.

Even if the distribution of work was in general based on estates, certain professions were carried out by individuals belonging to different estates and of different social statuses. Trade, for example, was traditionally the privilege of the burghers but was practiced, though illegally, by agents from all of the estates. There were also forms of agency, like legal representation, which was not privileged to one estate, and every capable man could participate. Moreover, certain groups of people remained outside the formal estate-structure, as is the case with groups such as vagrants and soldiers. Hence, a significant amount of early modern work took place on ‘the edges of the estate-based order’.

Therefore, in my thesis I examine early modern agency not just from the perspective of gender but also by the intersections of estate position and social status. I compare three different (semi-)professions, which cannot be explained through estate-based privileges: cunning folk, self-educated midwives, and legal representatives. Legal representation, for example, was an emerging profession because of the developing legal system, and almost every man with some reading, writing, and legal skills could help others in the courts. There were sons of clergy and burghers, soldiers, clerks and other low-level civil servants and even peasants working as representatives. The skills and reputation of the agents were crucial for their agency, not just their ancestry. Continue reading “Court record books as a source for early modern agency and work”

Using Negatives to Fill in the Gaps: Sources for Early Modern Women’s Work

This post comes from Amy Creighton, who is starting her second year as a PhD student at the University of York. Under the supervision of Dr. Mark Jenner, her research focuses on early modern women’s work and conceptions of skill, physical capacity and labour. In particular, she looks at London and York from c. 1660 to 1750. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in History and French from Seattle University and a Master’s degree in Early Modern History from the University of York. To contact Amy, get in touch on Twitter @amyecreighton

Amy Creighton (University of York)

Researching the gendered-nature of skill and labour in early modern England can often present difficulties in finding source that speak to the experiences of women. In order to better understand the nuances of attitudes towards women’s work, a number of different source-types must be examined using various perspectives. Evidence that details negative aspects of trades or instances of work gone wrong can be used to expand upon and complicate studies of women’s work. One such source is petitions for the dissolution of apprenticeship. Since the time of Adam Smith, debates have raged over how oppressive the apprenticeship system was in early modern times, but recent research has begun to explore the way in which apprentices had some control over their own paths. Patrick Wallis, for example, has shown how petitions of dissolution help uncover the expectations apprentices had of their masters and vice versa.[i] By applying such methods of source analysis to cases of female apprenticeship, I seek to reveal how women in particular formed self-constructed narratives within the economic sphere. The quarter session papers of the City of London and Middlesex hold numerous examples of women investing in their skillsets through petitions.[ii]

Historians have addressed the problem that young girls may have often been used for cheap labour rather than true apprentices. Although this was true in certain instances, the petitions provide examples of how women used the system to learn skills that could benefit the family economy or, sometimes, to help create an individual business. As such, when masters or mistresses failed to instruct and denied necessaries the courts provided opportunities to change the situation. Such cases demonstrate contemporary acknowledgement that women could expect to learn skills similar to the way in which men did, and families sought to prevent girls being taken advantage of as domestic servants or hard labourers.

‘Domestick Employment Washing’, Charles Spooner, c.1750s. Image courtesy of the British Museum.
Continue reading “Using Negatives to Fill in the Gaps: Sources for Early Modern Women’s Work”

Approaching Public Engagement: Sharing Early Modern Women in a ‘Plus One’ World

This post comes from Gina G. Bennett, a fourth year doctoral student of Transatlantic History at The University of Texas at Arlington. Her dissertation, under the direction of Dr. Kenyon Zimmer, will focus on the influence of women and the degree to which they participated as migrators, producers, labourers, and investors for The Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies in the transatlantic world in the early modern era. She holds both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in History from Texas A & M – Commerce.  Follow her on WordPress: GinaGBennett.com or Twitter: @GinaGBennett


Gina G. Bennet (The University of Texas at Arlington)

Like many readers of the Gender and Work in Early Modern Europe blog, we each are occasionally called to step beyond conferences, lecture halls, and speak outside academia. Often these events take place at a museum or civic building and often include a meal.  People of two sorts are in attendance, the ones choosing to attend and the extra person who comes along as a favor to the first.  This unsuspecting person, a “plus one” on the RSVP card, is possibly less than eager to attend.  Let us call this place where they gather together a  “plus one” space.   Here, history is learned in a more casual way.  There is a reward in winning over the plus ones in this group.  I always jump at the chance to share my research on seventeenth-century Scottish women operating within the transatlantic world with anyone.  But I must admit that sometimes the occasion is a mixture of three parts elation and one part fear.  So let me share with you a compilation of questions that have surfaced from time to time after various presentations of Scotland’s transatlantic colonial venture in a plus one setting described above.

It generally goes something like this: first, after I explain how Scotland attempted to set up a colony in Panama in the 1690s the audience usually are surprised that a Scottish colony was attempted at all.  Mind you, I am an American living in the Southwest so the general knowledge of Scottish history is sparse and often based on geographic archetypical stereotypes. Secondly, someone usually asks, “Why Panama?” Here I can briefly touch on the history of Nova Scotia, sundry navigation acts, throne changes in the seventeenth century, and the overarching drive for status, goods, and revenue related to colonization.  Audiences seem most fascinated by the details of the individual Scottish women that I study, many of whom are central actors in my dissertation research.  They ask questions about these women’s lives and the listener’s faces reflect the intermingling of this new information meshing with their own understanding of early modern life.

Finally, a plus one, perhaps more cynical than the rest, raises their hand to ask, (get ready for that fear part, I mentioned earlier…) “Didn’t these women just take their husband’s money and invest it under their own name?”  Continue reading “Approaching Public Engagement: Sharing Early Modern Women in a ‘Plus One’ World”

How to define and understand early modern work?

This post on defining work comes from Jezzica Israelsson, a doctoral student at Uppsala University, where she is a member of the Gender and Work project. Her thesis analyzes descriptions of work in petitions to certain regional administrations in Sweden between ca. 1760 to 1880, in order to find out what role work played when people sent in these letters and what meanings they ascribed to work in their struggle to protect their rights.

Jezzica Israelsson (Uppsala University)

In today’s society, the concept of work is strongly connected to productive and remunerated activities, often performed outside of the home.[1] In early modern times however, there were no clear boundaries between either home and work or leisure and work. Many things people did for their sustenance were not paid, and if they were it was often in kind or through lodging and food.[2] Recent research has also shown that men and women rarely had one occupation, but engaged in many different tasks to make a living.[3] In addition, society was characterized by some living off the returns of their property and others by their manual labour.[4]

First page of Anna Nilsdotter's letter
Anna Nilsdotter’s letter, 1734, Uppsala landsarkiv (See note 5 below)

These complexities make it clear that delineating what constituted early modern work can be quite problematic. In this post I will highlight two situations where these difficulties are illustrated and what consequences different definitions might have. The examples are taken from the sources I am working on within my thesis project: petitions to regional administrations in Sweden.


Continue reading “How to define and understand early modern work?”

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. Continue reading “The Gender Pay Gap: an (Early) Modern Reality”