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Women & Work in early modern Scotland

In this video, Dr Rebecca Mason discusses the working lives of women in early modern Scotland.
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REBECCA MASON: In 1558, the Scottish reformer John Knox published his polemical work, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. His work was a vitriolic, uncompromising attack against the role of women. Knox attacked female monarchs, arguing that the very idea of women rulers went against the laws of God, and that women were, by their nature, an inferior, imperfect version of man. Early modern Scotland was a patriarchal society, where authority was invested in men. Daughters were subservient to their fathers, and wives were expected to be submissive to their husbands. Many men were abhorred at the very idea of women working within the realms of par. But how exactly did ordinary Scottish women navigate their working lives?
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Looking closely at early modern Scottish records, it is possible to locate women engaging in domestic and non-domestic work. Scottish women were active participants in the early modern economy. Wives managed their households while their husbands were working abroad in colonial contexts, and engaged in paid work in order to provide for themselves and for their families. So this section will follow the footsteps of ordinary Scottish women, and we’ll explore how they navigated their working lives in relation to their marital status and stage of life cycle across the early modern period. In our modern society, the concept of work is strongly connected to paid activities, often performed outside of the domestic setting.
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In early modern times, however, there were no clear boundaries between home and work, or indeed leisure on work. Investigations of work in the past traditionally focused on the experiences of men, as they were defined in contemporary records by their occupational status. Women’s occupational status, on the other hand, was seldom recorded. Women were instead defined in relation to men– as daughters, wives, or widows. Women stage of life cycle and experience of work was invariably tied to their marital status, and as a result, early modern records largely obscure the reality of women’s working lives. Before entering into marriage, women traditionally worked in domestic service in order to save their marriage portions and secure a suitable match with an eligible bachelor.
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Daughters from middling to lower order families were excluded from apprenticeships and formal education, and were expected to depart their households in their teens to work in domestic service. During this time, young women learned a variety of skills that would stand them in good stead for their anticipated role of future wife and help-meet to your husband. Women who refused to either work in service or marry were treated quite unfavourably by local authorities. In 1670, the Town Council of Glasgow publicly reprimanded groups of unmarried women who had set up independent households of their own. Labelling these women as idle, the town council publicly paraded groups of unmarried, unemployed women through the town, and banished them from Glasgow.
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Domestic service, while poorly paid and laborious, provided young women with the opportunity to gain skills as future household mistresses, and protected them from accusations of idleness, or even worse, prostitution. Married women worked alongside their husbands to support their family economies. Many early modern societies were based on a two-supporter model– a term coined to signal that both husband and wife contributed in various ways, though not necessarily financially, to their households. Married women’s work was recognised as an intrinsic cog in the wheel of the early modern economy. Even though married women were overwhelmingly excluded from professional training and paid employment, they were expected to supervise their children and servants and oversee their household income and expenditure.
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When husbands departed Glasgow to engage in merchant seafaring and colonial, enterprises it was their wives who managed their financial networks during their absence. Husbands appointed their wives as their factors or commissioners in legal documents. These were offices that legally entitled women to collect debts and establish property arrangements in an independent manner. So in 1664, John Sperle appointed his wife, Katherine Marshall, as his commissioner before departing from the city. In the contract, John asserted that his wife Katherine was allowed to, and I quote, “pursue my debtors before a judge and to allow her to do anything that I could do myself.”
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So this kind of legal contract granted unbridled legal freedoms onto married women and entitled them to manage their domestic settings in the same manner as their husbands, at least for a specified period of time. Upon widowhood, women were once again entitled to engage in independent economic activity, with many setting up their own households and supporting themselves by working as brewsters, midwives, and pawnbrokers. Some widows even achieved licenced status in their professions. In 1655, Elspeth Hamilton successfully petitioned to Glasgow’s town council to sell and brew ale and whiskey in the same manner as a male burgess, although the town council noted that she would lose this privilege if she decided to remarry. Widows like Elspeth were in unfortunately rare.
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Unpaid work within the household was the most common form of work for widowed women. Scottish widows were entitled to claim a customary share of their husband’s property upon widowhood, and widows would invest in this property by participating in credit and debt networks and by leasing out houses and shops to other members of the community. Despite regaining their property rights and independent legal status, the state of widowhood was rarely welcome for women. Widows would, when possible, conduct a second or even a third marriage with a man of a similar social and economic standing to support their children on their household economy.
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As we investigate the female life cycle in relation to work in early modern Scotland, it may appear at first glance that much has changed. Modern women have achieved greater control of their working lives. Women can decide to stay in education and enter professional employment at a later date, or choose to live independent lives and set up households of their own without husbands or partners. Yet this greater range of choice is threatening to many people who want women to perform traditional female roles. Women’s domestic labour in the past was valued as a form of work, despite the fact it was underpaid, and at times under appreciated.
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In our modern world, however, working women are often faced with choosing between full-time paid employment, or full-time caring responsibilities– matters that rarely impact men’s working lives or domestic responsibilities in the same manner.

In this video, Dr Rebecca Mason discusses the working lives of women in early modern Scotland, showing how work in the past was an intrinsic part of women’s lives.

By exploring the working lives of women in seventeenth-century Scotland, Rebecca explores the effects of life cycle, socioeconomic worth and marital status on women’s capacities for work within a patriarchal society.

Further Reading

Maria Ågren: Making a Living, Making a Difference: Gender and Work in Early Modern European Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)

Catherine Spence: Women, Credit and Debt in Early Modern Scotland (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016)

Margaret Sanderson: A Kindly Place? Living in Sixteenth-Century Scotland (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2002)

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