Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: ‘Introductory’

This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Susan D. Amussen offers some reflections on the opening ‘Introductory’ chapter of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century. Susan is a Professor of History at UC Merced, and tweets as @susandamussen. You can access the book here.

Susan D. Amussen

s-l1600Those who have never read Alice Clark’s Working Life of Women might wonder why we would pay any attention to a work that is a hundred years old, and superseded by recent research on women.   Yet anyone who works on the history of women, and particularly the history of women’s work, in early modern England owes a debt to Alice Clark’s work. It was reissued in 1982 with an introduction by Miranda Chaytor and Jane Lewis, and again in 1992 with an introduction by Amy Erickson. As Natalie Davis noted in a paper delivered at the Second Berkshire Conference in 1974, Clark consulted archives, differentiated among women, and had an overarching theory.[1] For me, Clark’s work is one of the two or three books that have fundamentally shaped my understanding of early modern British history, even as I know more and more about the limitations of her work.

Clark’s ‘Introductory’ raises the key thesis of her work, that industrialization fundamentally changed women’s roles and experience; that women were better integrated into the economy under household and family systems of production than in industrial systems.  She admitted how little she knew – her discussion of medieval women’s work “rests chiefly on conjecture” (p. 4); Tim Stretton has noted that her modern comparison was not the 18th century, but her own experience.  As we will see over the coming months in this roundtable, Clark didn’t get it all right.  But she got it enough right that it helps.

At the core of her argument is the notion that there was a massive change in women’s work in the seventeenth century: she noted the dramatic difference between Shakespeare’s heroine’s and Wycherly’s.  That change, she argued, was the result of the shift from domestic and family industry – where most production took place in households – to capitalistic industry, where productive work was separated from the household unit, primarily performed by individual laborers.  Historians today have a much more complex understanding of the relationship of theatre to society; we also know now that wage labor was more important than she thought early in the century. Finally, we recognize that the transition to what Clark called capitalist industry was more erratic than she thought.

What is critical is that she took the history of women and women’s work seriously.  In the ‘Introductory’, you can see the echoes of the arguments she had faced:  that women were “a static factor in social developments” was an “assumption” that had “no basis in fact” (p. 1).  It’s astonishing and discouraging that every year I need remind my students this: that women have always worked, and that women not working is the historical anomaly.

Of course, reading Clark in 2019 there are things that stand out: I had forgotten the extent to which she embraced a romantic view of motherhood. So in arguing for a study of history, she discusses variations in “sexual and maternal instincts”.  In some cases, she asserts, “sexual impulses are liable to perversion, it sometimes happens that the maternal instinct disappears altogether” (p. 1) Clark makes it clear that “the spiritual creation of the home and the physical creation of the child” are the “highest, most intense forms to which women’s productive energy is directed” (p. 4).  The recognition of reproduction as a form of production anticipates later feminist arguments, while the notion of sexual perversion or maternal instinct seems problematic!

I still remember my excitement when I discovered Clark in the fall of 1976. Finding a book that linked work and women’s status and that engaged with a full range of women was a breath of fresh air, an indication that it would be possible to study ordinary women. Rereading Clark I am reminded of why I was so excited when I first read her.  She linked the status of women to their economic roles.  She provided a cogent explanation of change. Judith Bennett’s analysis of patriarchal equilibrium suggests that changes on the surface are not as substantially significant as Clark thought.  The archival research of the last 40 years means that we have far more evidence – and as a result a far more complicated story – than Clark imagined.  Our theoretical frames have shifted.  But Clark’s central argument – that where women work and who they work for matters – still resonates.

Join the discussion in the comments section, or on twitter using the hashtag #AliceClark100


[1] Natalie Davis, ‘”Women’s History” in Transition: The European Case’, Feminist Studies  3: 3/4(1976) 83-103

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13 thoughts on “Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: ‘Introductory’

  1. Great intro, Susan. Thank you. I wondered – what would Clark have read first? Was there anything that resonated for her project as she did for yours (and as yours did for mine)?

    • My thanks too, Susan. It’s not a history book, but Olive Schreiner’s Woman and Labour (1911) was a direct inspiration for Working Life of Women.

    • The other people she references are Dr K. A. Gerlach; and Dr. Lilian Knowles who supervised her research. But Olive Schreiner is clearly the key intellectual influence. (I also love the fact that Mrs. George Bernard Shaw funded her research!)

  2. Such a fascinating take to have different historians take on different chapters. Kudos to Tim and Susan. So perhaps this will come up in a later chapter, Susan, but – despite the ways in which we now know Clark was mistaken in some regards – the persistence of the debate she framed ie was the transition good or bad for women was enormously important for decades. A lot of the leading edge scholarship in the current wave of gender and work was framed around this question, and importantly by historians who worked on continental Europe who were also influenced by Clarke like Merry Wiesner-Hanks and Martha Howell to name but two. So the paradigm she framed was hugely stimulating in terms of historiographical debate for a long time and beyond England.

    • Yes, I agree. One of the reasons we pay attention to her is that the argument is “big”, and thus resonates. If it doesn’t come up in the meantime, we can come back to it in the conclusion!

  3. Pingback: Alice Clark’s *Working Life of Women in the 17th Century* at 100: An Online Reading Group | the many-headed monster

  4. Single working-class women did not leave the industrial labour market; it was when they married that they left – at least according to my research on the transition in Shepshed from domestic to industrial production (’40 years on ‘ – from Levine). In other words, they spent often 7 years in factory processes in the late 19th century. I expect that Dupree et al. mention the same in other industrial processes.

    • Indeed. Though her focus (as I’m sure later contributors will note) is really on how women were relegated to relatively low status work.

  5. It’s a small thing but I found it fascinating how Clark homed in on the seventeenth century as a watershed period in her account. It’s also really interesting how adroitly she framed what is in my limited understanding still one of the major issues of historicising women’s work (?), which is the nature of ‘domestic’ production versus market production, Clark describes the former as production ‘solely for the family’ (5).

    I accordingly wonder what we all make of Clark’s organising schema of ‘industry’ overleaf?
    (a) Domestic Industry
    (b) Family Industry
    (c) Capitalistic Industry

    I mean have we substantively added any categories to that list in 100 years, absent other cases (so for instance I’d make a case for a category of ‘enforced industry’ which includes plantation slavery, indenture, and so on, but only since Clark’s scheme doesn’t seem to include it in category c).

  6. Like David above, I am also pondering the 17th century focus (alongside the other issues raised both here and on twitter: #AliceClark100). Many of the changes Clark outlines are more commonly associated with the Industrial Revolution, an association she makes explicitly in several places, and it is also telling that she concludes the ‘Introductory’ with a long quotation of the state of affairs in 1834. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to argue that these changes took place across the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, rather than primarily in the former? Or was there a different sense of when industrialisation took off when Clark was writing?

    Both Tim and Susan highlight the literary comparison between late 16th and late 17th century material as one reason for Clark’s 17th century focus, and Tim also suggests that Clark’s Quakerism drew her to the that century. I wonder if a broader Whiggish notion of the 17th century as a political watershed between the old regime and the new was a factor too. I suppose more recently the ‘Industrious Revolution’ has revived the importance of the 17th century as a period of key economic change with implications for women’s work, but the causes at work in Clark’s model are not the same as they are for de Vries et al.

    Anyway, I guess I’m left wondering whether Clark was on to something with the 17th century focus, or if this was one of the things that she got wrong. I’ll be interested to reflect on this as we go.

  7. These are all such interesting questions. I guess the real tribute to Clark is that she makes us think about such “big” questions even now. Centuries are weird categories of periodization, really!

    Clark was interested in only certain kinds of work, and I guess the other big question we’ll want to keep thinking about is what constitutes work? What work matters?

  8. International Workers’ Memorial Day is on 28 April this year. There will be gatherings all over the country. If you are in the Midlands, the meeting at the National Memorial Arboretum is a moving experience (2 p.m.).

  9. Pingback: Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: ‘Capitalists’ | the many-headed monster

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