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
Those 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Clark’s Working Life of Women might wonder why we would pay any attention to a work that is a hundred years old, and superseded by recent research on women.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. 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. Continue reading
To kick off our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group – marking 100 years since the publication of her groundbreaking Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century – Tim Stretton provides some valuable context in this short biography of Alice Clark. Tim is a Professor of History at Saint Mary’s University, Canada, and has contributed a chapter on Alice Clark to a recent book on Generations of Women Historians. The next post – discussing the Introduction – will follow next week. So get reading!
At first glance Alice Clark seems the most unlikely of historians. Due to ill health she managed only sporadic periods at school and she never went to university. She was a capitalist, not a scholar, spending most of her adult life as a director of the family business, known today as Clarks Shoes Ltd. Yet from a young age she was a voracious reader and would have joined her sister at Cambridge had her parents not felt strongly that the shoe company would benefit from the involvement of a female family member.
In common with almost every one of her relations, she was also a lifelong activist for good causes and I think Working Life of Women is best understood as serving the project to achieve votes and greater equality for women. Her initial subject, when she moved to London in 1912 to work on the suffragist campaign, was not women’s work, but the history of Quaker ideas about gender equality. What puzzled her was the contrast between the striking levels of autonomy 17th century Quaker women experienced––in tandem with the defiance they showed in the face of persecution––and the deep conservatism of Quaker authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. The organization’s gender segregated meetings and prolonged reluctance to endorse the cause of female suffrage left Clark disillusioned and she set herself the goal of understanding the causes behind this decline in female independence. Continue reading
The conditions under which the obscure mass of women live and fulfil their duties as human beings, have a vital influence upon the destinies of the human race…
Alice Clark, 1919
It was this conviction that drove Alice Clark to write her pioneering study of the working life of women in seventeenth-century England. One hundred years later, few historians would now contest such a statement, and as a consequence the obscurity of women’s lives in the early modern past is less acute than in Clark’s time. But how far have we come in our understanding of women’s work? How have historians added to, and revised, the picture mapped out by Alice Clark?
The centenary of the publication of this seminal work presents a great opportunity to both celebrate the scholarship of Alice Clark, and to reflect on the current state of the history of early modern women’s work. And so, we would like to invite you, dear reader, to join an online reading group here on the many-headed monster that will do just that.
Between now and October of this year we will read one chapter a month of Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century (freely available on archive.org here). For each chapter a leading historian will offer their reflections on it in a blog post, which will serve as a starting point for discussion ‘below the line’ in the comments section (and/or on twitter, no doubt).
The blog posts will be published at the start of each month, on the following schedule, with a double-header in early April to kick us off: Continue reading