Including Women

Professor Laura Gowing (KCL) follows-up her Inaugural Lecture with these thoughts on early modern women and the freedom of the city.

Over the past academic year, the History Department here at King’s has been putting itself under scrutiny.  As part of our plans to apply for the Athena Swan gender equality mark (a scheme extended from the sciences to the humanities in 2015), we’ve been systematically examining how we envisage, support, and facilitate gender equality in the department. It’s been an illuminating process, reflected in the questionnaires on diversity we circulated to students recently, and prompting shifts in our practice as we work out how best to ensure that our curriculum reflects all sorts of histories, that our student body is diverse, and that our staff have equal opportunities throughout the process of appointment, working in the department, and promotion. Like most universities King’s has a gender pay gap, and the proportion of women in the History department sits at around 40%, with many fewer at professorial level.  The staff gender ratio hasn’t changed much since I was appointed in 2002, and reflects that of the sector nationally, though not that of our students. It’s strikingly better than that of the institutions where many older staff did our postgraduate work: at Oxford and Cambridge in the 1980s it was not unusual to be taught by no women at all, and King’s appointed its first permanent female historian, Professor Jinty Nelson, only in 1970.

Alongside Athena Swan,  I’ve been working on my own research project about inclusion in a very different context: the City of London Companies in the late 17th century. The comparison and connections between the two contexts have been nudging me through the year. One of the interesting aspects of gender relations in the early modern era is that so little is actually regulated. Until the late 17th century, nothing told women they could not vote on the rare occasions that parliamentary elections took place, or that they could not hold office, but they rarely did so. Exclusion was customary and property-based long before it was legal and gender-based. Girls could always be apprenticed to skilled trades in the London guilds – organisations like the Clothworkers’ Company, the Mercers’ or the Goldsmiths’. Before 1640 they very rarely were – or at least, they weren’t recorded as apprentices in the records. In the 1640s things began to change – perhaps, as Brodie Waddell over at the Many-Headed-Monster blog has suggested, this was part of the great shift in possibilities of the seventeenth century. A few more girls each decade were apprenticed; many were learning needlework skills with the wives of artisans in different companies, others were becoming pastry cooks or button-makers.

Wenceslaus Hollar,  View of London. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.

Wenceslaus Hollar, View of London.
Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.

But when girls were apprenticed, the institutional barriers to them operating like male tradesmen became apparent. The point of an apprenticeship was, after learning a trade,  to become free of the city: only with that freedom could you practice a trade within the city walls. This was the essence of the citizenship that defined political participation in early modern Europe. Once men had the freedom, they could share its privileges with their wives and pass it on to their sons, and so inheritance of the right to trade became an important part of citizenship. Women, too, had the right to earn the freedom through apprenticeship: but they lost it on marriage, and could not pass it on to their daughters. The institution of marriage, for a woman,  was understood to operate as a fundamental obstacle to the freedoms of a qualified artisan; the same idea of the way marriage blocked careers could be seen two hundred and fifty years later in discussions at the London County Council over apprentice teachers.

Wenceslaus Hollar, A London Merchant's Wife (1643).   Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.

Wenceslaus Hollar, A London Merchant’s Wife (1643). Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.

So looking at women’s work historically involves partly discovering what they did – a mammoth task in itself, which women’s work is doing with the help of legal records. But it also means reconstructing the ideological constructs that defined labour, participation, and earning power – some of which have contributed to the edifice of gender that we are still living in today. 


For more information about Gender in Academia please read this Royal Historical Society report on Gender Equality and Historians in UK Higher Education.

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