Conducts research and collects data on the global history of labour, workers, and labour relations

Women and Work Workshop

28 November 2003

Women and Work in the Early Modern Period - Workshop


 As many as 50 participants were present at the IISH workshop 'Women and work in the early modern period', which was held on Friday 28 November 2003 at the IISH in Amsterdam. The program was full and diverse, and the atmosphere and the discussions were good.

Ariadne Schmidt opened the day with an elaboration on this IISH research project as a whole. She also briefly clarified the theme of the day, continuity or change. Thereafter the different PhD-students shortly talked about their own research goals. The project of Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk deals with spinners in the Dutch Republic, women and wage labour in the textile industry. Marjolein van Dekken presented her research on women in the production and trade of beverages. Danielle van den Heuvel informed the public about her project, women in commerce. Hilde Timmerman concluded the joint presentation with her research on women in social services.

Then, three clusters of papers followed. In the first cluster, about women in different sectors of the economy, Piet van Cruyningen, talked about women's work in agriculture in Zeeland, Laura van Aert spoke about women in trade in Antwerpen, and Myriam Everard about women performing heavy (mainly industrial) work. The last speaker pleaded to let go of the domesticity theory as an explanation for the relative decline of women's activity in the early modern Dutch economy. The second cluster was devoted to the representation of labour. Marco van Leeuwen made a first attempt to a gender analysis of visual documents he has collected for his HISCO-website. Annette de Vries concluded in her presentation that pictures of workers were mainly meant as symbolic for virtues like diligence and labour in the 17th century, and that they are not necessarily a representation of the reality of work in daily life. It was interesting to notice that both historians were conscious of the importance of hidden meaning by the artists, but that they differed enormously about how to interpret these meanings. Do pictures tell us little or much about the work itself? The third cluster concerned the living strategies of women in the early modern period. Annette de Wit spoke about her research on the wives of sailors and fishermen, who stayed behind while their husbands were at sea, and how these women managed to survive. Lotte van de Pol pointed to the importance of all kinds of strategies apart from work, like the management of expenses, and networks, but also criminal behaviour, in the daily struggle poor women had to go through in order to survive in Amsterdam. It became clear that the role of the informal economy, which is usually not only about money, was even more important for women than for men in the early modern period.

Finally Jan Lucassen closed this, according to him very succesful and instructive, day, by drawing some broad lines and therewith lessons for the research project in the future. He said it might be too early to really come to conclusions right now, but that there are several points of attention that are very important in the analysis of women's work on the mid- and long term. Economic trends, consumption, impoverishment, institutions and demography will all have played a major role in changes for women on the labour market.

To thank them, the speakers were given a bottle of 'Forget-me-not', a liquor that sailor's wives gave their husbands when they went on board for their large journey. What should not be forgotten about this day was the realization ánd the reassurement, that, despite of the scarcity of sources, much about the work of (married) women in early modern times can indeed be uncovered. It seems that by creative use of sources, and by combining information from many sides of the Dutch historical spectrum, there is a lot of information about an aspect of the early modern economy and society that until recently was hardly explored in the Netherlands: women's work.

Text: Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk