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Ving-cinq ans après

Enrica Asquer
Anna Bellavitis
Isabelle Chabot


“Active agents” and “history makers”

Women in the early modern economy

Alexandra Shepard


This paper reviews recent scholarship on the economic lives of women in western Europe between 1500 and 1800. In particular, it focuses on a historiographical shift in approaches to female economic agency away from an emphasis on constraint, drudgery and marginalisation (on the one hand) to an alertness to women’s centrality in the early modern economy (on the other hand). Rather than approaching ‘the behaviour of women in terms of conformity, manoeuvrability, and... resistance’ (as advocated by Natalie Zemon Davis and Arlette Farge in their introductory contribution on ‘Women as Historical Actors’ to Volume III of A History of Women in the West), historians are increasingly recovering the myriad ways in which women’s economic activity confirmed their status as ‘history makers’ during a significant period of change. This paper will mostly focus on north-western Europe (drawing on my own research on early modern Britain and my involvement in an International Network funded by the UK’s Leverhulme Trust on ‘Producing Change: Gender and Work in the Early Modern Europe’.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Zemon Davis – Farge 1993, p. 1, 4.
  • 2 Hufton 1993, p. 45.

1In the introduction to the third volume of A history of women in the West (covering the Renaissance to the Enlightenment), Natalie Zemon Davis and Arlette Farge remarked that women were “infinitely present […] at home, in the economy, in the intellectual arena, in the public sphere, in social conflict, at play”. They argued that there was space in gender relations for women to be “active agents in history”, and advocated an expanded remit for women’s history that went beyond the celebration of atypical heroines or the bemoaning of women’s victimhood at the hands of patriarchal oppression.1 Nonetheless, women’s agency in the pre-modern West has often been approached principally in terms of resistance to the norms, prohibitions and controls that staked out women’s lives. In Olwen Hufton’s essay in the same volume, on Women, work, and family, she opined that the women who conformed to the narrow constraints of convention – such as the growing numbers of unmarried women, or spinsters, who “saw no alternative to their lot” – were “not to be the history makers”.2 By implication, these were women on whom history was imposed.

  • 3 Clark 1992.
  • 4 See, e.g., Bennett 1988, p. 269-83; Bennett 1992; Hill 1993, p. 5-22; Bennett 1993, p. 173-84.
  • 5 Bennett 2006, chs 4-5.

2Such conclusions were indicative of the entirely laudable preoccupation of women’s historians with the extent and character of gender inequality, and built on the foundations of the field laid by pioneering scholars, the most prominent of whom was Alice Clark.3 Clark’s account of the negative relationship between seventeenth-century capitalist development and women’s economic agency largely set the parameters for historical analysis of the changing character of women’s economic activity in terms of improvement, decline, or stasis.4 The relative advantages and disadvantages for women linked to the economic transitions associated with commercial, proto-industrial, and early industrial development have been extensively debated by scholars, and the jury remains out on whether economic development has delivered progress or decline to women, or no impact whatsoever on the troublingly persistent “patriarchal equilibrium” that leaves them disadvantaged relative to men of similar social status.5

  • 6 Berg 1993, p. 22-44; Sharpe 1995, p. 353-69; Shepard 2015b, p. 1-24.

3However, notwithstanding an ever more sophisticated appreciation of the differences between women, it is possible that an overarching focus on the status of women relative to men, and the character and extent of women’s marginalisation and disadvantage, has licensed the ongoing exclusion of female experience from accounts of economic change. While the impact of economic change on women has been extensively explored, women’s contribution to economic performance remains a relatively neglected topic, despite decades of sustained and very high quality research on women’s work as well as several calls for a greater appreciation of how women made economic history, rather than merely acted as receptors for it.6

  • 7 See, e.g., de Vries – van der Woude 1997; Broadberry et al. 2015. For a critique of the gender-blin (...)
  • 8 Ferber – Nelson 1993; Ferber – Nelson 2003.

4The principal texts of mainstream economic history retain the assumption that it is both possible and acceptable to generalise about the state of “the economy” on the basis of male experience alone.7 Standard assessments of economic development, for example in terms of the measurement of growth or the assessment of shifting sectorial distribution, are not only disturbingly gender-blind, but they also rest on anachronistic categories that require historicization as patriarchal constructs rather than reification as economic laws. For all the protest of feminist economists, the conceptualisation of economic life remains dominated by the assumed hero of neoclassical economics: rational man. As a paradigm for economic agency, the figure of rational man misrepresents the experience of many men as well as women.8 Quantification often proceeds on the basis of misrepresentative (or at the very least partial) indicators such as occupational descriptors, evidence of paid rather than unpaid work, and “formal” rather than “informal” economic activity, all of which are even more problematic in an early modern context. Assumptions often remain that men’s work was the norm; women’s work, by contrast (when accounted for at all), is treated as divergent, marginal, auxiliary and supplementary. As a result, research in economic history rarely takes as its starting point the expectation that we might learn things about economic performance from studying women.

5 It is, however, clear from some recent examples of work that takes women’s economic agency into account, that our narratives of economic development might change significantly if they became more gender inclusive and more gender aware. Any attempt to simply “add women and stir” is wrong-headed; just as women’s work cannot adequately be categorised as “supplementary”, so its history does not work as a discrete and minor tributary to the existing mainstream. Close attention to women’s economic activity can illuminate the workings of economic change, in terms of its causes as well as consequences.

  • 9 Clark 1992.
  • 10 de Vries 1994, p. 249-270; de Vries 2008.

6While it remains clear that women experienced major economic disadvantages relative to men, not least in terms of their access to training, skills and resources, it is also clear that the early modern economy would have collapsed without their myriad and varied contributions. It also is evident that certain forms of female participation held causal significance in shaping the trajectories of economic development between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, not least in relation to the commercial growth that produced the “Little Divergence” between the north West and the rest of Europe. An appreciation of the significance of women’s economic activity has come about in part from taking the household, rather than the individual male, as the primary economic unit for study – thereby reverting to an approach pioneered by Alice Clark in her early research on women’s working lives.9 Jan de Vries’ hypothesis that an “industrious revolution”, flowing from the reallocation of married women’s labour from unpaid domestic work to market-oriented production and waged labour, was a necessary precursor of the industrial revolution ascribes causal agency to women’s choices regarding their labour force participation.10 While it is refreshing to read an account of early modern economic development that features women as prime movers, de Vries’ rejection of patriarchy as a shaping force in determining the nature of labour markets overestimates the degree of autonomous “choice” exercised by women in relation to their working lives, and his ascription of women’s motivations to a desire to consume rests on overly positive and arguably anachronistic concepts of consumer choice rather than a more negative appraisal of market dependency, as well as the privileging of paid over unpaid work as the foundation for women’s economic leverage within their households.

  • 11 De Moor – van Zanden 2010, p. 1-33.
  • 12 Dennison – Ogilvie 2014, p. 651-693.

7Recent research has similarly identified the labour force participation of women – in this case of unmarried women – as the basis of female economic agency and as causal factor behind the growth evident in the early modern Dutch and English economies. Identification of the “girl power” theoretically inherent in the “European Marriage Pattern” (EMP) – characterised by late age at marriage, high celibacy rates, and the nuclear family structure – has linked relatively high levels of growth in the north west to the positive effects for women of the EMP. Tine de Moor and Jan Luiten van Zanden have argued not only that women were “self-empowered” by lengthy periods of service enabling them to accumulate resources and enter marriage from a better bargaining position than available to women who married young, but also that women’s increased labour force participation in service from the fifteenth century promoted economic growth by contributing to capital markets and by increasing investment in human capital, thereby providing a necessary precursor to the “industrious revolution” identified by de Vries. Reinstating the fifteenth century as a “golden age” for women, de Moor and van Zanden also attempted to link an improvement in women’s economic status to economic performance more generally.11 While a causal link between the EMP and precocious economic growth has been firmly rejected by Tracy Dennison and Sheilagh Ogilvie, the truism that economic empowerment for women delivers improvements in economic performance remains a promising assertion for historians to test, since it allows for an examination of women’s contributions to economic performance without losing sight of the assessment of gender inequality.12

  • 13 Erickson 2005, p. 1-16.
  • 14 Spicksley 2007, p. 187-207; Spicksley 2008, p. 277-301; Spicksley 2015, p. 263-292. See also Froide (...)

8A final example of work highlighting women’s causal agency focuses on marital property law, and privileges women’s economic capacity as individuals rather than as members of households. In her exploration of the relationship between coverture and capitalism, Amy Erickson has suggested that the roots of England’s precocious economic development may be found in the lending activities of single women. Coverture, the English legal convention whereby women ceded ownership of moveable property to their husbands on marriage, theoretically in return for their “maintenance”, has most commonly been studied in order to highlight married women’s legal disadvantages. Erickson, however, has shown that the greater extent to which coverture granted single women control over their property (in comparison with other European legal systems) enabled them to engage in widespread lending activities.13 The funds invested by single women constituted a significant source of capital in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English economy, contributing to, if not underpinning, its growth.14

  • 15 Wall 2002; Whittle 2005, p. 51-74; Reinke-Williams 2014, ch. 2.

9Such approaches show us what can happen if we put women in the middle of economic analysis, rather than assume their position at the margins. Histories of women can also illuminate more gender specific forms of economic agency, rather than solely focusing on the extent to which women’s participation may have mirrored men’s. Recent research on the economic lives of married women has increasingly emphasised the economic centrality of wives through investigation not only of their commercial contributions but also of their more broadly based ‘domestic’ roles in terms of their unpaid and non market-oriented labour.15 While there was once a degree of consensus that widows enjoyed the greatest legal and economic latitude among early modern women, there is now a growing body of work on the significance of married women’s economic agency, which is suggestive of wives’ very significant (albeit far from unbounded) contributions.

  • 16 On maritime communities, see Abreu-Ferreira 2000, p. 7-23; Hunt 2004; Catterall – Campbell 2012.
  • 17 On « assisting work », see Pfister 2001, p. 147-166; van den Heuvel 2008 p. 217-236; van Nederveen (...)
  • 18 Berg 1993; Lemire 1999, p. 23-35; Muldrew 2012, p. 498-526.
  • 19 Wiesner Wood 1981, p. 3-13; Brunelle 2007, p. 10-35; Matchette 2008, p. 245-251; van den Heuvel 201 (...)
  • 20 Martini – Bellavitis 2014, p. 273-82; Whittle 2014, p. 283-300.
  • 21 Shepard 2015b.
  • 22 Shepard 2017.
  • 23 Ågren 2016.

10Evidence from the north west, as well as from maritime communities, shows that married women’s productive work was often conducted independently of their husbands.16 While the “assisting work” of wives (and other family members) should not be discounted, there is also a growing awareness that in many cases married women pursued occupations that were not merely auxiliary or supplementary to their husband’s.17 Married women’s productive work in textiles contributed to one of the most dynamic components of England’s economy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.18 Married women’s marketing and retailing, such as that undertaken by Amsterdam eel-wives, or second hand dealers, or tea and coffee sellers, constituted as significant a sector as large scale regional and international trade.19 Married women’s unpaid productive work, particularly in rural environments, was extensive and a vital contribution to standards of living.20 Indeed, “housewifery”, broadly conceived, and as understood by early modern people, was skilled work directly comparable to “husbandry”, involving both productive capacity and a saving dimension designed to protect households from market dependency. Housewives were charged with maintaining, saving and accounting for a household’s moveable goods which served as a form of asset management for the household and as the means by which credit relations were often secured, thereby facilitating the vast bulk of quotidian transactions.21 It is unsurprising that married women assumed responsibility for providing for their dependents (including their husbands at times), and sometimes articulated their duties of provision in the same terms as men.22 Notwithstanding the constraints faced by women in early modern labour markets, and the limited value normatively attached to women’s work, the concept of a male provider was a rhetorical device rather than the reality for most people. As the research of the “Gender and Work” team at Uppsala University has conclusively shown, the early modern economy depended on a “two supporter model”.23

  • 24 Fiebranz et al. 2011, p. 273-93. See also Ogilvie 2003.
  • 25 Shepard 2015b. See also Shepard 2015a, chs 5, 7.

11In corroborating such claims, historians of women have done an enormous amount of legwork to show that there are indeed not only available sources but also pioneering methods available for the recovery of women’s economic activity. The methodological innovations associated with attempts to illuminate women’s working lives have, in turn, shed new light on men’s working lives which have also been misrepresented by the selection of certain quantitative indicators (such as occupational descriptors or wage rates). The “verb-oriented” method that has developed the analysis of time-use has not only broadened our ability to capture more of what women were doing in the early modern past but has also demonstrated quite how piecemeal and varied men’s work was.24 In the English context, comparing the convergence in labouring men’s and women’s descriptions of what they were doing with the divergent occupational descriptors that they claimed demonstrates women’s place at the forefront of the growing wage dependency that was a feature of the seventeenth century. By tracing those who claimed to “live by their labour” rather than counting “labourers”, it appears that it was women, rather than men, who were at the leading edge of the gradual proletarianisation that accompanied economic growth.25 The novel approaches demanded by the exploration of the relationship between gender and work both ensure that women’s work is counted in surveys of early modern economic activity, and provide new perspectives on the character of productive lives and relations in the early modern economy, as well as the timing of change.

  • 26 Hufton 1993, p. 35. For a recent overview of the history of maternity, see McTavish 2013.

12Finally, our growing awareness of the relative significance of married women’s economic activity begs the question of how households combined productive and reproductive labour, which in turn demands an even more expansive conceptualisation of ‘work’ to include caring work. In her essay in A History of Women in the West, Olwen Hufton pointed out that “we still do not have a convincing history of maternity”.26 This remains the case not least because scholars tend to treat maternity as a reproductive event or biological state and as a form of emotional expression, rather than as a category of work. By broadening our perspective out from “maternity” to “mothering”, we might begin to capture the relationship between reproductive and productive work which is essential to understanding how any economy functions. Women’s unpaid caring work in early modern society, like today, was the essential prerequisite for productive or paid workers. In addition, women’s paid caring work was a significant sector of the early modern economy, not least since, given the range and extent of tasks they undertook, there was no way that married women’s working lives were easily combined with childcare responsibilities and the fulfilment of other care needs. There was a “care economy” in early modern Europe that involved substantial out-sourcing of care to substitutes either within the household (such as servants) or beyond the household (such as wet-nurses).

  • 27 Hoerder – van Nederveen Meerkerk – Neunsinger 2015.
  • 28 See, e.g., Steedman 2009, ch. 8.
  • 29 Russell Hochschild 2000, p. 130-146. For a rare overview of everyday child care arrangements in ear (...)

13Care provision not only involved extensive paid work for women; it was also a contributing factor to the development of labour relations and migration patterns in early modern economies.27 Expectations surrounding the provision of care shaped relationships between many female servants and their employers.28 In addition, the economic agency of many women often depended on the caring contributions of others – either reciprocally and altruistically brokered, or extracted through more exploitative relationships, such as the “care chains” whereby wet-nurses were compelled, often through the lack of alternative options, to prioritise the care needs of wealthier women’s children above those of their own.29 It is through attending to the relationship between the distribution of caring responsibilities – not just between women and men, but between women themselves – that we will gain a better perspective on the relationship between social inequality and gender inequality, and the variegated access to the benefits of economic growth.

14Exploring the ways in which women were economically active (rather than the ways in which “the economy” determined women’s agency) encourages the adoption of a very broad definition of ‘work’ as well as more expansive assessments of economic activity. The economy can thereby be approached in terms of the capacity to secure well-being rather than in the more reductive and limited terms of measuring “growth”. None of this is to deny that women faced serious constraints compared with men of a similar social status. However, it is to assert that women were “history makers” and “active agents” in the early modern economy, rather than mere bystanders whose lives were shaped by rather than shaping economic change. Not only will our understanding of women’s lives be broadened by an appreciation of their economic agency, but our account of early modern economic development will be enriched by a more gender-inclusive approach.



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1 Zemon Davis – Farge 1993, p. 1, 4.

2 Hufton 1993, p. 45.

3 Clark 1992.

4 See, e.g., Bennett 1988, p. 269-83; Bennett 1992; Hill 1993, p. 5-22; Bennett 1993, p. 173-84.

5 Bennett 2006, chs 4-5.

6 Berg 1993, p. 22-44; Sharpe 1995, p. 353-69; Shepard 2015b, p. 1-24.

7 See, e.g., de Vries – van der Woude 1997; Broadberry et al. 2015. For a critique of the gender-blindness of recent histories of capitalism in American history, see Stanley 2016, p. 343-350.

8 Ferber – Nelson 1993; Ferber – Nelson 2003.

9 Clark 1992.

10 de Vries 1994, p. 249-270; de Vries 2008.

11 De Moor – van Zanden 2010, p. 1-33.

12 Dennison – Ogilvie 2014, p. 651-693.

13 Erickson 2005, p. 1-16.

14 Spicksley 2007, p. 187-207; Spicksley 2008, p. 277-301; Spicksley 2015, p. 263-292. See also Froide 2016.

15 Wall 2002; Whittle 2005, p. 51-74; Reinke-Williams 2014, ch. 2.

16 On maritime communities, see Abreu-Ferreira 2000, p. 7-23; Hunt 2004; Catterall – Campbell 2012.

17 On « assisting work », see Pfister 2001, p. 147-166; van den Heuvel 2008 p. 217-236; van Nederveen Meerkerk 2008, p. 237-266; Schmidt 2014, p. 301- 322; Zucca Micheletto 2014, p. 323-340. On independent female enterprise, see Collins 1989, p. 436-470; Hafter 2007; van den Heuvel 2007; Erickson 2008, p. 267-307; Simonton – Montenach 2013; Beattie – Stevens 2013; Shepard 2015a, p. 215-29.

18 Berg 1993; Lemire 1999, p. 23-35; Muldrew 2012, p. 498-526.

19 Wiesner Wood 1981, p. 3-13; Brunelle 2007, p. 10-35; Matchette 2008, p. 245-251; van den Heuvel 2012, p. 587-594; van den Heuvel – van Nederveen Meerkerk 2014; Pennington 2015.

20 Martini – Bellavitis 2014, p. 273-82; Whittle 2014, p. 283-300.

21 Shepard 2015b.

22 Shepard 2017.

23 Ågren 2016.

24 Fiebranz et al. 2011, p. 273-93. See also Ogilvie 2003.

25 Shepard 2015b. See also Shepard 2015a, chs 5, 7.

26 Hufton 1993, p. 35. For a recent overview of the history of maternity, see McTavish 2013.

27 Hoerder – van Nederveen Meerkerk – Neunsinger 2015.

28 See, e.g., Steedman 2009, ch. 8.

29 Russell Hochschild 2000, p. 130-146. For a rare overview of everyday child care arrangements in early modern Europe, see Oja 2015, p. 77-111.


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