Sources for the study of women's work
In terms of historical sources which record women's work consistently, there are two distinct periods within the time span 1500-1911.
This is the census period, when detailed data nationwide is available from census enumerators' books at local level. From the censuses taken in the first half of the nineteenth century, aggregate national level data is available, but not the regional and local level detail. The Occupational Structure programme has created data sets and maps from national-level census data, and analysed them in preliminary reports and publications. In addition, Sophie McGeevor assessed the reliability of the 1851 census enumeration of women's work in a county study for her MPhil dissertation, and Xuesheng You is currently writing a PhD thesis on women's work as detailed in the census enumerators' books from 1851. Occupations recorded in the census are obviously not a comprehensive record of employment, but they do provide a base line level of labour force participation.
Since 2005, the Occupational Structure project has devoted significant resources to investigating potential sources for the quantitative analysis of female occupational structure in the pre-census period. Tracing women's occupations prior to the census requires a different approach, since the sources which have been used to identify male occupational structure either do not record any female occupations (i.e., militia lists), or do not record them with any frequency (parish birth and marriage records). And much women's work was not graced with the title of an occupation. However, there are five classes of sources in this period which survive in all regions of England, and from 1700 also in Wales and Scotland, which have potential for the examination of work performed by both women and men:
- Court depositions provide incidental references to work as well as occupations for men and some women.
- Account books, kept by individuals and institutions, record payments to employees, suppliers and casual labour.
- Apprenticeship records, kept by gilds, charitable institutions, and parish overseers of the poor, generally record the occupations to which children of both sexes were apprenticed.
- Parish population listings sometimes recorded occupations, and some of those included occupations for women as well as men.
- Insurance records from the eighteenth century provide simple sex ratios for those occupations wealthy enough to insure premises.
The first four source types appear in the sixteenth century and become more widespread in the seventeenth. We have applied for funding (2012) to undertake a full-scale analysis of sources across England in these two centuries, to incorporate both women's and men's work and occupations, using specifically identified sources for 1500-1700. From 1700, the volume of sources increases dramatically and insurance records begin in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. We have specifically identified sources for 1700-1850 for future analysis.
We have yet to explore in detail quantitative sources for women's work in the medieval period.