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Gender and work

Gender and work

Men's employment is relatively easy to identify in the historical record, thanks to the Statute of Additions (1413) which required a man's 'estate, degree or trade' to be specified in legal documents, but a woman's 'addition' was defined as her marital status. This situation has led many historians, working through a Victorian or twentieth-century lens, to assume that women, and especially married women, were not employed in the same way as men. In fact, our work suggests that women were expected to work regardless of marital status, at least through the 18th century.

The 1851 census offers the first national quantitative evidence of female employment. Although the biases of censuses are hotly debated, our work on the census shows that at least 30 per cent of the workforce in 1851 was female. However, that is comparing the 'regular employment' that was to be reported for women with the 'occupation' that was to be reported for men, so women's work was likely to have been underestimated (because casual or seasonal work would probably not have been considered 'regular'), and men's work was probably overestimated (since unemployed or retired men could still have an occupation). Our study of London court records in c.1700 shows that virtually all women who appeared before the courts were in gainful employment, which suggests that women's share of the workforce might have been closer to one half in pre-census centuries. Our hypothesis is that the mechanization of spinning at the end of the eighteenth century probably caused a dramatic fall in levels of female employment, since spinning by hand had been overwhelmingly a female occupation.

If most women worked in gainful employment, then conclusions about occupational structure based on male employment alone could be very misleading. There is very little quantitative data available on women's employment prior to the twentieth century, so we clearly need more information. Between 2005 and 2010, we surveyed all local record offices in England for sources which consistently record women's as well as men's work for the period up to 1851. A few of these sources we currently hold in database form. We are now seeking funding to collect and analyze all of these sources, to achieve an understanding of the occupational structure as a whole, including both sexes, and the ways in which occupations were gendered.

We are interested in examining unpaid work and the problems of equating work with remuneration, and we collaborate with colleagues at Uppsala University's Gender & Work project and in the Leverhulme Network Producing Change: Gender & Work in Early Modern Europe.

Photo credit: Johnston Collection, Wick Society,