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The Ellen McArthur Lectures 2016

When Mar 01, 2016 05:00 PM to
Mar 02, 2016 07:00 PM
Where LG18 Law Faculty, University of Cambridge
Contact Name
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Eve also delvedGendering Economic History

Professor Jane Humphries (Oxford)


23rd & 24th February, 1st & 2nd March 2016


Women from all times and regions will be seen about their daily lives, at work and at home, in these 4 lectures.  New sources will be used to reconstruct and analyze their many productive contributions to their families and communities.  Snapshots in time and micro studies underpin a more general account which can then be related to the grand narratives of British economic history. I will argue that we need to acknowledge the productive activities of women and children to build not only a more complete but a more correct economic history.


1. Women, work and wages: from the Black Death to the industrial revolution


Lecture 1 builds on earlier work (with Jacob Weisdorf (2015)) in using historical evidence on women’s wages as a lens through which to view their economic activities and position in society.  We have linked material provided by other historians to the fragmentary evidence from diverse primary sources on women’s wages to provide an account of women’s wages from the Black Death to the Industrial Revolution.  These estimates can be compared with various widely accepted series of men’s wages over the same time period in a historic account of the evolution of the gender gap in pay.  Not only does this cast new light on debates about the power of capitalist development to fracture patriarchal continuities, it also challenges two recent mainstream themes in economic history.  The first challenge is to the idea of a girl-powered boost to economic growth following the Black Death.  Both De Moor and van Zanden (2010) and Voitländer and Voth (2013) have argued that the restructuring of agrarian production in response to demographic contraction by enhancing the relative remuneration of women workers promoted delayed marriage and reduced Malthusian pressures enabling increased investment, especially investment in human capital.  The empirical record appears out of synch with this interpretation and forces new ways of thinking about the 15th century reaction.  The second challenge is to the now dominant interpretation of the British industrial revolution as originating in a ‘high wage economy’. In this interpretation the high cost of labour relative to capital and fuel incentivised innovation and the adoption of the new techniques elevating Britain onto a higher growth trajectory inaccessible to competitors in Europe and Asia.  Recently women and children have been explicitly included in this high wage economy albeit with minimal empirical evidence available in support.  The lecture will explore whether the early modern and modern evidence on women’s wages is consistent with the HWE.





2. The spinster: a tragic heroine of the industrial revolution?


Lecture 2 takes these arguments down to a specific occupational/industrial case study in terms of the tragic fate of the hand spinner, an until recently forgotten figure in the British industrial revolution.  This has changed with the success of Robert Allen’s ‘high wage economy’ interpretation of industrialisation, and inclusion of the spinning jenny in his list of macro inventions.  The spinster moves from the economic periphery to centre stage, her earnings depicted as growing sufficiently dramatically to prompt the invention and innovation which placed the textile industry in the vanguard of the first industrial revolution, a perspective which rests heavily on Craig Muldrew’s earlier empirical work on the extent and remuneration of hand spinning. The lecture draws on current research (with Ben Schneider) which uses previously neglected sources to estimate the productivity, employment and wages of female and child spinners. In contrast to the high wage view, our data do not show a steady rise in wages prior to the spinning innovations of the 1760s and 1770s.  I will speculate why spinners did not share in the HWE and suggest an alternative interpretation of the appearance and expansion of the factory system.


3. History from underneath: women and girls’ experience in the era of industrialisation


Lecture 3 also builds on earlier work, in this case using working-class autobiographies to uncover the experiences of families which lived through the industrial revolution.  My 2010 book used proletarian life writing to uncover aspects of work and family life inaccessible through conventional historical sources.  But all 600 plus accounts were authored by men and so presented an exclusively male perspective.  In the lecture I will draw on women’s stories to provide female reflections on childhood, child labour, schooling, parenting and family life, looking particularly at the ways in which experience was gendered and speculating about its implications for our understanding of the division of labour and the cultural power of gender in post-industrial society. 


4. The nature and causes of the male breadwinner family


Lecture 4 returns to a longstanding debate in economic history and gender studies in terms of the chronology, nature, causes, and consequences of the rise of the male-breadwinner family structure.  It will revisit this debate drawing on earlier work with Sara Horrell as well as recent research findings including ideas and arguments discussed in the earlier lectures.


New joint degrees start October 2017