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Women, Work, and Wages in England, 1600-1850

Author(s):Lane, Penelope
Raven, Neil
Snell, K. D. M.
Reviewer(s):Burnette, Joyce

Published by EH.NET (March 2005)


Penelope Lane, Neil Raven, and K. D. M. Snell, editors, Women, Work, and Wages in England, 1600-1850. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2004. xi + 239 pp. $90 (hardcover), ISBN: 1-84383-077-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Joyce Burnette, Department of Economics, Wabash College.

If you are wary of buying edited collections because they often turn out to be simply reprints of articles published elsewhere, or because the quality of the articles is sometimes disappointing, you can cast aside your fears in this case. The articles collected in this volume offer high-quality original research that deserves attention from scholars in the field, and that students will find readable and informative. The book does not try to cover all aspects of women’s work, but highlights some aspects of women’s work that have not been widely studied in the past.

The multi-dimensional nature of women’s work experiences is a theme that runs through many chapters. A good example is the chapter by Steven King, who notes that poor relief payments were not so much an alternative to work as a complement to it, supplementing low earnings. Letters women wrote to overseers requesting payment emphasized their work activities. King emphasizes women’s agency, as they pieced together incomes by combining these sources, and suggests that overseers of the poor seem to have been more sympathetic to requests from women than to those from men.

The importance of the poor law system in the lives of the poor is well documented in this volume. In addition to the chapter by King, chapters by Steve Hindle and Samantha Williams examine the pauper apprentice system in the seventeenth century and sick-nurses paid by the poor relief system. In Hindle’s chapter we see a coercive poor law system; poor parents were forced to part with their children, and masters were forced to take pauper apprentices. Overseers seem to have been more concerned with preventing idleness than with providing training, and most pauper apprentices were bound to the trades of husbandry and housewifery rather than to more skilled trades. For another perspective on the poor law system, Williams uses poor law records to examine the otherwise ill-documented female occupation of nursing. Some of the nurses hired by the parish were also poor relief recipients, but they were the minority. Some women combined occasional nursing work with other types of casual work, but other women were regular nurses. There is also evidence that a private market in nursing services existed.

We also see that women’s economic lives included more than just paid employment in the chapter by Pamela Sharpe on the wives of men sailing for the East India Company. Though they received a portion of their husband’s salaries, sailors’ wives still had to rely on various types of work such as making supplies or packing goods for the Company, or taking in lodgers. But the participation of these women in the economy included much more than paid work. These women had greater independence than most other married women; they could represent their husbands in court, and conduct business in their husband’s name. The seaman’s right to carry a small amount of cargo meant that sailing families engaged in private trade.

Another theme that runs through many of the chapters is the question of whether wages were determined by custom or market forces, or by some combination of the two. Various authors take different positions on this question. Penelope Lane argues that the gap between male and female wages cannot be explained by productivity. As her chapter is largely a refutation of my 1997 Economic History Review article, I will leave it to the reader to decide whose arguments are more compelling. Nicola Verdon concludes that, while productivity differences did play a role in creating the wage gap among agricultural laborers, the market explanation is not sufficient to explain observed wages. She points to the inflexibility of wages as evidence that wages were at least partially determined by custom. Michael Roberts also appeals to the stability of wages over long periods of time, a feature which he suggests can only be understood by appealing to culture. Not everyone, however, agrees that women’s wages were inflexible. While he suggests that female wages were in some instances sticky, perhaps due to income supplements from the poor law, Steven King notes that female wages in the Lancashire textile industry did respond to supply and demand conditions. Roberts notes that even if the money wage was fixed, the value of the portion of the wage given in kind fluctuated. Penelope Lane admits that wages may have responded to market conditions, but she does not admit this as a refutation of customary wages, noting that “flexibility that breaks with custom is not evidence of a market wage” (p. 118). This raises the questions of what would constitute evidence of market wages, and whether we simply have two different stories that we might tell about the same observable phenomenon. Part of what makes the debate about customary wages difficult is that historians disagree not only about the characteristics of wages in the past, but also about what characteristics customary wages would have. There is no definition of “customary wages” agreed upon by all, and often the claim that wages were customary lacks testable implications.

Michael Roberts suggests a different approach: instead of setting up a dichotomy between custom and the market, we should acknowledge the extent to which they work together. Customs might actually help the market to operate by providing information. There is much truth in this. Custom and market usually pointed in the same direction, and thus were compatible. Does this mean the debate between customary and market wages is futile? Surely there must have been some cases where custom and market conflicted, and it is meaningful to ask which took precedence. Even if the locomotive and the caboose usually go in the same direction, it is still worth knowing which is driving the train and which is following behind.

While suggesting that custom and market may be compatible, Roberts still emphasizes custom in his chapter on harvest work. He criticizes his own earlier study of harvest labor for focusing too narrowly on the process of cutting the crop, and in this chapter branches out to talk about the customs and folklore of the harvest, as well as the manufacture of scythes. He highlights the variation across regions and over time in the work women did, even within a specific task such as harvesting.

Neil Raven turns his attention to the relatively neglected factories of southern England. Cheap female labor attracted factories to the countryside, but limited the potential for growth since the wages were too low to attract labor from other locations. These southern factories maintained ties to London, so that the southern towns did not contain the wide range of ancillary trades present in northern towns.

Examining the wage accounts of southern farms, Nicola Verdon finds that at some farms women were an important part of the workforce engaged in a wide variety of tasks, while at other farms women were used only for a few seasonal tasks. Contrary to what is sometimes supposed, the Napoleonic Wars do not seem to have caused an increase in female farm employment. While the “petticoat harvest” is a compelling image, there is no evidence of it in the farm accounts. Verdon finds some variation in women’s wages, but 8d. was the most common wage paid over the three decades between 1800 and 1830. She also notes that female wages were less likely than male wages to vary from one individual to another. Male wages varied more with skill, and men were more likely to be paid piece-rates.

Joyce Burnette is Associate Professor of Economics at Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Indiana. Her most recent work is “The Wages and Employment of Female Day-labourers in English Agriculture, 1740-1850,” Economic History Review, November 2004.


Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century