Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Working Life Of Women In The Seventeenth Century Alice Clark 2012 400 pages.

  Those who don’t make mistakes don’t make anything”
 Alice Clark

 I would like to begin this review by saying the history world owes a tremendous debt to the publisher Forgotten Books for digitally re-mastering this important book. The book forms a part of a classic reprint series which uses the latest technology to bring to life facsimiles of “historically important writings”.

If ever a book qualified as a historically important book it is this one. In fact I would go as far to say that it should be on every university reading list covering the early modern period. The fact that it is not is not only down to political short sightedness but the fact that universities are now dominated by revisionist trends that are hostile to economic or deterministic writing.

In an age when Women’s history writing is dominated by Gender studies Clark’s book is a tremendous antidote to this form of historiography. An economic/class based analysis of working women in the 17Th century is an anomaly. This was not the case when Clark wrote her book over 80 years ago.

It would not be an overstatement to label it “a classic work of women’s history”. It is a shame that she only wrote one book. While the book has a rigorous academic look to it Clark was not an academic historian only started to take history seriously at the age of 38.

The book and Clark herself is sympathetic towards the working women she portrays and the book contains a basic anti-capitalist sentiment. Born in 1874 Clark was certainly no Marxist but must have been influenced by the growth of Communist ideas towards the late 19th century and early 20th century and would have been radicalised by the crisis gripping world capitalism.

Clark had a very rudimentary understanding of the nature of capitalism in her book, this is expressed by her statement saying “Perhaps it is impossible to say what exactly constitutes a capitalist, and no attempt will be made to define the term, which is used here to include the aristocracy who had long been accustomed to the control of wealth, and also those families whose wealth had been newly acquired through trade or commerce. The second group conforms more nearly to the ideas generally understood by the term capitalist; but in English society the two groups are closely related”. (Chapter 2 page 14)

Alice Clark's family was closely linked to leading figures of the organized movement for women's rights in the 1860s, including her mother, and her great-aunts, Priscilla Bright McLaren, Margaret Tanner, and Mary and Anna Maria Priestman. According to Online DNB by Sandra Stanley Holton “she followed their example, working continuously on behalf of women's rights from early adulthood. From the 1890s she campaigned on behalf of women's suffrage as a member of the Women's Liberal Federation, helping form a branch in her locality. Temperance was another cause which she pursued during these years, alongside adult education”.

Clark’s link with the English revolution was direct as she came from a family of Quakers who were in the beginning of the revolution part of its left wing. The Clark family were shoemakers and were the forbears of the modern day shoe sellers dotted around major high streets. She held strongly feminist ideas. She was concerned about the effects industrialisation had on the women workers. Clark belongs to the school of historiography which is broadly called ‘economic history’ now called social history.

While this term has been accepted and used by modern historians that was not always the case. It would be correct to say that books examining women’s role in history have not had a large readership. The historian Keith Thomas who taught history at Oxford in the 1950s decided to set up a series of lectures on Women and the 17th century. Thomas’s attempt was met with at best indifference and worst outright hostility.   Her early life is described by Sharon Howard “she spent much of her adult life (despite long periods of illness) working in the family factory, starting with an informal apprentice, to become a director in 1904. She was active in the suffrage cause, as a Liberal and on the Friends’ Committee for the Relief of War Victims. She originally took up a studentship to research women’s history in 1913 during one of her enforced breaks for illness, and completed her research after the war.

After Working Life of Women was finished, she returned to the family business; she died in 1934. She began her book with a forceful rejection of any notion that women were “a static factor in social developments” and therefore unimportant in historical study. On the contrary, she argued, they changed considerably over time with changing environments, and those changes require careful study because of the close bonds between women and men and women’s (indirect) social and moral influence. She saw the seventeenth century as a period of profound change in English women’s lives; not perhaps in terms of most women’s actual experiences of change so much as in underlying trends – the forces represented by ‘capitalism”.

The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century was published in 1919. The study was ground breaking in many ways. The book underwent several reprinting’s. One writer said that the “study constitutes one of the most comprehensive surveys available on this topic”.

The striking thing about the book is her tremendous use of primary sources. Letters, diaries, wills, account books, magistrates’ wage rate assessments, parish records, guild and municipal records, tax returns, workhouse records. In many ways this type of historiography was the precursor to the school of “history from below”, which largely championed by the CPHG (Communist Party Historian group).

Her use of Quarter Sessions archives is one example of her use of primary sources to tell a story. This quote shows the tremendous suffering by women of the lower orders.

“The hardships suffered by the women of the wage earning class proved fatal to their children. Gregory King estimated that there were on an average only 33 persons, including father and mother in a labourer's family though he gives 4.8 as the average number of children for each family in villages and hamlet. Another writer gives 3 persons as the average number for a labourer's family. The cases of disputed settlements which are brought before Quarter Sessions confirm the substantial truth of these estimates. It is remarkable that where the father is living seldom more than two or three children are mentioned, often only one though in cases of widows where the poverty is recent and caused as it were by the accidental effect of the husband's premature death, there are often five to ten children. In Nottingham, of seventeen families, who had recently come to the town and been taken, in as tenants, and which the Council wanted to eject for fear of overcrowding, only one had four children, one three, and the rest only two or one child apiece.'

"In fact, however large the birth rate may have been, and this we have no means of ascertaining, few children in the wage-earning class were reared. Of those who reached maturity many were crippled in mind or body, forming a large class of unemployables destined to be a burthen instead of strength to the community. This appalling loss and suffering was not due to the excessive work of married women but to their underfeeding and bad housing. Probably the women of the wage-earning class actually accomplished less work than the women of the husbandman class ; but the latter worked under better conditions and were well nourished, with the result that their sons and daughters have been the backbone of the English nation”.( Page 87 Chapter 3 Agriculture) .

The main concentration of the book centres on how the early stages of capitalist development affected the lives of women in the 17th century. Clark examined differing strata of society. Of course rich women were affected differently than working women. Clark was enough of historian to recognise this. She categorised three different layers of the population. Capitalists, which included aristocracy/gentry and a growing middle sort  “common people”, small farmers, independent tradesmen/artisans  and lastly “wage earners”, trapped in poverty, a small but growing group. 

Howard is critical of her methodological study in “that her chronological framework was unsatisfactory and too simplistic. A number of developments she associated with the seventeenth century (such as the ‘masculinisation’ of professions like midwifery, and the removal of most production from the domestic environment) properly belong to the later 18th century or even later. She equated ‘capitalism’ with ‘industrialism’, but the former undoubtedly preceded the latter by some centuries. Further, subsistence household economies were already extremely rare by the 17th century”. 

Howard also believes that Clark’s had a “pessimistic view of modernisation”.  Which is true to a certain extent? Clark is correct in her attack on the worst excesses of capitalism but her alternative is to mitigate the worst parts of capitalism.  The book is well worth reading and should be on any serious students reading list.

Reading
  
Alice Clark, Working life of women in the seventeenth century, intro and ed by Amy Louise Eriksson (3rd edn, 1992 [1919])

 Unbridled Spirits- Women of the English Revolution Stevie Davies 1998

Alice Clark, working women's historian Sharon Howard http://emn.sharonhoward.org/2005/03/alice-clark-working-women/

 Alice Clark (1874–1934 Sandra Stanley Holton http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/38517?docPos=1