The Economic History Review

The gender division of labour in early modern England

Volume 73 Issue 1
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Pages: 3-32Authors: Jane Whittle, Mark Hailwood
Published online: December 9, 2018DOI: 10.1111/ehr.12821

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Abstract This article presents new evidence of gendered work patterns in the pre-industrial economy, providing an overview of women’s work in early modern England. Evidence of 4,300 work tasks undertaken by particular women and men was collected from three types of court documents (coroners’ reports, church court depositions, and quarter sessions examinations) from five counties in south-western England (Cornwall, Devon, Hampshire, Somerset, and Wiltshire) between 1500 and 1700. The findings show that women participated in all the main areas of the economy. However, different patterns of gendered work were identified in different parts of the economy: craft work showed a sharp division of labour and agriculture a flexible division of labour, while differences of gender were less pronounced in everyday commerce. Quantitative evidence of early modern housework and care work in England indicates that such work used less time and was less family-based than is often assumed. Comparisons with gendered work patterns in early modern Germany and Sweden are drawn and show strong similarities to England. In conclusion it is argued that the gender division of labour cannot be explained by a single factor, as different influences were at play in different parts of the economy.