Alice Clark, working women’s historian

It’s over 80 years since Alice Clark wrote what is recognised as a classic work of women’s history: Working life of women in the seventeenth century (1919). However, it’s spent long periods since then out of print – and it’s out of print again at the moment (as far as I can tell), despite having been republished by Routledge in 1992 with a splendid new introduction by Amy Louise Eriksson. There was also a 1982 edition introduced by Jane Lewis and Miranda Chaytor, and a 1960s reprint of the first edition. I thoroughly recommend it, but you’ll have to try the library or hunt down a secondhand copy, I’m afraid. [edit: no longer true! the original edition can now be found in the Internet Archive]

In addition, there’s very little about Clark online (she is mentioned here [dead link]), which is my excuse for writing this. I have a soft spot for Alice Clark (not least for her maxim that “those who don’t make mistakes don’t make anything”). This was her only book. She wasn’t a conventional academic historian; rather, a feminist and businesswoman whose life encompassed many other activities and who only began historical research at the age of 38. In fact, she was a member of the Clark family, who were Quakers, of shoemaking fame (you know, those horrible sensible shoes you wore as a kid because your mum made you, except they recently got all trendy and cute).

Born in 1874, she was strongly influenced by the ‘first wave’ of feminism, particularly by debates about female economic dependence and ‘parasitism’ on men and its negative effects on women and society as a whole. She also needs to be understood in the context of early 20th-century concerns about the social effects of industrialisation and pioneering sociological investigations into contemporary conditions of the poor, and increasing interest in what was then called ‘economic history’ (it would now be termed social history). The contribution made to that historiography by women was subsequently ignored by many historians; feminist historians have in more recent decades worked to reconsider their significance.

Indeed, women were significant participants in what we might justifiably call the ‘first wave’ of (academic) social history in the early 20th century, only some of them writing women’s history. For its practitioners, it was just as important as the predominant political histories of states. But both social history and women’s history remained at the margins of the discipline.

This was in part because many of the practitioners were at the margins, or ‘amateurs’ working outside academic institutions, to which women were only just being admitted. Some universities were more welcoming than others. The London School of Economics was co-educational from its founding in 1895; women as both staff (including history professors such as Lilian Knowles and Eileen Power) and students constituted a significant minority presence. It was prepared to include unconventional students like Alice Clark, who was probably attracted by its concerns for contemporary social policy issues as much as the space it gave to economic history.

But before she went to the LSE, 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. And 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’.

She used a wide range of sources (most of them in printed editions rather than directly in the archives): letters, diaries, wills, account books, magistrates’ wage rate assessments, parish records, guild and municipal records, tax returns, workhouse records, as well as prescriptive literature, pamphlets and literary sources. They were often quoted at length, employing a technique of building up a larger picture through details about and by individuals.

She traced a three-stage process of change in the organisation of work, particularly affecting women:

1. “Domestic industry”: all production takes place within the family, which is entirely self-sufficient.
2. “Family industry” (existing alongside 1. during the middle ages into the 17th century): the family is the key unit for the production of goods for sale (or exchange). While some household members might work for wages, most of the work was carried out within the household, and its income belonged to the whole family rather than to individuals.
3. “Capitalistic industry or industrialism” (first introduced in the 13th century, but not significantly expanding until the late 17th century): production takes place outside the household, controlled by the owners of capital while labourers receive (and compete for) individual wages.

Different groups of women were, however, affected differently by these changes:

1. “Capitalists”, including both the aristocracy/gentry and nouveau-riche;
2. The “common people”, small farmers, independent tradesmen/artisans etc (whom Clark saw as both the largest group and the most vigorous and worthy)
3. Pitiful “wage earners”, trapped in poverty, a small but growing group.

Among women of the first group, activity and hardiness gave way to idleness, pleasure and parasitism; equally affected but in a very different way were women of the wage-earning group who were dependent on incomes insufficient to support families. Women who had worked in higher-status, economically rewarding crafts and trades and professions were increasingly squeezed out by demands for capital and/or specialist training, and forced into insecure, low-paid and low-skill sectors. Everywhere, she argued, the consequence was the diminishment of women’s roles and status within the household and with it their influence on society in general, as this period saw a fundamental transition from a society which did not rigidly distinguish between domestic occupations and other work settings, to the modern division between ‘home’ (for women) and ‘work’ (for men).

So, what do historians make of it 80+ years later? It would be surprising, really, if 3 decades of research since the 1968 reprint had not led to considerable modification of Clark’s work (she herself foresaw the possibility of it being discarded “when a deeper understanding of history becomes possible”). In some ways, it remains virtually unrivalled as a broad-ranging survey, since recent research has tended to be more specialised and narrowly focused. Many modern historians of work, including women’s work, would not argue with Clark’s broad conception of economic life and production. Research has more than demonstrated the key importance of the household and domestically-organised production in the early modern economy and society (and Clark was right: the ‘housewife’, whether you think of her as parasitic or an essential, unpaid service worker, is a modern invention). And her book, with its remarkable range and imaginative use of source materials, continues to stimulate research and ideas.

However, it’s agreed 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.

Clark’s pessimistic view of modernisation has been criticised in view of long-term continuities in women’s work (low-paid, unskilled, casual, etc), and her emphasis on capitalism as the primary driving force with overwhelmingly negative effects has been challenged. Capitalism, from ‘putting out’ industries to the new factories of the 19th century, could equally offer women new working opportunities. The average differences between men’s wages and women’s wages have remained virtually unchanged since the middle ages. The single line downwards from a past ‘golden age’ has been rejected. Equally, though, its opposite, ‘whiggish’ celebratory accounts of ‘progress’ for women into modernity, are treated with much more caution too. Clark’s research reminds us that there are alternative, more sobering, interpretations.


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

Judith Bennett, ‘ “History that stands still”: women’s work in the European past’, Feminist Studies 14 (1988)

Maxine Berg, ‘The first women economic historians’, Economic History Review XLV (1992)

Maxine Berg, A woman in history: Eileen Power, 1889-1940 (1996)

Lindsey Charles and Lornal Duffin (eds), Women and work in pre-industrial England (1985)

Michael Roberts, ‘Sickles and scythes: women’s work and men’s work at harvest time’, History Workshop Journal 7 (1979)

Michael Roberts, ‘Women and work in sixteenth-century English towns’, in Penelope Corfield and Derek Keene (eds), Work in Towns 850-1850 (1990)

Olive Schreiner, Women and labour (1911)

Amanda Vickery, ‘Golden age to separate spheres: a review of the categories and chronology of English women’s history’, Historical Journal 36 (1993)

* For those with access, Alice Clark is in the Online DNB *

(And after all this activity in the last couple of days, I think I might just go into blogging hibernation for the rest of week…)


5 thoughts on “Alice Clark, working women’s historian”

  1. Dang! I rushed right to to look for a copy but it’s out of my price range. Will have to try the library. Thanks for the tip!

  2. Melinama, check The 1968/1982 editions can be found very cheaply there (the 1992 one is a bit more expensive). Even first editions, if you’re not worried about condition (though I saw one for several hundred pounds (?dollars) yesterday…!).

    ADM, they’ll wait for you, promise. (And at the end of the month I’ll probably do a roundup with links to everything I’ve posted, just in case anybody misses anything.)

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