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Journal of Women's History 11.3 (1999) 10-16

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Women and the Household Economy in the Preindustrial Period:
An Assessment of Women, Work, and Family

Barbara A. Hanawalt

In assessing the place of Louise A. Tilly and Joan W. Scott's work on the study of women's contribution to work and family, I propose three broad contexts in which to examine their book. I will look backward to the work of Alice Clark in The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century;I will assess the recent research and writing on women's contribution to the home economy in the medieval period; and I will suggest where current research is taking the questions of women's economic contributions both within the family and outside it. Since it is not the intention of this short piece to be a comprehensive literature review, I regret that I have not been able to include all authors who have recently contributed to the issue. 1

In her 1919 book, Fabian historian Alice Clark explored the questions of women's role in the family economy. She grew up in a Quaker family who believed their sons and daughters should be educated and learn the conditions on the shop floor of the family shoe business. Growing up in a politically liberal household that espoused women's rights, Clark gained an interest in the working conditions of women through the Fabian Women's Group. Like others in the organization, she was interested in the ways the industrial revolution had changed women's role in the family and supported the idea that it had degraded women's importance as coproducers of family well-being and economic viability. Clark's research included careful archival work in guild, company, quarter session, and borough records, and she concluded that before the industrial revolution husband and wife worked together in a cooperative family economy. The chapter "Family and Domestic Industry" outlined complementary and well-defined roles for husband and wife. The wife had control over the production and selling of goods resulting from her industry. Clark pointed out, for example, that women managed the entire dairy industry, keeping cows and goats, milking them, and making and marketing butter and cheese. Similarly, the preindustrial cloth industry (wool, linen, and silk thread) relied on women's spinning. Clark also pointed to the number of ways in which women contributed to the general economy, including housework, child rearing, nursing, and teaching—tasks to which it is admittedly difficult to give a monetary value.

Clark saw the industrial revolution as undermining women's economic and social importance by substituting an individual wage for a family wage. Men dominated the new labor market, encouraging women either [End Page 10] to take lower paying jobs or remain at home. With the husband working for a master instead of himself, the wife was no longer productive in domestic industry. In the past, wives and daughters had worked with their husbands, brothers, and fathers in shops and at home. Rapid increase in wealth encouraged middle- and upper-class women to withdraw from all connection with businesses and crafts. Clark added a feminist argument to the general lament about the ill effects of the industrial revolution.

In many ways, Tilly and Scott retained Clark's outline of the household division of labor by age and sex in the preindustrial period. What they added to the overall picture was the family and demographic information so new and exciting in the 1970s. Where Clark's evidence came from guild records, household books, and the experience of individual women, Tilly and Scott offered a chapter on marriage age, number of illegitimate births, number of single women and men, and the age distribution in villages. They owed much of their evidence to the work of Peter Laslett and others of the Cambridge Group for the Study of Demography and Family History. For their discussion of women's work, however, Tilly and Scott relied on contemporary observations, popular songs, and other nonquantitative materials. Where...