René Kuczynski Prize 2004
awarded to Sheilagh Ogilvie, Reader in Economic History at the University of Cambridge, for her book:
A Bitter Living. Women, Markets, and Social Capital in Early Modern Germany
Oxford University Press 2003. ISBN 0198205546, 420 pages
Sheilagh Ogilvie’s topical contribution to female work and occupational activities of women in early modern Europe has been awarded with the René Kuczynski Prize 2004. The study “A Bitter Living. Women, Markets, and Social Capital in Early Modern Germany” has a extraordinary dense empirical basis which systematically exploits and compiles an impressive quantity of information concerning female work from both qualitative and quantitative scources. The nucleus of the work is a case study about the proto-industrialized region of the Southern Black Forest, but her statement of the problem and discussion of the results provides a valid contribution to the global discussion of female work in early modern Europe. In addition to this the book also deals with several general questions of proto-modern economic history, among them the rerlationship between (global and local) markets to “non-market-institutions” like state, commune, guild, etc.
born October 7th, 1958 in Calgary, Canada; since 1999 Reader in Economic History, Faculty of Economics, University of Cambridge, UK.
Among her numerous publications is the study “State corporatism and Proto-Industry. The Württemberg Black Forest, 1580-1797” (Cambridge 1997). Ogilvie plays an important role as editor of readers and anthologies on German economic and social history in English language.
On June 6th 2005 Sheilagh Ogilvie held a lecture at the University of Vienna concerning the topic of the awarded book. Sheilagh Ogilvie was presented by Claudia Ulbrich (Berlin).
The awarding ceremony of the Association for Awarding the René Kuczynski Prize was co-organized by ITH, Institute for Economic and Social History at the University of Vienna and Ludwig Boltzmann-Institut
für Historische Sozialwissenschaft.
Prize Lecture by Sheilagh Ogilvie
It is a great honour and pleasure to give this lecture on the occasion of the award of the René Kuczynski Prize to my book, A Bitter Living. René Kuczynski’s seminal work on demographic concepts and statistics is deeply respected in both Britain and North America, not least at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure where I received my doctoral training. René Kuczynski’s research on the history of labour in Europe and America is likewise admired by labour historians in the English-speaking world. For these reasons, the award of the Kuczynski Prize to an English book of labour history and historical demography is an especial honour and compliment. Above all, I am pleased that the Jury for the Prize have distinguished A Bitter Living, a book about women’s labour and women’s demographic decisions, which I hope will help broaden our understanding of women’s central role in economic development and the social constraints upon it.
A Bitter Living uses the methodology of micro-history. It tests general theories about issues of fundamental interest – in this case, the nature and determinants of women’s position in pre-modern societies – using quantitative and qualitative evidence concerning the micro-level decisions taken by women and men within the framework of a particular society. As a basis, therefore, for considering general questions of women’s economic position, let us start at the micro-level – the work choices of a handful of specific women in the remote district of Wildberg in the Württemberg Black Forest in the early modern period.
In 1605, the independent unmarried Judita Müller from Rotfelden, a hamlet in the Württemberg Black Forest, was earning wages from a weaver in the next village by carrying heavy loads of raw wool and yarn to be dyed in a small town three hours away. In 1609, the 51-year-old married Catharina Laur from Altbulach was walking daily to the neighbouring Seitzental to work as an agricultural labourer. In 1674, Martin Bürckhlin’s maidservant in Wildberg was earning her wages by shearing sheep on the riverside commons. In 1685, the daughter of the Wildberg weaver Michel Kugel was sexually harassed while housekeeping and wage-spinning for the weaver next door. In 1696, the Durlach soldier’s widow Katharina Keller was earning day-wages as a seamstress until she was hired by a widower as a live-in housekeeper. In 1720, the pregnant Anna Maria Lodholz in Ebhausen was supporting her family by free-lance spinning because her husband had ‘earned nothing the entire winter long’. In 1753, the maidservant Anna Catharina Bachmann was operating the Ebhausen mill for customers at night-time while her master and mistress slept. In 1782, the 44-year-old Maria Catharina Kuhlen in Calw was described as ‘an established unmarried laundress’ who had worked up a business with her married sister and 19-year-old niece washing other families’ linen for wages.
Pre-industrial women such as these appear again and again in local documents working in labour markets. They were women of all sorts – not just maidservants and independent spinsters, who might be expected to sell their labour in the market, but daughters, wives, and widows who could have worked within the family economy instead. They earned wages not just at light domestic work such as sewing, housekeeping, and spinning, but at heavy tasks such as field-labour, carrying burdens, shearing, and milling. They were involved in the market not just as quasi-familial servants, but as independent labourers, free-lance spinners and seamstresses, and self-employed laundresses.
Yet we know very little about this market work by women – how much they worked, what sectors they worked in, and the factors that encouraged or discouraged it. Much of what has been believed about the labour of pre-industrial women is based on theoretical assumptions which have not been systematically confronted with reliable empirical findings. Today I want to use the findings in my book, A Bitter Living, to fill this gap. First it is important to look at competing theories of women’s work patterns. Then these theories have to be confronted with the facts – in this case, an exceptionally detailed database of gendered work patterns compiled for a region of pre-industrial Germany. It emerges that female labour market participation was remarkably high – here, as in much of pre-industrial central and western Europe. But it was concentrated in a very narrow range of sectors. Why was this? Answering this question helps us decide between different theories about women’s work. It also has important implications for our wider understanding of the pre-industrial European economy.
2. Theories of Women’s Labour Market Participation
At first sight, there seem to be dozens if not hundreds of different theories explaining women’s economic position – almost more than there are facts to test them with. But on closer examination, they fall into three main groups: technological, cultural, and institutional.
‘Technological’ theories regard women’s work as being determined by their physical endowments. Since women differ from men in being able to bear and breastfeed children, and in having less upper-body strength, this approach predicts that women will either remain outside labour markets altogether or specialize in particular types of market work – in domestic activities easily combinable with child care, in forms of work requiring less upper-body exertion, and in tasks requiring fewer occupation-specific skills (since childbearing interruptions reduce the yield of investing in such skills).
‘Cultural’ approaches reject such deterministic attention to the physical facts of the external world, and attribute women’s work patterns to people’s inward acceptance of particular cultural norms governing marriage, household structure, sexuality, illegitimacy, inheritance, education, female autonomy, and demarcations between men’s and women’s work. One influential example of the cultural approach is that strand of feminist historiography which attribute’s women’s limited labour market participation to the ideology of ‘patriarchy’. But there are many others: women’s work is supposed to have been influenced by Protestantism, guild ideology, the Enlightenment, and many other cultural beliefs.
‘Institutional’ approaches, by contrast, seek to explain women’s work patterns in terms of the way human beings organize their societies. Institutional structures such as feudal and manorial institutions, local communities, guilds, and the state have all been identified as social arrangements that significantly affected pre-industrial European women’s work. The most influential variant of this ‘institutional’ approach, however, is a ‘pessimist’ view that women’s labour market participation was systematically diminished during the early modern period because the traditional institutions surrounding the ‘family economy’ (communities, guilds, manorial systems) were replaced by a single ‘modern’ institution, the market, which separated household from workplace and incarcerated women in the domestic sphere.
These three approaches rely mainly on theoretical assumptions, and need to be tested empirically. But it is difficult to address them satisfactorily through traditional macro-level ‘syntheses’ bringing together scattered information on pre-industrial women’s work from a wide array of different societies and time-periods. Such studies show that there was a broad spectrum of possibilities for pre-industrial women. But they exclude much relevant information about the underlying structures and processes that generated each possible pattern. To understand what factors determined where on the spectrum women ended up in a particular society, we need to analyse women’s work in the context of their entire social and economic framework.
Studying the entire social framework, even solely as it relates to women’s work, is impossible for a continent or even a state, but it can be done for a small region. So A Bitter Living focuses on a particular region, the Württemberg Black Forest. Naturally one asks how representative this area was of other early modern German or European regions. But the same problems of typicality arise in general overviews: if one women in an early-eighteenth-century Westphalian village is mentioned as weaving for the market while her husband did the housework, does this mean that this was typical (or even feasible) for all women in her village, for women in that village at all periods, for women everywhere in eighteenth-century Westphalia, for women in all proto-industrial regions, or for women throughout early modern Europe? Here is where a detailed awareness of the social framework is essential: to what extent were the factors that determined women’s options in this region also present in other societies and periods? The micro-study thus refers back to the ‘synthesis’, gaining from it a sense of typicality while providing it with depth and differentiation. While making no claim to solve all the inescapable empirical problems of studying women’s work in pre-industrial economies, my book illustrates how micro-level analysis can advance our understanding of aspects of women’s experience that are of central importance, but have hitherto proved elusive.
3. The Württemberg Black Forest
Why choose the Württemberg Black Forest? One reason is its early and enduring experience of dense, rural, export-oriented ‘proto-industry’. From about 1560 to 1800, its inhabitants specialized in producing vast numbers of cheap worsted cloths (‘Zeuge’) which they exported all over central, eastern and southern Europe. In the most densely proto-industrial communities, 40 per cent of households depended on worsted-weaving, and 80 per cent of widows and unmarried girls worked as spinners. ‘Pessimist’ theorists argue that proto-industry harmed women by replacing the ‘family economy’ by a ‘market economy’, while theorists of ‘proto-industrialization’ claim that proto-industry benefited women by breaking down the traditional division of labour within the household. The Württemberg Black Forest provides a good framework for testing these theories empirically – how did this major aspect of early modern economic development actually affect women?
But although proto-industry played an important role, the Württemberg Black Forest – like many other regions of early modern central Europe – had a highly diversified economy. About one-fifth of households relied wholly or partly on worsted-weaving. But agriculture remained more important, with over half of all households at least partly dependent on farming their own land. One-quarter of households lived at least partly from traditional, local-oriented crafts, and one-fifth depended on day-labouring. Unguilded textile work – primarily spinning, but also seamstressing, knitting, and lace-making – was pursued by more than one household in ten, and also supported the vast majority of independent unmarried females – the so-called ‘Eigenbrötlerinnen’ whom we will investigate later. This diversified economic structure makes it possible to compare gender-specific work patterns across a wide range of sectors.
Württemberg also offers an excellent framework for exploring how women’s work is affected by different social institutions. Like many other European economies, by 1600 Württemberg was already quite market-oriented. Weavers exported their wares throughout Europe and imported raw materials in bulk from outside the region. Grain and other foodstuffs were widely sold to provision townspeople, proto-industrial villagers, landless labourers, and the rural land-poor. Labour markets encompassed servants, day-labourers, spinners, and a whole array of miscellaneous workers. Land changed hands between kin and non-kin at a rapid rate. On rural credit markets, borrowers offered mortgages, collateral, and interest-payments to a wide array of lenders.
On the other hand, in Württemberg all these market transactions were circumscribed by powerful non-market institutions. Two of them in particular – guilds and local communities – were much stronger here than, for instance, in the Netherlands, England, Scotland, or France. The villages and tiny towns of rural Württemberg exercised intense surveillance and regulation over citizenship, settlement, marriage, mobility, inheritance, markets, residence, sexuality, education, diligence, leisure, and consumption. So Württemberg provides a good context for examining women’s position in an economy characterized by strong community institutions. Guilds, too, were powerful, regulating town and countryside alike, and governing not just traditional crafts but proto-industries, shop-keeping, merchant-trading, and a vast array of other occupations. The region thus provides an excellent context for assessing the impact on women of the guild-like associations that dominated most of the trade and industry of early modern central Europe.
4. Female Labour Market Participation Rates
We have set the stage. It is now time for the actors to appear. When we observe the women of early modern Württemberg, how many of them are working in the labour force and what kind of things are they doing? The first thing to do is look at the labour force. Detailed community censuses, listing all members of each community by name and age, make it possible to examine the female ‘working population’, defined as those aged 15 and over. When we do this, we discover that it can’t be true that marriage and childbearing determined the work of pre-industrial women. In Württemberg around 1700, less than half of all adult women were married. About 20 per cent were daughters living at home with their parents, 12 per cent were independent ‘Hausgenossinnen’ lodging with non-relatives, 8 per cent were servants, 8 per cent were widows heading their own households, and 2 per cent were living with relatives outside the nuclear family.
Combining these censuses with other documents, we can make good estimates of female labour force participation. Among servants, 100 per cent were by definition in the labour force. Among female household heads, lodgers, and co-resident kin, a detailed ‘soul-table’ shows that 87-88 per cent were participating in the labour market, whether in farming, day-labouring, spinning, crafts, or proto-industrial weaving. Applying these percentages to the composition of the female labour force, we find that – considering only servants, working household heads, working lodgers, and working kin – a minimum of 27 per cent of the female working population were definitely supplying their labour on the market.
This assumes that the labour force participation rates of daughters and wives were zero. But a whole variety of documentary sources casts doubt on this. Daughters may have been dwelling with their parents, but they were often working on the market. In 1662, for instance, a Wildberg potter’s 15-year-old daughter was walking across country with two other teenage girls to work as agricultural labourers in a different village. In 1764, an Ebhausen baker’s daughter was described as ordinarily sleeping at home but just now ‘mostly staying overnight in Michael Dengler’s house, where she was spinning day and night’.
Likewise, married women worked not just in the family but also in the market. In the 1736 soul-table, several households recorded separate livelihoods for husband and wife. Thus Jacob Göttisheimb’s household in Wildberg lived from ‘worsted-weaving craft by the man, spinning and begging by the wife’. Jacob Schülin’s household in Gültlingen lived from ‘waggoner’s craft and the wife’s midwifery service’. Married women worked as agricultural labourers, as in 1662, when a Wildberg smith’s wife was working as a labourer for a farmer who ‘paid her a half-Batzen and offered her another 3 Kreuzer, making it up to half the day-wage, if only she would let him reach under her skirt’. Married women worked as spinners, as in 1769, when a Wöllhausen worsted-weaver complained that his wife ‘spins wool for strangers, even though she has her own to spin’. And wives sold sewing, nursing, childcare, and laundry services for wages, as in 1782, when a 49-year-old married woman was ‘keeping a paid laundry’ which employed two female relatives and had such a volume of business that she required customers to mark their linen with initials to prevent confusion.
So we have 27 per cent of the female working population who were certainly supplying their labour to the market as servants, independent lodgers, non-nuclear relatives, or household heads. To this, we must add estimates for the number of wives and daughters who were living with their families but working in markets. Even adopting the very conservative estimate that only 20 per cent of all daughters and wives were doing market work brings female labour market participation up to 41 per cent. In fact, it may have been much higher. One study of London church court depositions between 1695 and 1725 found that 60 per cent of married women and 83 per cent of unmarried daughters were participating in the labour market. Applying these London rates to Württemberg wives and daughters yields a total female labour force participation rate of 74 per cent. Given that the labour force participation of widows – at 87-88 per cent – is nearly identical between Württemberg and London, we might tend toward this higher estimate. But even the most conservative assumption – that only 20 per cent of daughters and wives did market work – yields a female labour force participation rate nearly equal to that for Germany and Austria nowadays (40-42 per cent) and significantly higher than for Latin America and the Caribbean (35 per cent), South Asia (33 per cent), or the Middle East and North Africa (27 per cent).
5. The Composition of Women’s Market Work
The labour force participation of women in early modern central and western Europe was evidently substantial, even by modern standards. Can we conclude from this that women were able to participate fully in all labour markets in pre-industrial Europe? Here, some scepticism is in order. The female labour market participation rate may have been high, but its composition tells a rather different tale.
Women’s work is poorly recorded even in modern economies, so we cannot expect any single source to be a wholly reliable guide to it. In my book, I use three different sources whose different strengths partly compensate for each other’s weaknesses. First, I use a 1736 ‘soul-table’ which permits quantitative analysis of the work of widows and deserted wives, independent unmarried females, and even some married women. Second, I use account-books, petitions, and court-records which give a qualitative sense of the richness and range of the labour markets in which women took part. The third source is a database of 2,828 observations of individuals working, which I extracted from more than 7,000 pages of church court minutes from two Württemberg communities for the period 1646-1800. Taken together, these three sources show with astonishing consistency that women’s labour market participation was narrowly limited to three main activities: service as a maid, unguilded textile work, and day-labouring.
The main labour market option for younger women in the Württemberg Black Forest was servanthood. The database of work observations from the church court records shows female servants mainly carrying out farm-work (40 per cent of their observed activities), housework (18 per cent), personal care (14 per cent), and errands (14 per cent). They were almost never found working in guilded activities, commerce, or labouring (except, of course, in farm-work for their masters). Service was primarily for younger women: about 20 per cent of females between the ages of 15 and 30 chose this form of labour market participation. However, maidservants made up only about 8 per cent of the total female working population, significantly lower than the 12 per cent observed in England, the Netherlands, or France. This was probably for two reasons: community-imposed wage ceilings kept female servants’ wages very low (about 40 per cent, compared to the 60-70 per cent normal for England); and legal codes subjected maidservants to close surveillance and discipline by their masters.
These constraints on maidservants meant that after about age 28 many women moved into independent work as spinners or labourers. In the proto-industrial Black Forest, spinning was by far the most important occupation for women, employing 86 per cent of independent unmarried females in 1736 and 60 per cent of widows and deserted wives. Spinning paid very poorly – mainly because of piece-rate ceilings imposed by guilds of weavers and merchants and enforced by local communities. So about one in six spinners also depended on poor relief or begging. But at least spinning enabled unmarried women to live independently rather than being forced to serve masters who would constrain their work, leisure, courtship and consumption choices.
The third major labour market option for women was day-labouring. This was less important in proto-industrial communities, where only 10 per cent of widows and independent women were labourers because there was so much demand for their spinning. But in non-proto-industrial communities, 40-50 per cent of such women worked as labourers. Most of this female day-labouring was in agriculture: qualitative sources record women being paid wages for mowing grass and hay, cutting grain, carrying agricultural burdens, and even ploughing. Women also earned wages at a remarkable array of non-agricultural activities including housework, errands, child-care, nursing, transporting yarn and cloth, and collecting industrial raw materials such as rags for paper.
But outside these three main sectors – servanthood, spinning, and labouring – female labour market participation was almost non-existent. Women in the Württemberg Black Forest did very little work in the craft or proto-industrial sectors outside spinning, seamstressing, carrying burdens, and running errands. They seldom worked in commerce, as merchants, shop owners, shop assistants, or peddlers. They did not work as schoolmistresses, doctors, lawyers, or clerks. Many of the sedentary activities in which modern women now make up a majority of the labour force were in this pre-industrial society reserved wholly for men. Why was this?
6. Technological Explanations of Women’s Labour Market Participation
A Bitter Living doesn’t just ask what work women did. It also asks why. And its detailed, micro-level approach is well suited to testing whether the limitations on women’s work were primarily technological, institutional, or cultural.
For one thing, micro-level data enables us to test out technological theories claiming that reproductive roles and upper-body weakness cause women to specialize in work spatially located in the dwelling and requiring little strength and skill.
A Bitter Living uses its unique database to analyse the spatial locations in which women worked, compared to men. The findings are astonishing. Among the 2,828 work observations in the church court database, less than half of all observed work by females was inside the house, hardly greater than the proportion for men. Unmarried females actually worked significantly less in domestic locations than married males. Even mothers with small children often worked away from home. To give just one example, in 1724 an Ebhausen widow was regularly walking overnight with loads of worsteds to sell in a nearby town, leaving her children in the care of a female relative. The spatial pattern of women’s work therefore suggests it was affected only very mildly by technological factors.
What about women’s physical weakness? Did women exclusively do light work? The physical demands of different pre-industrial tasks are difficult to measure and compare, which means that women’s lesser average upper-body strength and its effect on work patterns cannot be assessed quantitatively. But there is rich qualitative evidence showing women doing heavy farm work, toiling as day-labourers, and running errands with heavy burdens. Physical strength was valued in a maidservant, increased a young woman’s employment chances, and made her sexually attractive to men, thereby creating incentives for her to become and remain as strong as possible. In 1658, for instance, a village officer made unwelcome sexual advances to a young shepherdess, saying to her that ‘he would like to sleep with her, she was so pretty and strong’. Male guild masters reserved sedentary craftwork for themselves while hiring poor women to carry heavy burdens of raw materials and output to and from markets. Married women, in particular, are observed repeatedly doing heavy work in agriculture and crafts. Thus in 1676 the pregnant wife of a Neubulach baker was ‘carrying bread across the Breitenberger Hill in the wintertime’. In 1753 an Ebhausen woman gave birth early after carrying heavy loads in the hay-harvest. In 1781 a Rotfelden day-labourer’s wife ‘had to do altogether too hard work … and on the very day of giving birth she had been walking behind the plough’. The Württemberg evidence suggests that married women faced powerful incentives to push themselves to their physical limits, even at the expense of their family responsibilities. This was because of male labour scarcity, high monitoring costs for hired labour, wage ordinances setting low wages for female workers, and guild regulations making the master’s wife the only woman legally permitted to do all tasks. The general lesson from these findings is that institutional characteristics of labour markets often outweighed technological pressures that might otherwise have led women to avoid heavy physical labour.
Finally, what about skills? Is it true that child-bearing made investment in skills unprofitable so women did not bother to get skilled training? Demographic patterns cast doubt on this argument. The Württemberg Black Forest – like most of central and western Europe – had late female marriage (age 27-30), high female celibacy (15-20%), and low widow remarriage. This meant that more than half of all women of working age were not currently married, and by 1750 one women in five never married at all – this gave females a strong incentive to learn skills to support themselves.
Girls were prevented from learning certain skills not by reproductive roles but by guilds, which legally excluded them from apprenticeship. As the Württemberg jurist Johann Friderich Christoph Weisser wrote in 1780, ‘no female may properly practise a craft, even if she understands it just as well as a male person’. The Württemberg sources contain many examples of guilds excluding females from apprenticeship, journeymanship, and mastership.
Even so, many women did understand crafts ‘just as well as a male person’. Masters’ wives and widows operated their husbands’ workshops, no matter how short a time they had been married, suggesting they possessed the requisite skills. Maidservants were trusted to operate craft equipment when their masters and mistresses were absent, even though this was against guild regulations. Most strikingly of all, Württemberg men regarded women as dangerous competitors, and mobilized guild and community courts to prevent them from working. Guild masters would hardly have been so worried, had women lacked the skills to appeal to employers and customers.
7. Institutional Explanations of Women’s Labour Market Participation
These findings led me, in A Bitter Living, to turn my attention to institutions as a more persuasive explanation for women’s work patterns. Did the growth of market society really harm women’s work? Did the traditional ‘family economy’ of guilds and communities, with its ‘social capital’ of shared norms and collective action, really protect and encourage females?
The findings were striking. For one thing, markets, far from harming women’s economic position, strongly valued female labour and offered women an attractive alternative to household roles. From their mid-teens onward, girls in Württemberg, as elsewhere in central and western Europe, began to leave home – voluntarily – to work in the market as maidservants and independent workers. Even before daughters left home, they engaged in paid spinning and sewing for outside employers. Maidservants sold their labour in the wage economy, changed jobs from year to year, bargained with employers for higher wages and better conditions, and often left service altogether and worked independently. When they did so, they were highly exposed to market forces, spinning at piece-rates, sewing for customers, and day-labouring for wages, moving in and out of communities flexibly in search of better employment opportunities. Married women and widows, despite their household responsibilities, took part in an even wider array of markets, since they often owned land, borrowed or lent capital, sold foodstuffs and craft wares, and transacted in labour markets as employers as well as employees.
This is not to say that there were no hindrances to women’s participation in markets. However, these came not from the market forces of supply and demand, but from the activities of special interest-groups which succeeded in imposing institutional regulations favourable to themselves. In Württemberg, the two most important of these institutionalized interest-groups were guilds and local communities.
We have already seen how guilds hindered women from participating in crafts, proto-industries, and commerce by excluding them from apprenticeship and journeymanship. Guilds also prohibited women from carrying out certain tasks, as in 1752-5, when the 50-year-old independent unmarried Juliana Schweickherdt was fined one-third of a maidservant’s average annual wage for weaving and combing ‘as if she were a journeyman, counter to the ordinance’. In the few jobs guilds did let women do, they exploited them by setting wage or piece-rate ceilings that were lower than the market rate. Weavers mobilized guild penalties, community institutions, and informal social sanctions against fellow-weavers who behaved ‘dishonourably’ by offering better rates to the female spinners. Guilds also limited widows’ survival strategies by excluding them from work in crafts, proto-industry, or commerce unless they happened to have inherited the appropriate guild license from a husband. Although many guilds permitted a master’s widow to continue the workshop, they generally cancelled her license if she remarried, forbade her to employ daughters or low-cost female employees, prevented her sons from interrupting apprenticeship or journeymanship to fill the labour gap created by her husband’s death, removed her existing apprentices, prevented her from hiring new ones, required her to hire expensive journeymen, and imposed discretionary ‘reputation’ clauses on her staying in business. All women, including members’ widows, were excluded from the privileged merchant associations that monopolized proto-industrial exports, even when they had previously been active in the trade.
My book shows how these regulations were enforced not just by guilds but by community courts, resulting in great hardship for women. Guild restrictions explain the striking sexual division of labour in the church-court work database, whereby 90 per cent of guilded industrial work was done by men and 90 per cent of non-guilded industrial work by women. Guild restrictions also explain why women clustered into agriculture, housework, labouring, and spinning – these were the few labour markets not reserved by guilds for male workers. Because of guilds, many widowed and unmarried women faced the bitter choice between spinning or sewing at guild-imposed starvation wages or begging for their bread in the village street.
Such evidence also enables us to assess whether cultural beliefs determine women’s economic position. It is often argued that the reason for restrictions on women’s work was ‘patriarchal beliefs,’ or ‘Protestantism’, or ‘guild ideology’. But, as A Bitter Living shows, these cultural beliefs were held throughout early modern Europe. But in practice, the constraints on women varied across European societies. Women’s work in commerce and industry was restricted significantly less in societies such as the Netherlands and England where fewer occupations were guilded and where guilds were more liberal in permitting females to work. Even in the most strongly guilded English towns, such as London, fewer occupations were subject to guild regulation, and many smaller towns and all villages were completely free of guilds. Likewise, in the Netherlands many fewer occupations were guilded, and many guilds were liberal in admitting female apprentices and masters, sometimes permitting them to operate a third or more of all workshops. English and Dutch sources show the same patriarchal cultural attitudes as German ones – but without the institutions to enforce these attitudes, women successfully invaded industrial and commercial occupations, where they were highly productive.
A second important institution affecting women’s work was the community. As we saw, married women frequently offered their labour on markets. But community courts forbade them to work when their husbands objected, as in 1657 when the Wildberg church-court ordered Friedrich Hosch’s 58-year-old wife ‘in future not to go out of the house without her husband’s permission, in exchange for which her husband shall allow her to work’. Community institutions systematically interpreted property law to favour adult males over widows, who were regarded as less valuable members of the community. In 1624, for instance, Jauß Roller’s widow in Liebelsberg complained that her offspring had ‘got together behind her back and sold her meadow to the village bailiff, without her knowledge and against her will’; challenged, the bailiff admitted that ‘yes, he had bought it and paid for it, whereupon she asked why she hadn’t been informed, to which he responded, what harm would it do if such an old animal as she should die of hunger?’
But it was unmarried women whom communities oppressed most severely. An unmarried woman who earned a living outside a dependent household role was pejoratively defined as an Eigenbrötlerin and continually harassed by the community courts. It was a routine matter for an Eigenbrötlerin to be ordered, like the 45-year-old seamstress Friderika Mohlin in 1796, ‘to betake herself back into her father’s house’. Others were given the choice between going into service as maids or being thrown out of the community, as in 1752 when Barbara Kleiner was reported by her landlord as a lodger ‘although she could work as a servant’ and was promptly ordered ‘to refrain from Eigenbrötlen, and instead enter into a proper job as a servant, otherwise she shall be driven out of town by order of the authorities’.
One major community objection to independent unmarried women was that they worked too hard, and then engaged in conspicuous consumption. Thus in 1684 the Ebhausen community court gaoled the independent unmarried Barbara Müller for three days and nights because ‘she remained in the tavern past closing-time and spoke very impudently, saying that she could earn 3 Batzen in a quarter of an hour, so what did it matter if she consumed something? – Unlike this tankard, she didn’t have a lid!’. Young women also spent their market earnings on ribbons, calicos, and silks, attracting community punishment for violating the sumptuary regulations: in just one year, a community of only 300 households fined over 100 people for such offences, 91 per cent of them female.
This combination of intense work and enhanced consumption by women, which so worried community courts, was part of the famous process of the ‘industrious revolution’, during which early modern people – particularly women, in the Netherlands and England – are supposed to have shifted their time-allocation from leisure and household production into income-earning work, enticed by the desire to buy new and inexpensive consumer goods. Cultural norms existed in all European economies, condemning such female vanity and buying of ‘baubles’. But it was only societies such as Württemberg that possessed institutions which established male citizens could mobilize in practice, in order to limit these new forms of female market labour and consumption, thereby choking off women’s potential to fuel an early ‘industrious revolution’ on the Dutch or English model.
What can we say in conclusion about women, their work, and their contribution to the early modern economy? Women appear again and again in pre-industrial economies working in the labour force. But we still have little sense of the extent and nature of their work, the constraints on it, and the wider economic repercussions of these constraints.
A Bitter Living investigated these questions. It found that female labour force participation was astonishingly high – even conservative estimates suggest a participation rate approaching the 43 per cent typical of modern advanced economies, and it may have been much higher. But women’s work was almost completely limited to three, poorly paid sectors: service as a maidservant, spinning, and labouring.
This was not because women bore children or were physically weak. Women – even mothers with children – worked widely outside the household. They did heavy tasks, sometimes heavier than the men who employed them, particularly in guilded crafts where male masters did sedentary work in the workshop and women carried burdens and ran errands. Women were skilled, as shown by the fear and loathing they inspired in guild journeymen and masters with whom they successfully competed.
Nor did markets limit women’s work. Here, as in many parts of early modern Europe, women penetrated into every labour market from which they were not legally excluded. But two powerful interest-groups – guilds and communities – sought advantage for their male members by limiting women’s market participation. Guilds excluded all women but their own members’ wives and widows from the sectors they monopolized, forcing other females to crowd into housework, farm-work, day-labouring, and spinning. Communities reinforced these constraints on women’s work, in the interests of reducing job competition for male citizens, creating a cheap and flexible labour force of female workers, and preventing unmarried women from financing forms of production and consumption that threatened the privileges of established male citizens.
These constraints on women were not primarily caused by cultural attitudes. ‘Patriarchal’ beliefs, like technological characteristics of female physiology, were universal in pre-industrial Europe, but women’s economic freedom varied. This was mainly because economic institutions varied across societies, with markets in the ascendant in some (particularly along the north Atlantic seaboard), manorial institutions dominant in others (particularly in the east and the south of the continent), and strong corporative institutions such as guilds and local communities holding sway over many central European economies. Each institutional equilibrium held different implications for female labour market participation.
The evidence suggests that female workers and consumers everywhere in Europe had the potential to be carriers of the new ‘industrious revolution’ which is thought to have fuelled growth in the Atlantic economies after about 1650. But women’s ability to realise this potential, and to contribute to economic growth and development by undertaking new patterns of work and consumption, was limited in societies where traditional communal and corporative institutions retained their powers to regulate economic life. As my book shows, those early modern European societies whose formal institutions ceased to force women (and other excluded groups such as Jews and migrants) into the black market were also, and not coincidentally, those whose economies flourished.