Thinking about the History of Women’s Work in the Age of Covid-19

Since the implementation of restrictions on movement in the UK since 23 March 2020, there have been extensive discussions about how best to protect key-workers who are continuing to ensure that the population is able to access food, medicines and other essential items during the lock-down. Employees of the NHS and care-workers have been singled out for particular praise, with the efforts being made by the latter to tend to those who have succumbed to Covid-19 being recognised by weekly outbreaks of applause across the country.

 

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As historians of gender and economics are well-aware, it is women who have long been (and continue to be) prominent in those sectors of the economy which we are relying upon during this crisis. Thanks to the work of historians of medieval England such as Judith Bennett, Jeremy Goldberg and Marjorie McIntosh we have extensive knowledge of the prominent roles women have played as manufacturers, retailers and medical workers since the 14th century (itself a period of extensive demographic crises, the most well-known being the Black Death which swept across Europe in the 1340s and 1350s).

Identifying the working practices and economic contributions of women within the pre-industrial era (roughly the period 1300-1850 CE) has been a challenge for historians. Men’s work was regulated and recorded in guild records, and men were asked to reveal their occupation when deposing in law courts, but women were less likely to be apprenticed, and were asked about their marital rather than occupational status by legal officials.

 

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Recent research by Jane Whittle, Mark Hailwood and their team of postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers at the University of Exeter has started to improve our understanding of women’s (and men’s) contributions to the early modern economy. Using a ‘verb-oriented’ methodology previously deployed by Sheilagh Ogilvie (for Germany), Maria Ågren and her co-workers (for Sweden), and Alexandra Shepard and Judith Spicksley (for England), Whittle and Hailwood have started to identify the full range of forms of work (paid and unpaid) which women and men undertook between 1500 and 1700

What this research has encouraged is a rethinking of what has enabled economic growth in previous centuries, including a recognition that economic growth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries rested on the paid and unpaid labour of both women and men. In the coming months as the virus begins to subside, attention will turn similarly to how the economy might recover after the crisis has broken. On the day I wrote this blog the financial headlines were highlighting the stagnation of national economies in Western Europe, and recent weeks have seen extensive debates about the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on furloughed staff and precarious workers in the gig economy.

Yet there are signs of hope. On 8 April 2020 it was reported that municipal authorities in Amsterdam have decided to build the economic recovery of the city around principles outlined by the economist Kate Raworth in her book Doughnut Economics. Raworth emphasizes the need for economies to be built on the provision of everyday necessities such as food, clean water, housing, sanitation, energy, education, and healthcare. Gender equality is at the heart of her analysis too, unsurprising given women play (and have played) a prominent role in ensuring the provision of these services and commodities.

Given that the General Crisis of the seventeenth century coincided with the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic it will be interesting to see if the modern burghers of Amsterdam can repeat the feat with the help of a feminist economist and an economy in which the labour of all is valued.

 

Tim Reinke-Williams, Senior Lecturer in History

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