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Dividing the day: Gender, work and time-use in 18th and 19th century Britain

Dividing the day: Gender, work and time-use in 18th and 19th century Britain

Sophie McGeevor, PhD student in History

PhD student in History, Sophie McGeevor, has always been interested in the history of women as economic actors and where these women fit within a broader picture of social and economic history. Her MPhil research was based on an assessment of the reliability of the enumeration of women's work in the 1851 census. This research, and the secondary reading undertaken in preparation for it, made her aware of how problematic the study of women's work in the past can be. In particular this research recognised that:

  1. Prior to the 1851 census when women's occupations are visible in the sources, they are predominantly those who were household heads (that is widows and unmarried women who were not co-resident with a male relative).
  2. That these 'visible' women tend to lie at the extremes of poverty and independence – those who were relatively well-off business owners, or alternatively, the poorest in need of charity, thereby giving minimal insight into the experiences of the majority who lay between these extremes.
  3. That prior to the 1851 census, and after it, occupational descriptors can conceal what the secondary sources suggest was the predominantly seasonal, part-time or casual work of women.
  4. By prioritising remunerated work over that which goes unpaid, we fail to acknowledge the vital economic, social and cultural importance of this work in both past and present societies.

Embarking on the first year of doctoral research, Sophie McGeevor intends to research women's work prior to the 1851 census, particularly in the classic period of industrialisation (1760-1830). With reference to the considerations outlined above the broad objectives for this research are to:

  1. Quantify the work of both married and unmarried women; those who were dependent and independent.
  2. Study women across the spectrum of economic status not just those at the relative extremes of poverty and wealth.
  3. Find a way to capture the seasonal, part-time or casual work of women.
  4. Include both paid and unpaid work in the research.

How is this to be done? The answer appears to be to study time-use; how individuals allocate their time towards different activities, principally production for the home, production for the market and time spent at leisure. This approach with regards to women's work has been pioneered by Sheila Ogilvie in her study of early modern Germany.[1] Using church court records spanning more than a century and a half Ogilivie created a database of what she described as 'references to tasks being carried out.'[2] So rather than including instances of women and men described as 'agricultural labourers' what were recorded were instances of women who 'picked stones from a field' or men who 'threshed wheat' for example. This approach has since been further developed by the Gender and Work Group at Uppsala University in Sweden.[3] The Gender and Work Group have created a database of women's and men's work using what they call the 'verb-orientated' method. This means that the focus is on the activity in question (a verb) rather than an occupational descriptor (a noun). In practice this means recording a transitive verb (for instance “to wash”) followed by an object (a “shirt”). This approach makes it possible to quantify the work of those not ascribed an occupational descriptor, and allows for a broader definition of work.

The intention is to apply the 'verb-orientated' method to English sources from roughly the last quarter of the eighteenth century to the first quarter of the nineteenth. The principal source hoped to be made use of are the digitised depositions of the Old Bailey.[4] These have already been utilised very successfully in Joachim Voth's study of time-use (though he was specifically concerned with changes in labour inputs rather than work per se).[5] The depositions contain the verbatim statements of those who witnessed crimes, and it is from these accounts - which contain details of what the witness was doing at the time of the crime - that the present research will extract and database information about both male and female activity patterns. With a large enough sample it should be possible to get a clearer and more quantitative sense of the time-allocation of both men and women towards production for the home, production for the market and leisure. Sophie is interested in the type of activities being carried out, the location where these activities occur and any additional variables which may provide an insight into the difference between male and female time allocation.


[1] Sheilagh Ogilvie, Bitter Living: Women, Markets and Social Capital in Early Modern Germany, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[2] Ibid., p. 24.

[3]See the Gender and Work website: http://gaw.hist.uu.se/ (last accessed 25.11.11)

[4] http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/

[5]Hans-Joachim Voth, Time and work in eighteenth century London, (Oxford: University of Oxford, 1997).