The gender division of labour in early modern England: why study women’s work?

February 19, 2019 | Blog
Home > The gender division of labour in early modern England: why study women’s work?

by Jane Whittle (University of Exeter) and Mark Hailwood (University of Bristol)

This article is published by The Economic History Review, and it is available on the EHS website.


Interior with an Old Woman at the Spinning Wheel. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Here are ten reasons to know more about women’s work and read our article on ‘The gender division of labour in early modern England’. We have collected evidence about work tasks in order to quantify the differences between women’s and men’s work in the period from 1500-1700. This research allows us to dispel some common misconceptions.


  1. Men did most of the work didn’t they? This is unlikely, when both paid and unpaid work are counted, modern time-use studies show that women do the majority of work – 55% of rural areas of developing countries and 51% in modern industrial countries (UN Human Development report 1995). There is no reason why the pattern would have been markedly different in preindustrial England.
  2. But we know about occupational structure in the past don’t we? Documents from the medieval period onwards describe men by their occupations, but women by their marital status. As a result we know quite a lot about male occupations but very little about women’s.
  3. But women worked in households headed by their father, husband or employer. Surely, if we know what these men did, then we know what women were doing too? Recent research undertaken by Amy Erickson, Alex Shepard and Jane Whittle shows that married women often had different occupations from their husbands. If we do not know what women did, we are missing an important part of the economy.
  4. But we have evidence of women working for wages. It shows that around 20% of agricultural workers were women, surely this demonstrates that women’s work wasn’t as important as men’s in the wider economy? This evidence only relates to labourers paid by the day, and before 1700 most agricultural labour was not carried out by day labourers, so this isn’t a very good measure. Our article shows that women carried out a third of agricultural work tasks, not 20%.
  5. But women mostly did domestic stuff – cooking, housework and childcare – didn’t they, and that type of work doesn’t change much across history? Women did do most cooking, housework and childcare, but our research suggests it did not take up the majority of their working time. These forms of work did change markedly over time. A third of early modern housework took place outside, and our data suggests the majority was done for other households, not as unpaid work for one’s own family.
  6. But women only worked in a narrow range occupations, didn’t they? Our research shows that women worked in all the major sectors of the economy, but often doing slightly different tasks from men. They undertook a third of work tasks in agriculture, around half of the work in everyday commerce and almost two thirds of work tasks in textile production. But women also did forms of work we might not expect, such as shearing sheep, dealing in second-hand iron, and droving cattle.
  7. Women’s work was all low skilled wasn’t it? Women very rarely benefitted from formal apprenticeship in the way that men did, but that does not mean the tasks they undertook were unskilled. Women undertook many tasks, such as making lace and providing medical care, which required a great deal of skill.
  8. But this was all in the past, what relevance does it have now? Many gendered patterns of work are remarkably persistent over time. Analysis by the Office of National Statistics states that one third of the gender pay gap in modern Britain can be explained by men and women working in different occupations, and by the lower rates of pay for part-time work, which is more commonly undertaken by women than men.
  9. So nothing ever changes …? Well, not necessarily. In fact looking carefully at patterns of women’s work in the past shows some noticeably shifts over time. For instance, women worked as tailors and weavers in the medieval period and in the eighteenth century, but not in the sixteenth century.
  10. But we know why women work differently from men, particularly in preindustrial societies – isn’t it because they are less physically strong and all the child-bearing stuff? Physical strength does not explain why women did some physically taxing forms of work and not others (why they walked for miles carrying heavy loads on their heads rather than driving carts). And not all women were married or had children. Neither physical strength nor child-bearing can explain why women were excluded from tailoring between 1500 and 1650, but worked successfully and skilfully in this and other closely related crafts in other periods.

We now have data which allows us to look more carefully at these issues, but there is still much more to uncover.


To contact Jane Whittle:, Twitter: @jcwhittle1

To contact Mark Hailwood:, Twitter: @mark_hailwood