Starting in the late 1990s, historians like Deborah Simonton and Judith Bennett argued that if we take a step back a look at the longue duree of women’s history, the evidence suggests that even as Europe’s economies transformed from market places to market economies, women’s work–and the value placed on gendered labor–was and continues to be remarkably (and frustratingly) consistent. There was not, in fact, a transformative moment ushered in by capitalism, industrialization, or post-industrialization for women. Even when factoring in race, urban/rural divides, and class, European (and American) women’s labor was always valued less than men’s, whether in the “household economies” or guilds of the medieval period, on the factory floors of the industrial era, or in the office cubicles of our more recent history. Today we’re going to take a step back and look at the longer history of the gender wage gap, where we can see the continuity in women’s work from the 14th century to the present.

Transcript for: Continuity & the Gender Wage Gap: Or, How Patriarchy Ruins Everything Part II

Written and researched by Averill Earls, PhD

Recorded by Averill Earls and Elizabeth Garner Masarik, PhD

Elizabeth: In East Riding, Yorkshire, between 1363 and 1364, adult women harvest workers earned 71% of the wages that adult men did for the same manual labor.[1] In 1970 Britain, women earned 70% of the hourly rate of men.[2] As recently as 2018, women earned 86% of what men did in an hourly wage if they worked full time. These figures are obviously not perfect comparisons. The first is super specific in geography and type of work, and the others are general, national, and cover all kinds of waged labor in the twentieth century. The first is a measure of the 14th century economy which had little in the way of waged labor to begin with, and the others are set in the 20th century and 21st at the end of Britain’s industrial era and in which most work outside the home was compensated in some way. While imperfect, these numbers might pique your interest. Are these isolated figures? If they are, what do they tell us about these moments? If they aren’t, what happened between them, what came before, and what does a persistent gender wage gap tell us about history?

Averill: Spoiler alert: These are not isolated figures, but fairly consistent trends across at least 700 years. Starting in the late 1990s, historians like Deborah Simonton and Judith Bennett argued that if we take a step back a look at the longue duree of women’s history, the evidence suggests that even as Europe’s economies transformed from market places to market economies, women’s work–and the value placed on gendered labor–was and continues to be remarkably (and frustratingly) consistent. There was not, in fact, a transformative moment ushered in by capitalism, industrialization, or post-industrialization for women. Even when factoring in race, urban/rural divides, and class, European (and American) women’s labor was always valued less than men’s, whether in the “household economies” or guilds of the medieval period, on the factory floors of the industrial era, or in the office cubicles of our more recent history. Today we’re going to take a step back and look at the longer history of the gender wage gap, where we can see the continuity in women’s work from the 14th century to the present.

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik


And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Elizabeth: We want to thank all of our Patreon supporters, and especially our fabulous Auger and Excavator level patrons: Hanna, Karl, Colin, Denise, Jessica, Edward, Lauren, Karen, Iris, Susan, Maria, and Lisa! We can’t thank you enough. Listener, if you’re not yet a patron of this show, it’s easy: just go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more.

Averill: Before we begin, we want to acknowledge that each of our episodes relies on the research and writing of historians and other scholars. When we first proposed our essay on Continuities to Perspectives magazine, friend of the show and Perspectives managing editor Laura Ansley texted me to say that our pitch reminded her immediately of Judith Bennett’s 2002 History Matters, which Laura had read in grad school. Though I’m not a medievalist by any stretch of the imagination, I too was familiar with Bennett, because her book on brewsters in 14th and 15th century England formed the basis for my witchcraft and beer episode from years ago. I hadn’t read History Matters, however, and Laura’s suggestion immediately piqued my interest. In History Matters, Judith Bennett issued a call for grappling with continuity in feminist histories. It seemed too perfect not to make her case study from the book – the gender wage gap – the focus of this episode. Though published over 20 years ago, her arguments still feel very relevant. She emphasized the importance of pre-modern studies in revealing the continuities in women’s lives – not because, like a recent AHA president suggested, we need to stop doing history that has connections to the present, but instead because we need to study the past – the deep past – to understand the present, especially in gender and women’s histories. She also insisted that we need to bring the language of “patriarchy” back into our scholarship. For this episode, I started with Bennett, Simonton, and responses to their works; then I turned to area studies. I also followed Bennett’s breadcrumbs to a number of medievalists whose insights onto guilds, marketplaces, women’s waged labor in agrarian and urban occupations, family structures, and the “household economy” were revelatory to me–so I hope that they will be to you too. You’ll find a full bibliography and notes for this episode at digpodcast.org

Elizabeth: I opened this series with an episode on the experiences of gendered wages, wage gaps, and exploitation of reproductive labor under capitalism. There is, as I argued in my episode, a clear thread of continuity in the experience of exploitation under capitalism, particularly for Black women but also women in general. There is, after all, no capitalism without enslaved and underwaged labor, the uncompensated and unvalued carework performed primarily by women and gendered as feminine, and exploitation. That was true in 1619, 1776, and 1861, and it is still true right now. But what Judith Bennett and other medievalists have shown is that a lot of these conditions are not specific to capitalism–even though capitalism relies on them.

Averill: Historian Judith Bennett synthesizes the scholarship on the gender wage gap from 1350-1700, using dozens of medieval and early modern studies of laborers, wages, and gender in England and Europe. From her work we learn that the gender wage gap–across professions, social classes, urban/rural divides, and centuries–was consistent. Women earned between 50-75% of what men earned in Europe over the last 700 years. This wage gap was a general rule in the wage labor market and even when men and women were doing the same work.

Elizabeth: Similarly, Deborah Simonton argues the same for the period 1700 to the present. Both Bennett and Simonton demonstrate that in the “household economy,” the types of work undertaken by women, the involvement of women in guilds, and the real wages paid to female workers remained constant from the 14th century to the 21st century. While England’s economic system, political society, social hierarchies, and national sense of identity changed dramatically in those 650 years, in many ways – including in how their labor was valued (or rather, was not valued) – women’s lives did not change.

Averill: Since Frederick Engels first critiqued capitalism’s impact on women and the family, there have been two dominant theses about the history of European women’s labor. The first, proposed by scholars like Alice Clark in her 1919 Working Life of Women in the 17th Century, was that prior to industrialization, European women’s work was vigorous, regarded as competent and enterprising, and valued in the pre-capitalist household economy. In Clark’s estimation, industrialization devalued women’s labor and disrupted a ‘golden age’ of women’s work. Conversely, but following the same logic, other historians, like Ivy Pinchbeck writing in 1930, argued that the industrial revolution reshaped domestic life, offered women waged work in ever-bettering conditions, and an improved status from the Dark Ages. Both Clark and Pinchbeck proposed that there was a major transformation in European women’s lives, and that transformation was ushered in by the engines of capitalism. Whether it was the medieval period or the industrial era, numerous historians have asserted that there was a golden age of women’s labor, and that capitalism and industrialization had an impact on it.

Elizabeth: This idea that the medieval period was a “golden age” for working women and that the early modern period ushered in a period of decline is a popular feminist myth.[3] Marjorie McIntosh’s Working Women in English Society 1300-1620 argues that medieval businesswomen “of independent authority” in trades and crafts (like brewing and moneylending) suffered a “real loss” in the 17th century with the emergence of capitalism.[4] But in her pointed rebuttal of this mythology, Judith Bennett argues that the status of women and their work remained the same between 1350 and 1700. In that time, women’s work was considered less skilled and less valuable, as in the case of brewing ale, than the trades of men. In other words, if it was women’s work, it was probably unprofitable.

Depiction of an alewife from the Smithfield Decretals, c. 1300

Averill: As some of you will remember, Judith Bennett charted the shift in the profitability of brewing ale and beer in the late medieval period. As the demand for the brew grew, what had once been a side hustle business for women shifted into a profession that could be extremely profitable. Once it was a viable occupation in which one could earn enough money to only do that one job, women were pushed out of the industry by men. Medieval brewers and other men spread rumors about their women competitors, passed laws that made it illegal for women to be in public houses where ale was sold, and issued sermons about the moral danger pubs posed to women’s chastity and virtue.

Elizabeth: The belief that the medieval household economy was more egalitarian than the industrial household is another popular myth supporting the idea that the medieval period was a golden era for laboring women. Women contributed to – were essential to – the success of the businesses run out of households, but as Bennett notes, women’s work was always less valued than men’s work. Married men typically held one occupation, and that was the occupation of the household — but to make the “household economy” work, women had to supplement with multiple jobs, including raising livestock, selling food, brewing ale, making clothing, and also taking care of the children, preparing meals, and keeping the house.[5] These were not the markers of a world in which women’s labor was valued and equal to that of men. And contemporaries were well aware of the inequities of the medieval economy.

Averill: When, for example, in 1363 the city of Exeter passed a law that allowed women artisans to follow multiple trades even as it restricted men to just one, they codified generally accepted truths: that men would be able to subsist on a single-occupation income, as their labor was adequately valued, but that women doing the same trades would receive less money for their crafts, lower wages for their work, and lesser status in these organizations — just as was the case in the so-called “household economy.” As Bennett puts it, “For women, the medieval household economy was not an egalitarian refuge that capitalism and industrialism somehow cruelly undermined.”[6]

Elizabeth: Guilds, a foundation of the late medieval economy, were a place where women could have, in theory, been compensated equally for their work. But in reality women were never truly equal members of guilds. Even widows, who were granted the power to oversee guild workshops, hire apprentices, and participate in some guild social occasions, were not equal to their male peers. As Bennett notes, they were effectively just placeholders until the next generation of men was ready to take over. They weren’t franchised, their participation in guild ceremonies was limited, and their numbers were always small.[7] Many scholars have argued that modernity, and the end of guilds, was a major blow to working women; but Bennett argues that women’s roles within guilds were as marginal and undervalued as in every other work setting. The exceptions – women-only textile guilds in Rouen, Paris, Cologne, and Nordlingen that flourished into the eighteenth century – just prove the rule.[8]

Averill: Several historians, like James Thorold Rogers, William Beveridge, and Simon Penn, argued that men and women’s wages were equal in the 14th century after the 1348-1349 plague that killed anywhere between ⅓ and ½ of England’s population. Rogers, Beveridge, and Penn, writing in the 1880s, 1950s, and 1980s, all claimed that unskilled workers could and did earn the same wage no matter their gender. But their assertions lacked detailed quantitative data. Sandy Bardsley, on the other hand, conducted an analysis of a detailed wage list from 1363-64, and demonstrated that a fully grown adult woman could make as much as a male laborer – as long as that male was disabled or a child. The wage gap in 1330, 1360, 1400, and so on, was consistent; women only earned between 50% and 75% of what men earned throughout that period. That wage gap has been consistent in Europe from at least the medieval period through 2002. And in the 22 years since Bennett published History Matters, it has been closing slowly in the UK, but otherwise persists. The gendered devaluation of women’s labor is apparently a hard custom to end.

Male Weaver, Nürnberg, c. 1425

WHAT PEOPLE THOUGHT ABOUT WOMEN AND THEIR ECONOMIC/LABOR VALUE

Elizabeth: Historians, of course, have theories about why women earned less wages than men in the medieval period. Some, like Joyce Burnette and John Hatcher, suggest that women’s wages reflect their lower “productivity” in the medieval and early modern waged workforce. Hatcher argues that women were less productive because of their “biology” — that they were weaker and had more “family distractions.”[9] Burnette argues that social conditions prevented women from being productive equals to men. Women had fewer education opportunities, fewer opportunities to learn skilled work, and generally received (or consumed) poorer nutrition.[10] In effect, these scholars argue that the wage gap was simply reflective of a “market wage,” in which women’s labor was measured as worth less because of their deficiencies.

Averill: Other scholars, like Donald Woodward and Judith Bennett, argue that the wage gap cannot be explained by the logic of “market forces,” but that instead that undervaluing women’s work was the “custom” of European patriarchal culture. As Woodward put it, “‘The low rates of pay given to most women in the early modern period were rooted in convictions – underscored by biblical authority – about their physical, economic and social, intellectual and political inferiority…which has characterised English society into the present century.”[11] In other words, it was the “customary” practice to underpay women, including for the same work that men were doing. That custom was established because the patriarchal European Christian churches and, thus, society, were built on an ideology of women’s inferiority in relation to men.

Elizabeth: Coverture, or the English common law practice of the femme couverte, erased a woman’s legal personhood on marriage to a man. (Marissa wrote a great episode on coverture years ago, check it out if you haven’t already!) As a custom that stretched from the 11th century to the 20th, coverture forced women to surrender all their property (and wages) to their husbands. As outlined in the Treatise on the Law and Customs of the Realm of England Commonly Called Glanvill, “Since legally a woman is completely in the power of her husband…her dower and all her other property are clearly deemed to be at his disposal.”[12] At the point of marriage and throughout the marriage, women’s businesses and labor were considered supplementary to their husband’s. Though some women could register as Femme sole (unmarried) for business purposes, this mostly only happened in London and a handful of towns. As Bennett notes, registering as femme sole for business purposes didn’t necessarily alter the household economy, but allowed her to trade or produce independent of her husband, and the custom seems likely to have developed to free husbands of their wives’ debts, rather than support economic independence of wives.[13]

Averill: I make my students listen to the coverture episode in like, every class I teach that even remotely touches on European gender history. Which is pretty much all of them, even when it isn’t.

Coverture was a product of the customs that marked women as inferior to men, thus undermining their potential economic power and public/political positionality. Laws in medieval western Europe were shaped by layered and complicated adoptions of Roman law, Judaic (Old Testament) law, and the customs and laws of the various “barbarian” kingdoms that settled in places like France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Coverture likely had Norman origins, entering the British Isles by way of the 1066 Norman conquest. Even though they shared interactions and legacies of the Roman empire and, in most kingdoms, Judeo-Christian traditions, all of these ethnic groups had their own customs that they issued as laws and edicts, and then adapted as was practical when challenged by valued subjects (aka, men). The early medieval status of women in these law codes varied across the western continent and British Isles.

Elizabeth: For example, widows could pose a particular problem for early modern men. Widows were rarely if ever simply inheritors of their husbands estates and property, unless their husbands had the forethought to jump through legal hoops to make that so. Most medieval kingdoms had laws that protected widows, in part because the Bible framed widows as the person most in need of protection. Visigothic law made widows the guardian of her children, which was not always a given, as under some Roman laws. Anglo-Saxons provided for a widows who had children with assurances that her husband’s property and family home would provide for her. The Rothari in Italy allowed widows to be ‘retrieved’ by her father or brothers, as long as they took over guardianship of her. Lex Ribuaria gave a widow 50 solidi and “one third of everything [the couple had] worked together”. But when it came to inheriting her spouse’s property, most medieval law codes only granted her her dower or husband’s property for her lifetime, or until her children came of age. 

Averill: And various medieval kingdoms had provisions to control women not just in what was theirs, but in how they used their bodies. As Janet Nelson and Alice Rio note, “Visigothic law required the widow, if she wanted to keep all her property, to wait for at least a year before remarriage. Lombard law allowed the widow, on remarriage, to keep her dower provided her new husband handed over half of its value to the first husband’s relatives. In England, the Second Code of Cnut (1020/1) punished a widow who remarried within a year of her husband’s death by loss of dower as well as of other property.”[14]

Elizabeth: While varied, nowhere did the laws afford “daughters, sisters, mothers, and wives a position of economic equality within the family.” [15] Nelson and Rio suggest that the very different ways kings and princes (and almost always men) responded to applying practical solutions to legal interpretation led to a “fundamentally ambiguous and conflicted” place for women in the early medieval society and family, both “a highly prized asset and a crucial form of symbolic capital on the one hand, but also a heavy financial burden, a liability, and a weakness in men’s safeguarding of their honor.”[16] Significantly, though, Nelson and Rio show that while varied, what the diverse legal codes across western Europe do not demonstrate is that there was a “golden age” for women’s economic or political status in the early medieval period that was eroded in the late medieval and early modern period.

Averill: But more than the lack of a “Golden Age” transformative moment to something worse, what the early medieval laws across these kingdoms show is that lawmakers were worried about how to control women, how to make sure women – who, by customs of the era, had less economic power – were provided for, and how the “burden” of women should be shared between and within families.[17] Though there are fewer studies of women’s waged labor for this time period, what is clear is that there were still continuities in European customs regarding how those in power – men – understood and (de)valued women.

Elizabeth: The legal customs and actual law codes that marked women as lesser, inferior, in need of paternalistic “protection” (if for no other reason than the broader disenfranchisement and economic sidelining that the broader system created),  persisted for centuries. Even as we inch toward closing the gender wage gap today, these broader social and cultural beliefs about women are still pretty evident. I’m sure you all can think of many examples in the media, on your Facebook feed, whatever.

Averill: And this system of patriarchal paternalism certainly persisted throughout western Europe into the early modern period. In 1568, Edmund Tilley summed up the gendered ideas about the ‘household economy’: “The office of the husband is to go abroad in matters of profit; of the wife, well to keep them, The office of the husband is to go abroad in matters of profit; of the wife, to tarry at home and see all be well there. The office of the husband is to provide money; of the wife, not wastefully to spend it… The office of the husband is to be Lord of all; of the wife, to give account of all.”[18] In addition to showcasing the way men’s labor was quantifiable and women’s labor was valueless, I think Tilley’s hitting on another point of continuity that fits in with these broader social, cultural, and legal ideas about women. If I gave you that quote and asked you to date it, I bet you’d guess it was written in the 19th century rather than the 16th – because we have this idea that industrialization and ‘shifting gender roles’ turned the household economy into just a household, and moved economic means of production into the ‘public’ sphere. But as Tilley’s 16th century ponderings demonstrate, the gendered division of public and private predated both industrialization and the Victorian era. While, as Sarah Rees Jones shows, the gendered norms about spatial conduct were often contradicted and ignored, from early in the middle ages there were gendered understandings about domestic and public spaces. One was valued for its reproductive function in creating families; the other, of course, for its reproductive function in providing the material needs for the other. They were mutually reliant, but only one carried economic value.[19]

Elizabeth: In the 18th century, two sets of ideas shaped the concept of womanhood: Christianity, and Enlightenment thinkers, with (unfortunately) Rousseau’s ideas dominating the conversation. Though of course Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe des Gouges contributed their rebuttals to the misogynist perspectives that dominated the salons of the Enlightenment era, the most influential Enlightenment thinkers promoted particularly narrow ideas about what a woman was capable of and thus worth.

Averill: Take Rousseau’s description of the fictional Sophy, the archetype of woman in his understanding of the world: “Except for her sex, woman is like a man…. In whatever way one looks at them, the difference is only one of degree. Yet where sex is concerned woman and man are both complementary and different. …These similarities and differences must have an influence on morals; this effect is apparent and conforms with experience and shows the futility of the disputes over the superiority or the equality of the sexes…In the union of the sexes, each alike contributes to the common end, though in different ways. From this diversity springs the first difference that may be observed between man and woman in their moral relations. One should be strong and active, the other weak and passive; one must necessarily have both the power and the will, it is sufficient for the other to offer little resistance. This principle being established, it follows that woman was specifically made to please man. If man ought to please her in turn, the necessity is less direct. His merit lies in his power; he pleases simply because he is strong. I grant you this is not the law of love; but it is the law of nature, which is older than love itself.”

Elizabeth: Rousseau offers this description of Sophy and the feminine archetype as a foil for his description of how a young man should be educated, with lots of “experiential learning” and communing with nature. Significantly, in Rousseau’s opinion, to educate a woman in anything other than the womanly arts and domestic work would be a waste of time, for she is not only incapable of thinking the way a man can, but it would distract her from her “natural” inclinations. Here, then, we see Rousseau blending the Judeo-Christian customs regarding gender roles in society, and applying his theories of ‘natural’ rights and roles.

Averill: The combination of Christianity and Enlightenment ideas was that there was a ‘natural woman’ who was limited in her legal, social, economic, and educational abilities, and thus in need of a protector.[20] The logic here was that in an industrialized society, where the labor was heavy or robust, the physically weaker female body should be relegated to domestic pursuits. According to Adolf von Knigge, writing in 1788 Hanover, “The female sex was to remain as much excluded from involvement in the bourgeois public sphere as they were from the world of employment, and politics was certainly out of bounds. Women’s exclusive domain was the household or…the family.”[21]

Elizabeth: Similarly, writing in 1765, Englishman John Brown, vicar of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, wrote: “I. THAT the Female Frame of Person and Mind tends chiefly to fit and qualify the sex for domestic Life only. And II. THAT from this Frame of Person and Mind, conducted by a suitable Education, the Female Virtues prescribed by Christianity do naturally arise.”[22] Consistent in purpose and effect, from the very early medieval period (and presumably arising out of late antiquity Christianity and Judaism), gendered roles were translated into economic value / worthlessness.

Averill aside: And I wonder sometimes, reading these, used as evidence in medievalists tracts about customs in the 18th century, or early modernists, when they thought about gender and women’s capabilities, if this is just like the trolls or incels of their society saying these things, but then on the other hand, the evidence of things like the wage gap, even if these are the people who are expressing the most extremist views of gender, their ideas end up being what ends up happening, and the trolls of today are just saying what everyone is thinking


Elizabeth: right and “knowing”. Yeah, that’s an astute observation.

Averill: Yeah, also, makes me RAGE.

Averill: Bennett, and numerous other scholars, including Penelope Lane, argue that the wage gap in western Europe from the 14th century to the 19th century was customary — ideological — rather than accidental.[23] Women’s wages, like men’s wages, fluctuated in response to labor shortages and other economic forces. But the fact that women were usually paid lower wages because that was the custom. As one 13th century treatise advised, estate managers should hire women for certain tasks because she could be relied on to work for “much less money than a man would take.”[24]

THE KIND OF WORK WOMEN DID/DO HAS NOT CHANGED IN 650 YEARS — AND THAT KIND OF WORK IS BROADLY UNDERCOMPENSATED

Elizabeth: Significantly, the kinds of work women did or were expected to do are also part of these long term trends. In both 1380 and throughout the 17th century, 2/5 of all single women worked in domestic service, and 1/3 worked in textile or clothing manufacturing.[25] As we discussed in my episode in this series, this was generally true after industrialization and the rise of capitalism too. According to Judith Bennett and Peter Earle, writing about the 14th and 18th centuries respectively, the distribution of unmarried women into types of work, including carework, were remarkably similar across the centuries. In Southwark, England, in 1381, 38% of women were employed in domestic service, while in London between 1695-1725, 39.8% of women were in domestic service. In 1381, 12.3% of women worked in clothing-making or mending, and 17.9% did the same kind of work in 18th century London.[26]

Averill: What’s also interesting, however, is the ways that women were pushed out of industries once they were industrialized and waged in more systematic and consistent ways. For example, in the 14th century, 17.2% of women were engaged in textile manufacture; by the 18th century, only 3.6% of women were able to find waged work in textile manufacture.[27] Like the brewsters in the 14th century who were pushed out of the industry by men who saw economic opportunity after the Black Plague, we should not overlook the ways that the patriarchy oppresses women. In these cases of waged work, but also more broadly; patriarchy is reinforced and expressed in the men who make laws that govern women’s ability to work, make decisions for their bodies, or participate in public life, and men who issue religious and moral edicts about what is ‘appropriate’ behavior for women, who gets to use what bathrooms, or what role a woman should play in a household or relationship.  

Elizabeth: In both the 18th and 14th centuries, married women worked in many of the same occupations as single women, except domestic service, and more married women worked in victualling. Across all of these occupations, no matter what work they did, it was regarded as low-skilled, yielded low remuneration, and (by necessity) was combined easily with a wide variety of other work.[28] Women could not get by doing just one full-time job – if they could find “full time” work – because they were not compensated at a rate commensurate with that of their male counterparts.

Averill: According to Peter Earle, who compared his data on the late 17th and early 18th century to the 1851 census, the conditions he found among waged women workers persisted into the 19th century. He notes that “the general structure of occupations [was] very similar” in both periods, with the top four employments for women unchanged.[29] And we can see this still today, of course. Professions that became associated with women, like teaching, nursing, and various cleaning work, have long been underpaid. And even as those professions, coded as feminine, are underpaid, when men take those jobs, they tend to earn higher wages than their female counterparts. In one 2004 study, male nurses on average earned a higher wage premium, as they entered or were given management or in anesthetics.[30] Similarly among teachers, men on average receive higher wages than women, and dominate better-paid administrator positions. In 2020-21, women were 56 of all principles in public schools, but only 35.5 percent of high school principles.

Elizabeth: Bennett notes that the consistent devaluation of their labor and work from 1350 to 1700 (and beyond) and broader English (and European) treatment of women did not make for, as Peter Fleming put it, a story of “unalloyed gloom and repression.”[31] By Bennett’s estimation, though women faced considerable economic obstacles and were rarely allowed to make enough money at one occupation to provide for their families, most were able to piece together enough to support themselves and their loved ones. Many were undoubtedly satisfied with their lives and social roles, some may have even prospered.[32] “With a good husband and a happy marriage, a woman could achieve a satisfying working life. But such personal egalitarianism–when or even if it existed–was shadowed by inequality, for the husbands’s power remained in reserve, not fully yielded. With an indifferent husband or an abusive marriage, a woman could find herself a sort of servant to her husband or even cast aside altogether.”[33]

Averill: This was not a phenomenon specific to England, either. Pilar Beneito and Jose Garcia-Gomez repeat the assertion that the Industrial Revolution opened up “unprecedented opportunities for women to enter the labor market and carry out paid work.”[34] As Bennett points out, while true, the greater availability of waged jobs did not translate into a significant closing of the gender wage gap or a shift in the valuation of women’s labor. The patriarchal economic systems of Europe–from 1360 East Riding England to 1860 Alcoy Spain–even when there were exceptions to general rules, were largely consistent and oppressive to women.

An agricultural scene from the 14th-century English Luttrell Psalter, with a woman milking sheep and two women carrying vessels on their heads

Elizabeth: Working women experienced changes between 1350 and 2000 — the shift from medieval to modern — but not transformation. The changes were things like fluctuations in real wages, differentials between skilled and unskilled waged labor, and brief periods of ordinances denying women guild membership: ephemeral, and often impacting only a small minority of women. Cities grew, capitalism changed the relationship that people had to waged labor, new kinds of skilled and unskilled waged occupations developed, but in the long duree of European history, the wage gap continued, with women earning between 50-75% of men’s wages, including for doing the same work, a gap that was further complicated by race and class in this period. Capitalism and the modern economy did not transform women’s work – for better or worse. As Bennett put it: “Medieval women’s work was no paradise, nor, for that matter, an inferno; it was instead, in some broad respects, remarkably similar to women’s work today.”[35] 

Averill: Feminist historians have pointed to the rise of capitalism as a particularly transformative moment in working women’s lives, based on the mythology that in the pre-modern system, labor was more egalitarian and women’s contributions to the household economy were more highly valued than in the out-of-home labor market of capitalism. But Bennett (and others) have demonstrated that wasn’t the case. Bennett’s book History Matters seeks to complicate the way that historians, including feminist historians, look at history (with or without rose colored glasses), not to suggest that capitalism had a positive impact on working women (because it didn’t, as Elizabeth has already demonstrated in this series), but that when we look at the long duree of working European women, their labor has been devalued for hundreds of years, and conditions like the wage gap have wavered in the same demeaning range for at least 800 years. Probably longer.

Elizabeth: Bennett notes that feminists, including feminist historians, seem more comfortable with recording transformations, big leaps of progress and improvement in the lives of the oppressed and marginalized, perhaps because if we can reveal change in the past we can hope for change in our own futures. Or, as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese put it, “historians love to find traditional society, in all its reassuring stability, in the century that preceded the one they are studying.” But, Bennett reminds us, “the so-called ‘traditional’ woman probably never existed any more than some sort of ‘golden age’ for women did. Each of these views, in their own way, contains elements of modernization, implying that there is a continual progression to the modern age. Such an orientation in historical writing is dangerous and misleading. It suggests, first, that there is something perfect and resolved in our own age, which events hardly justify, and, second, tends to ignore the variations not only over time but across regions, which make it obvious that there is not just one route to the present, nor is the view of the past so simple.”[36]

Averill: It is true, of course, that not all women’s experience of these laws, customs, and social expectations were the same. Aristocratic women, for example, played a crucial role in preserving and transferring family wealth through marriage, gifts, and inheritance.[37] Despite coverture and earlier Anglo-Saxon laws that sought to empower patrilineal lines and concentrate economic power into men’s hands, the Domesday Book records 350 women, mostly women, “who held landed estates in 1066, accounting for 5 percent of total lands,” and, according to Jane Whittle, 10-14 percent of smaller landowners were women.[38] We have few records of day-to-day life in medieval Europe, so it’s hard to quantify, or even qualify, how these customs, laws, and trends were felt by medieval or even early modern Europeans. The exceptions though, prove the rule – so most women were inevitably negatively impacted by these systems, and felt the pressure and exhaustion from having to cobble together a living from side-hustles while also managing the family and keeping house. 

Elizabeth: The gendered wage gap has persisted to this day. In the UK, the government started tracking the gender wage gap in the 1920s.[39] Feminists in the 1970s and 80s celebrated the slowly closing gap between men and women’s wages, which went from 50% to 75% in a seemingly short period of time. Bennett points out that far from being a transformation in the valuation of women’s work and labor, the gender wage gap replicated the same range that had persisted in Europe for centuries. Rather than pointing to systemic change, the fluctuation was indistinguishable from any other century, with the end result – a lesser valuation of women’s labor in comparison to men’s – being the same.

Averill: Today in Britain and Northern Ireland, women make almost 85% of what men make. That number is about on par with the rest of Europe, plus or minus a few percentage points. Based on the calculations Bennett synthesized in History Matters, this moment we’re living in is the best women have ever done in waged labor. Still not equal pay for equal work, and notably the 2023 report notes that while 86% of men were in FT positions, only 61% of women were in full-time positions, which accounts for at least part of the real wage gap.[40] But overall, this is a modest improvement in the real wages, and one that seems to have broken free of the cyclical 50-75% range Bennett and other medievalists identified for the previous 700 years.

Elizabeth: Significantly, of course, what the numerically closing wage gap does not quantify is the actual distribution of labor, the types of work that women are encouraged to do / expected to do  and/or that become gendered as “feminine” and thus compensated lower, and the overwhelming gendering of uncompensated carework and domestic labor. These are shared experiences of women today with women in the eighth, fourteenth, eighteenth, and early twentieth centuries. The gender wage gap, and the gendering of waged and unwaged labor more broadly, are continuities that can help us (for better or worse) better understand the past.

Averill: In some ways, the way our patriarchal world makes us feel may well be feelings shared by women of the past. Maybe they didn’t have the language for it, but one needn’t even imagine the feelings of rage, insufficiency, and exclusion over men’s weaponized incompetence, fathers who are “such good dads” for “babysitting” their own children, mansplaining, and the emotional and intellectual exhaustion of running an entire household while also working full or part time to ensure our families are solvent. Like the wage gap itself, these are products of patriarchy. It has been the custom, shored up by law, religion, and culture, to treat women as inferior to men, whether we’re talking about their status as wage earners and as members of society. As Judith Bennett reminds us, patriarchy is the oppression of women. So rise and resist. And for fuck’s sake, vote.

Elizabeth: As always, we invite you to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at dig_history, or join our Facebook group – Dig History Pod Squad. If you have a comment or question or want to share some kind words with us, you can always email us at hello@digpodcast.org – we love listener mail! If you’re an educator, we’ve got a compendium of episodes you can use in the classroom – and free teaching resources, including full lesson plans! – on our website, digpodcast.org. We realize that recent changes to curriculum in states like Florida and Texas will complicate being able to use our podcast episodes in the classroom, so please reach out if there’s something we can do to be helpful to you and your classroom. You’ll also find full bibliographies, the scripts for all of our episodes, resources, and a link to our swag store at digpodcast.org.

Notes:


[1] Judith Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 92.

[2] Alex Bryson, Heather Joshi, and Box Wielgoszewska, “A short history of the gender wage gap in Britain,” Oxford review of economic policy 36:4 (2020) 835-854, 837.

[3] Bennett, History Matters, 95.

[4] Marjorie McIntosh, Working Women in English Society, 1300–1620, (Cambridge University Press, 2005) 252.

[5] Bennett, History Matters, 97.

[6] Bennett, History Matters, 101.

[7] Bennett, History Matters, 111.

[8] Bennett, History Matters, 111.

[9] Bennett, History Matters, 103.

[10] Joyce Burnett, “An Investigation of the Female-Male Wage Gap in the Industrial Revolution in Britain,” The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 50, No. 2 (May, 1997), pp. 257-281.

[11] Donald Woodward, Men at Work, Cambridge, 1995), 197. Qtd. in Penelope Lane, “A customary or market wage? Women and work in the East Midlands, c. 1700–1840,” Women, Work and Wages in England, 1600-1850 (Boydell Press, 2004) 102-103.

[12] The Treatise on the Law and Customs of the Realm of England Commonly Called Glanvill, ed. G.D. G. Hall (Lonson, Nelson, 1965), book 6, no. 3, p60, qtd in Bennett, History Matters, 99.

[13] Bennett, History Matters, 100.

[14] Janet L Nelson and Alice Rio, “Women and Laws in Early Medieval Europe,” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, (2013) 103-117, 113.

[15] Qtd. in Janet L Nelson and Alice Rio, “Women and Laws in Early Medieval Europe,” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, (2013) 103-117.

[16] Nelson and Rio, “Women and Laws in Early Medieval Europe,” 107.

[17] Nelson and Rio, “Women and Laws in Early Medieval Europe,” 114.

[18] Edmund Tilley, A Brief and Pleasant Discourse of Duties in Marriage, called the Flower of Friendship (1571), as quoted in Susan Amussen, an Ordered Society: Gender and Class in Early Modern England (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988) 43-44.

[19] Sarah Rees Jones, “Public and Private Space and Gender in Medieval Europe,” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe (2013) 246-261.

[20] Simonton, A History of European Women’s Work, 13.

[21] Qtd in Simonton, A History of European Women’s Work, 14.

[22] Qtd in Simonton, A History of European Women’s Work, 14.

[23] Penelope Lane, “A Customary or Market Wage? Women and Work in the East Midlands, c. 1700–1840,” in Women, Work and Wages in England, 1600-1850, (Cambridge university Press, 2004) 102-118.

[24] Dorothea Oschinsky, ed. Walter of Henley and other Treatises on Estatement Management and Accounting (Oxford University Press, 1971) 427, qtd. In Bennett, History Matter, 115.

[25] Bennett, History Matters, 102-103.

[26] Bennett, History Matters, 102-103.

[27] Bennett, History Matters, 102-103.

[28] Bennett, History Matters, 104.

[29] Peter Earle, “The Female Labor Market in London in the Late Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries,” Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 42 (1989): 328-53; 341-42.

[30] Cheryl Bland Jones and Michael Gates, “Gender-based wage differentials in a predominantly female profession: observations from nursing,” Economics of Education Review 23 (2004) 615-631.

[31] Peter Fleming, Women in Bristol, 21, qtd. In Bennett, History Matters, 113.

[32] Bennett, History Matters, 113.

[33] Bennett, History Matters, 100.

[34] Bennett, History Matters, 115.

[35] Bennett, History Matters, 117.

[36] Deborah Simonton, A History of European Women’s Work: 1700 to the Present (London, Routledge, 1998), 7.

[37] Joanna Drell, “Aristocratic Economies: Women and Family,” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe (2013) 327-342.

[38] Jane Whittle, “Rural Economics,” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe (2013) 311-326.

[39] Alex Bryson, David Wilkinson, Heather Joshi, and Bozen Wielgoszewska, “A Short History of the Gender Wage Gap in Britain,” Institute of Labor Economics (May 2020) 3.

[40] “Gender pay gap in the UK: 2023,” UK Office for National Statistics, available at https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/earningsandworkinghours/bulletins/genderpaygapintheuk/2023


Bibliography

Judith Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).

Joyce Burnette, “An Investigation of the Female-Male Wage Gap in the Industrial Revolution in Britain,” The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 50, No. 2 (May, 1997), pp. 257-281

Alex Bryson, David Wilkinson, Heather Joshi, and Bozen Wielgoszewska, “A Short History of the Gender Wage Gap in Britain,” Institute of Labor Economics (May 2020)

Alice Clark, Working Life of Women in the 17th Century (1919)

Joanna Drell, “Aristocratic Economies: Women and Family,” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe (2013) 327-342.

Peter Earle, “The Female Labor Market in London in the Late Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries,” Economic History Review, 2nd ser., 42 (1989): 328-53.

Frederick Engels, The origins of the family, private property and the state

Joan Kelly-Gadol, “Did Women have a renaissance” (1977)

Penelope Lane, “A Customary or Market Wage? Women and Work in the East Midlands, c. 1700–1840,” in Women, Work and Wages in England, 1600-1850, (Cambridge university Press, 2004)

Marjorie McIntosh, Working Women in English Society, 1300–1620, (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Janet L Nelson and Alice Rio, “Women and Laws in Early Medieval Europe,” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, (2013) 103-117.

Sarah Rees Jones, “Public and Private Space and Gender in Medieval Europe,” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe (2013) 246-261

Deborah Simonton, A History of European Women’s Work: 1700 to the Present (London, Routledge, 1998). 

Jane Whittle, “Rural Economics,” The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe (2013) 311-326

Donald Woodward, Men at Work, Cambridge, 1995), 197. Qtd. in Penelope Lane, “A customary or market wage? Women and work in the East Midlands, c. 1700–1840,” Women, Work and Wages in England, 1600-1850 (Boydell Press, 2004)


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