This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Amy Erickson offers some reflections on the third main chapter of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, on ‘Textiles’. Amy is a University Lecturer in British Economic and Social History 1500-1750 at the University of Cambridge. You can access the book here.
Alice Clark’s chapter on textiles concentrates on spinning, the textile production process which involved the most people, the overwhelming majority of whom were female. The production of cloth required several times more spinners than weavers (who were primarily male), whether the fibre in question was derived from a plant (flax or hemp) or an animal (wool or silk). As Clark puts it, ‘From the general economic standpoint, the textile industries rank second in importance to agriculture … but in the history of women’s economic development they hold a position which is quite unique.’ This was not only true of England: textiles were the principal export of most European countries over 300 years.
An early post on Many Headed Monster by Mark Hailwood explored the ubiquity of spinning and included two woodcut images of women sitting at spinning wheels that were used to illustrate early modern ballads. The term ‘hand-spinning’ describes spinning both by wheel and by distaff or drop spindle, a method which can be used while walking, as in Paul Sandby’s mid-18th century drawing of a woman carrying a distaff (courtesy of the trustees of the British Museum).
A decade after Working Life, Ivy Pinchbeck provided further evidence on spinning in the period 1750-1850, when hand spinning in the home was largely replaced by water-powered factory spinning. This transition from hand to machine, from home to factory, has recently received detailed attention. Craig Muldrew (2012) estimated that by the later 18th century hand spinning employed nearly 75% of all women over age 14, or 1,500,000 women. The transition to mechanisation, which not only increased productivity but also employed increasing numbers of men rather than women, would have caused mass female unemployment and thereby significant impoverishment. Continue reading
This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Jane Whittle offers some reflections on the second main chapter of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, on ‘Agriculture’. Jane is a Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Exeter. You can access the book here.
I’m reading the chapter in my 1982 edition of Alice Clark (the only history book I stole from my mother’s bookshelves), complete with a woodcut of a woman haymaking on the cover (although this image has been edited to remove the couple canoodling in the background which is present in the original below). Is this deeply significant? Probably not …
Alice Clark’s chapter on agriculture offers a microcosm of the book’s overall argument. As she concludes on the last page of the chapter, the ‘review of the whole position of women in Agriculture at this time, shows the existence of Family Industry at its best, and of Capitalism at its worst’ (p.92). As explained in her ‘Introductory’ to the book, she gives Family Industry and Capitalism quite precise meanings. Family Industry is ‘the form in which the family becomes the unit of production of goods to be sold and exchanged’ (p.6); whereas Capitalistic Industry (or Capitalism) is ‘the system by which production is controlled by the owners of capital, and the labourers or producers, men, women and children receive individual wages’ (p.7). For Clark, Family Industry, which in the agriculture chapter is represented by the lives of farmers, husbandmen and their families, represented everything that was good about the seventeenth-century economy. On the other hand, Capitalism, illustrated by the experience of wage earners, represents everything that was bad in what was to come. Continue reading
This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Amy M. Froide offers some reflections on the first main chapter of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, on ‘Capitalists’. Amy is a Professor of History at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. You can access the book here.
Amy M. Froide
When we were organizing this blog project I very quickly claimed Clark’s chapter on capitalists (and I may have even said I was willing to fight Amy Erickson or Laura Gowing for the privilege of writing about this chapter. When we made up our schedule I found that this post would be due right at the end of term, and it was then I realized why the wily Erickson and Gowing so graciously ceded the field to me). This anecdote does contain a salient point: many of us early modern historians have chosen to study issues pertinent to women and work and this group is a marker of Alice Clark’s influence and legacy.
It is notable that the first body chapter of Clark’s book is on the topic of capitalists. As Tim Stretton noted in his biographical post on Alice Clark, she herself was a capitalist, a director of the family firm that is now Clarks Shoes Ltd. (It is good to know that the money I have shelled out to that company over the years is in a way a homage to Clark). Despite her personal knowledge, Clark eschews a detailed definition of capitalism in this chapter and instead simply equates it with the control of wealth. She also notes that in seventeenth–century England, capitalists included those who had obtained their wealth through commerce and trade but also the aristocracy who had long controlled wealth in the form of land. The latter are in fact the primary focus of her chapter. Continue reading
As an ‘extra’ to our ongoing #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group – which will resume shortly with a post on Chapter II: ‘Capitalists’, so get reading – Tim Stretton has sourced some images of Alice from the Clark family archives:
Images of Alice Clark are supplied courtesy of the Alfred Gillett Trust in Street, Somerset and cannot be reproduced without the Trust’s express permission. Continue reading
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