It has been a busy spring for the project team, presenting lots of papers about our methodology and preliminary results. It has been a valuable opportunity to develop our thinking, and now the dust has settled a bit after our recent bout of ‘touring’ we wanted to offer some of our emerging reflections on one of our key research questions: how ‘domestic’ was women’s work in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries?
It is a commonly held perception – and one often endorsed by historians – that the majority of women throughout history have spent the majority of their time engaged in ‘domestic duties’ of various sorts. But what exactly do we mean by ‘domestic’ here? Whilst the term might seem like a relatively straightforward and intuitive one, historians that have deployed the term ‘domestic’ in reference to work activities have often done so with different meanings of it in mind. Three principal meanings are common in the literature:
(1) it is used to refer to certain types of task (cooking, cleaning, washing – what we tend to think of as modern ‘housework’ – and childcare)
(2) used to refer to the location of work (within the home)
(3) used to refer to its market orientation (with domestic work equated with subsistence work – the production of goods or performance of services that are consumed by members of the same household, rather than producing goods or providing services outside of that household unit for pay in either cash or kind).
Confusingly, historians have often used the term without explicit explanation of which of these meanings they have in mind, or in some cases have invoked these different meanings interchangeably and/or bundled them together in characterising ‘women’s work’. In other words, whilst there is a widespread willingness to associate women’s work with the term ‘domestic’, the latter is not generally deployed with much precision.
As we continue to gather evidence of women’s everyday work activities from English court records from the period 1500-1700, one of our aims is therefore to interrogate the applicability of the term ‘domestic’ to women’s work. Our preliminary results suggest significant limitations to all three applications of the term outlined above.
Types of task
‘Domestic duties’ do not loom large in our database so far. Of the first 1000 work activities we recorded, the largest category of women’s work activities was ‘commerce’, accounting for 22%. ‘Housework’ – including cooking, cleaning and washing – made up just 10% of the total. ‘Childcare’ accounted for just 1.2%. It may be the case that these activities are under-represented in our sources – that people were less likely to witness a crime whilst undertaking work within their home – but as we will see in a moment we do not have any shortage of evidence of people working at home, just a shortage of them doing these types of tasks.
What evidence we do have is suggestive of why this may be the case, especially in relation to cooking. Our Quarter Sessions material is full of court cases about stolen sheep, and these commonly involve searches of the houses of people suspected of stealing them. What the searchers often report finding is a pot boiling over the fire – usually with suspicious hunks of mutton simmering away in them – but very rarely do they report that such pots were being closely attended. What emerges is an impression that cooking was not in itself a particularly time-intensive task in English rural households at this time; instead, people bunged their food in a pot or set it roasting over a fire and got on with doing other activities.
A particularly good example comes from a 1690s bastardy examination in the Wiltshire courts, where the mother identified the father of her child as a male servant who had ‘carnal knowledge’ of her in master’s kitchen ‘whilst neat’s tongues were boiling over the fire’. As her testimony shows, cooking was not an exclusive time-use activity.
The same may also be true of childcare: one possible explanation for its under-enumeration in our study is that childcare was almost always done in combination with something else (this raises an issue that comes up often in modern time-use studies too – how to deal with simultaneous activities?). What is interesting nonetheless is that people very rarely considered it their primary activity in the depositions they gave.
It may also be the case that we are dealing with quite different attitudes towards childcare in the early modern period: we have various examples of witnesses deposing that they had left young children at home on their own whilst about their business. The notion that children needed to be attended at all times may be an anachronism here, and this might go some way to explaining why it doesn’t appear as often in the records as we would expect.
Another area in which we need to guard against anachronism relates to notions of ‘housework’. It is worth noting that early modern commentators tend to talk about women’s work in terms of ‘housewifery’, which is a more capacious term than our modern notion of ‘housework’ and is commonly understood as including food processing, textile production, milking, healthcare, education, and the gathering of water and fuel necessary for the household, as well as cooking, cleaning and childcare. If we add all these categories of tasks together we get a much higher proportion of 56.3% of women’s work activities so far recorded, though many of the tasks thus included are not what we would intuitively label as ‘domestic’ today, and nor do they necessarily fit with the other two definitions of ‘domestic’ outlined above, and that we will now turn to.
Location of work
Was women’s work ‘domestic’ in the sense that it took place within the home? Where the information is given in our records we record the location of a work activity, so we are also in a position to offer an answer to this question. These results are still a work in progress so we don’t want to divulge them in full, but here are some suggestive highlights: ‘Houses’ do emerge as the most common location of women’s work activities so far, accounting for 27.4% of our sample. But it is notable that this is about the same size as the category of shops and markets, which accounts for 25%. Moreover, not all of those work activities that took place in houses can be counted as ‘domestic’ work: only 53.8% took place in the actor’s ‘own house’; 20% took place in the house of a master/mistress or kinsperson; and another 26.2% took place in ‘another’s house’. So, even if a quarter of women’s work activities took place within a house, not all of those were tasks that confined them to their own home.
Indeed, another 21.8% of women’s work activities took place in outdoor ‘grounds’ of various sorts, ranging from gardens and fields to forests and moors. Whilst some of these might be considered domestic spaces, others clearly were not, and as many as 46.4% of women’s activities undertaken in ‘grounds’ were done so in the grounds of ‘other’s’, and only 25% in their ‘own grounds’. It is also likely that those work activities undertaken in the houses and grounds of others were forms of paid work of some kind, which brings us to the question of the market-orientation of women’s work.
This question is complicated by the fact that it is very difficult to draw a neat boundary between ‘subsistence’ and ‘market-oriented’ work undertaken within early modern rural households. If a family grow and harvest a crop of barley and use some of it to make beer and bread which they consume, but sell another part of that barley at market, was the ploughing, sowing, reaping, threshing that went into its production subsistence or market oriented?
The importance of these blurred boundaries becomes heightened when we consider the prevalence of buying and selling among the work activities we have recorded (‘buying’ and ‘selling’ together account for 20% of all of our work activities). Most of these transactions were not carried out by professional or large scale retailers, but members of modest farming households selling a surplus bushel of wheat at market, or one or two sheep to a neighbour. This suggests that even small peasant farms in our period had a high level of interaction with the market, so it becomes very difficult to label households – and the work done within them – as either subsistence or market oriented.
Another way in which we might think more productively about the ‘market-orientation’ of women’s work is by thinking about work activities that were undertaken explicitly ‘for another’ outside of their own household unit. Again, where the information is provided in our sources this is something that we record, and we have some suggestive preliminary results here too. Of the first 450 work activities done by women that we recorded, 25% were tasks done ‘for another’ to whom they had no familial or kinship ties, and for which we might reasonably assume they were paid.
And that is a minimum estimate, as the other 75% were not necessarily unpaid tasks or those done for the benefit of their own household – most of those 75% do not specify who the work was for, and some that do are for siblings, wider kin, or parents, which could be paid work in some cases. So, an estimate that a quarter of our activities done by women were for pay is a low estimate: and even so that’s quite a high proportion if we start with the assumption that women’s work was overwhelmingly subsistence-oriented. That said, I should probably say that I have included service here, which was, after all, paid work, even though it is often labelled ‘domestic’. But even if you wanted to exclude service from this calculation the total figure would still be a minimum of 16.2% of tasks done by women for pay.
This is, necessarily, only a rough outline sketch of an argument – we are still gathering data and need to subject our results to more thorough and prolonged analysis before we present it in full. Nonetheless, we wanted to give it an airing as we continue to develop it, and would welcome any comments and feedback. What our findings suggest so far is that the term ‘domestic’ has serious limitations as an adjective for women’s work in early modern rural England. Whether in terms of the range of tasks women engaged in, the locations in which they did so, or the market-orientation of their work, our evidence points towards a significant proportion of women’s work activity that does not fit comfortably under the heading of ‘domestic’ work.