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Women and Labor in the Early Modern Period Research Paper


Introduction

In early modern Europe, the majority of institutions were patriarchal in character. It implied that they were restricted to male dominance, and women had very limited possibilities for employment. In addition, society had particular representations of the role of women, and the forms of employment available to them were strongly affected by these views. Women living in early modern Europe had limited employment possibilities, and the corporate system was reduced to male authority in the majority of cases. Labor organization of that era implied the weak inclusion of women in it.

Employment of Women in Agriculture

Almost every European country in the world with favorable climate conditions developed the agricultural industry in the early modern period because it was a profitable sphere that had a significant impact on different states’ economic systems. “Most parts of Europe depended on grain-based agriculture – wheat in central and southern Europe, rye and oats in the north – with a gender division of labor typical of that in grain-growing societies”.1 Therefore, the government needed women to be involved in agriculture as well because only men would not be able to cope with all the work. Nevertheless, the representatives of the female gender could not occupy the positions of operators as men were considered to be more responsible and educated.

Although sometimes both men and women used to have similar duties, their labor was rewarded differently. Indeed, males received higher salaries in the early modern European states because they were obliged to support their families. In turn, the representatives of the female gender did not have to work as hard as men due to particular health conditions. In conclusion, women were highly engaged in agriculture since many regions were dependent on it (for instance, on grain or grape gathering). Nevertheless, their wages were different from that of men.2 Although it was not common for women to be landowners, the wives of some politicians or rich people were allowed to hire other men to work in their fields and gather an ample harvest that they had. However, the majority of females preferred to work in their gardens to feed their families.

As men were obliged to earn money, their wives, sisters, and mothers were responsible for the food provided to their families. When they managed to grow more than their family members could consume, they had to sell some food products to earn money as well. The representatives of the female gender usually sold vegetables and fruit that they grew in their gardens. Although this was not an official method to earn money for living, it was more profitable than regular fieldwork due to wage discrimination. It is essential to state that women’s activities in early modern Europe depended on their habitats’ location. For instance, German housewives used to brew beer to sell it afterward. Women from Spain specialized in cooking gammoning pork, whereas Scandinavian families made national spirit drinks to make their living.

Also, women’s labor was sometimes necessary for gathering grapes for the wine production industry. As there were not enough men to complete the work quickly (until the fruit starts to rotten in the sun), females were invited to work in vineyards. As their productivity did not differ much from that of males, both genders received almost equal salaries. The enormous amount of work also had a significant influence on particular demographical factors. As nearly all families were moving to rural areas for the summer period (to earn money), some cities remained empty until the end of the season. As it is mentioned above, there were no tremendous gender divisions when people gathered the crop. Nevertheless, women’s labor was not rewarded as high as their husbands’ work.

Another agricultural sphere that employed women in early modern Europe is the silk growing industry. It is essential to stress that landowners preferred to hire females rather than men. Moreover, the majority of working teams consisted predominately of girls because they were accurate and neat. As silk growing and spinning does not require much power, young ladies were given the opportunity to earn money by gathering, processing, and making silk products. It is a well-known fact that pieces of cloth made of the discussed material were very expensive. Although the landlords gained excess profits, their employees could hardly make their living as they were not paid much for the labor that required extra attention and accuracy.3 As girls did not have any other chances to earn money, they were forced to work in the silk industry. The main issue of this job is that young ladies damaged their eyes by working in dark rooms. As silk spinning is a delicate task, their visions worsened after several months of working in such conditions. It is an interesting fact that the owners of silk fields were sometimes offered to hire the entire orphanages of little girls that were supposed to gain their landlords’ profits, instead of earning money for food and shelter.

Some countries of early modern Europe were involved in the large grain-growing industry. Therefore, landowners employed women and rented some sheds to produce different clothing elements made of wool. As there were not enough such buildings, landlords also hired housewives that had the ability to create linen and wool clothes at their houses. Such a method was considered to be a good business strategy as some females did not require separate working places and equipment. This model gave women the ability to earn more money than they could receive while working in the fields with their husbands. However, the payments were still low in comparison to that of men. When people realized that they could purchase their own materials, produce clothes and fabric materials at their homes, they organized the businesses that let them gain much higher profits.4 Nevertheless, not every woman could afford the establishment of a small manufacturing process due to high competition with rich people and their influence on different processes on the clothing market. Such a model of earning money was referred to as the domestic industry. In several decades, it popularized all over the European territory as it was the only way for women to survive without their husbands.

It would be proper to mention that many modern businesses do not want to employ women because they should be provided with full-time wages or salaries even during their maternity leaves. Indeed, the terms of such vacations vary in different states. Nevertheless, managers or human resources agents do not consider it to be efficient because women lose the majority of their professional skills when staying home and taking care of their newborn children. Therefore, some companies refuse to hire young, pregnant, engaged, and married women.

It would be proper to state that some agricultural activities required livestock to be involved in the work in fields as it took humans more time to gather all the harvest until it started to rot away. Usually, farmers needed horses, donkeys, and bulls because these animals had enough power to work in the sun for an extended period. As these creatures had to be fed and treated in accordance with particular standards, women were obliged to take good care of them, whereas men used their physical energy only during the working hours. Women’s work was regarded as less important despite the fact that they committed themselves to it more than men did. Therefore, this type of activity did not allow their economic independence. The representatives of the female gender were obliged to help their husbands and brothers to prepare for their working days as men were more productive. Usually, women did not receive any payments if they worked with their male relatives as they shared all the earned money among their families’ members.

It is an interesting fact that women’s labor in the sphere of agriculture was more efficient than men’s because ladies put more effort into their work and made everything accurately. Nevertheless, their labor was valued less than other workers’. Although the situation described above might seem to be unfair and discriminative, there are some issues that prove the opposite of this statement.5 For instance, previous generations had particular stereotypes about women’s labor. According to the generally accepted opinion, the representatives of the female gender were supposed to raise children and stay at homes, whereas men were obliged to earn money and support their families. Recently, the views have changed as women have become more purposeful. Nowadays, feminist movements fight for their rights to be equal to men and have the same opportunities. It is essential to mention that women have more chances to build successful careers that several centuries ago. Perhaps, the world’s population’s mentality has changed due to globalization and the high importance of different industries in various countries’ economic systems.

As a result, women who used to work for agricultural companies or organizations in the early modern epoch could not be financially independent of their husbands or fathers. Such a situation offended many women and became the reason for multiple feminist movements around the world. Nowadays, every person has the same rights and duties, regardless of one’s gender. However, some employers prefer to hire and promote men instead of providing women with the same opportunities. It is essential to mention that women show good results in their professions when they are in a good mood. Usually, they cannot overcome their stresses and other emotions that might have an adverse impact on their productivity rate.

Women Holding Minor Offices and Government Positions

In the times of early modern Europe, many women were given an opportunity to operate small businesses and occupy various governing positions. There are a plethora of ways for the representatives of the female gender to acquire high status and well-paid jobs. However, many people did not perceive their female superiors’ regulations as the same directions made by men. Heritability was one of the ways females could obtain ownership of minor offices.6 For instance, the princesses became queens when their parents died. Fortunately, there are not many states that still follow this governing form. Also, the daughters of businessmen had to take their fathers’ places after parents’ departures. It would be proper to state that the majority of such firms bankrupted as women did not have appropriate education or personal qualities that were necessary for running a business.

Women could hold offices “such as those of churchwarden, market inspector, or gate-keeper, especially if they were the widow of a man who had held this office, and in more places held official positions as city midwives”.7 Nevertheless, they never took the highest positions, which were available to men. Another way for the representatives of the female gender to build successful careers was to overcome their husbands’ deaths. When authoritative and influential men died, their wives were given a right to take their official positions to support their families on a proper level.

As it was already mentioned above, women did not have an opportunity to be promoted and given the highest positions in various companies in the early modern Europe. Even if they became widows or inherited the jobs of their fathers, they were not allowed to make major decisions as to the main processes of the businesses they managed as there were other professionals who were given a right to operate all the important events of their firms. Usually, these employees were hired by people who knew that they were about to pass away.

Despite the fact that they swore oaths of office, females had significantly fewer freedoms than men did. It is essential to mention that women were considered to be uneducated in the early modern Europe. Therefore, their decisions were sometimes disregarded by some employees of the firm they operated. Also, the representatives of the female gender did have a right to make particular innovations and changes in various manufacturing processes or other events that required a sophisticated approach of a professional specialist. It is essential to state that the society did not consider women’s decisions to be appropriate due to the lack of experience in the spheres that they operate because of their fathers’ or husbands’ deaths. Although the laws of different European countries allowed women to occupy high positions in various firms, these people’s freedoms were limited due to the societal stereotypes of gender inequality. Perhaps, such an opinion was formed because of multiple kings and states’ leaders that made their countries prosper. In turn, there were no women-praising legends or historical events.

It would be proper to state that widowhood opened new opportunities to the wives of influential people. In the majority of cases, widows lived in poverty because their husbands did not earn money for the families anymore. However, when women inherited money from their dead spouses, they were free to decide where and how to spend these finances. Also, they could inherit property and business, which could potentially bring even more profit in the future.8 Due to the diversity of laws in different European countries of the early modern period, the objects of heritage varied. Therefore, German and French wives always knew that are allowed to receive their husbands’ offices after the men’s departure. As a result, all the profit gained by inherited firms also belonged to widows. In turn, the widows of artisans had a legal right to inherit various shops built by their men.

In politics, women also could not gain much popularity and acceptance by others. People did not want women to establish laws and make reformations for their countries. In the Eastern and Northern Europe, female rulers did not have a similar level of power that a man could have (women were never appointed as ministers or judges in this epoch). Indeed, this threat was supported by the possibility of changing the laws that would contradict various national interests. It is a well-known fact that many politicians try to benefit from their positions by establishing laws that are useful only for them, whereas other people’s needs are disregarded. Therefore, women in the head of some countries could have insisted on their supremacy over men to eliminate the issue o discrimination in the society. Moreover, men’s speeches were more persuasive than women’s as males had a chance to study rhetoric and other communicational techniques. Therefore, they had more influence on people who voted for national leaders.

Women and Metal Production

Mining and metal production were highly important industries in the early modern Europe. Many countries were dependent on their possibilities to extract and mine such underground materials as coal, metal, and other minerals. “Mining and metal production in the Middle Ages were largely organized in the same way as other crafts were, with groups of artisans in guilds or associations who leased from landowners the land on which ore was to be found”.9 Therefore, this industry employed millions of people all over the world. The ability to operate different mines well was essential for the economic systems of states back in the sixteenth century as it led to various revolutionary inventions and influenced the technological progress.

Some European started to prosper because of their trading operations with other Commonwealths. The industry of massive metal production opened new opportunities for engineers, architects, and other professionals or highly-educated people. This material was more reliable than wood, clay, and other resources used in the medieval to build houses and other tools necessary in people’s everyday lives. It would be proper to mention that contemporary chemists developed a new technique of metal separation as the materials found underground were predominately mixed and almost impossible to dissociate from one another with the help of physical forces. Once the greater depths were discovered, such European countries as France, Spain, and England became rich and prosperous.

Due to the rapid growth of the industry discussed above, many families had a chance to work together (sometimes even at the same objects and mines). People’s labor was important due to the lack of healthy employees. Therefore, women were also employed by the governments of European countries to do the dangerous work. Men worked underground, and they were listed in the official records and received payment.10 They broke the ore, but all the other responsibilities belonged to women and their children. Despite the fact that both males and females had the same chores and duties at their workplaces, men’s labor was more financially rewarded.

Also, women were unlikely to occupy positions that require much attention and responsibility. For instance, the representatives of the female gender could not be in charge of a separate mine or a territory that was rich with its underground minerals. Usually, men operated the global processes of mining and metal industry in general as they had more experience and appropriate education to be involved in this sphere as leaders. Although women gained much knowledge during the working process, they could not guarantee that their decisions were sound and reliable. Perhaps, men were paid more because they were physically able to complete more work than their wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters.

To benefit from men’s power, health, and stamina, the politicians of some early modern European countries send males to work in mines and break the iron ore. This decision was appropriate because women do not have enough energy to cope with the difficulties that are present deep underground. People, who were obliged to dig the soil and discover minerals, were listed in the official records of their states and received high salaries, whereas other individuals were provided a simple job on the surface. For instance, women and children had to operate the wagons that went underground and delivered the extracted materials.

Females had to wash, sort, and prepare the ore for further processing. They were not paid for these duties in the majority of cases. In addition, their work was not listed in the record. The majority of these women were not provided with any financial payments11. Thus, this job was not paid and provided no financial stability of freedom to women. Instead, they were given food and appropriate living conditions.

Due to the conditions discussed in the previous paragraph, it is possible to understand that women were deprived of their primary human freedoms and financial stability. Perhaps, females wanted to work like that to be closer to their husbands and feed themselves as many Europeans lived in poverty back in the sixteenth century. Therefore, women took the opportunity to be employed and make their living. In turn, all the miners received salaries and were free to decide how to spend their money. Although it was considered that the majority of men work to support their families, many of them became alcohol dependent and ruined their families. As a result, women and children had to cope with the worst living standards.

Although official sources deny the fact that women were working underground, some scholars who studied this question for an extended period claim that the representatives of the female gender sometimes were forced to work deep in the mines due to the lack of labor. It would be proper to mention that the mining industry in the early modern Europe developed rapidly as new equipment was invented and the tunnels became larger and deeper12. Therefore, miners had to undergo at least minor educational courses and recommendations to perform an efficient labor underground.

Literature Review

All the literature chosen for this paper can be considered reliable and trustworthy as the sources’ contents are composed by scholars. The book by Wiesner contains all the necessary information required to cover the topic of women’s labor in the early modern Europe. The author was studying the mentioned sphere for an extended period to find credible evidence.

There are also other sources that support the idea of wage discrimination among females in the sixteenth century. For instance, Gary talks about all aspects of women’s labor and spheres that they were involved in several centuries ago. In turn, Koenigsberger describes different events that happened in the period mentioned above.

Conclusion

Thus, it can be concluded that women had poor possibilities for achieving financial independence due to the types of work in which they were engaged and the low value attributed to their performance. Multiple examples and arguments have been provided to evidence the fact that labor organization was reduced to male participation and dominance. Women could inherit greater power and influence after the death of their husbands; nonetheless, they could not occupy the most influential positions. Frequently, their work was considered unimportant, and they had to face various job restrictions. They originated from the social structure of that time. Overall, it was difficult for women to obtain paid employment, but when they did, the conditions for male and female workers would be different.

Bibliography

Bateman, Victoria N. Markets and Growth in Early Modern Europe. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Cavallo, Sandra, and Lyndan Warner. Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Gary, Kathryn. Fernetzt. 2016. Web.

Kirby, David. Northern Europe in the Early Modern Period: The Baltic World 1492-1772. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Koenigsberger, Helmut G. Early Modern Europe 1500-1789. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Micheletto, Beatrice Zucca. “Only Unpaid Labour Force? Womens and Girls Work and Property in Family Business in Early Modern Italy.” The History of the Family 19, no. 3 (2014): 323-340.

Richards, Penny, and Jessica Munns. Gender, Power and Privilege in Early Modern Europe: 1500-1700. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Wiesner, Merry E. Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Footnotes

  1. Victoria Bateman, Markets and Growth in Early Modern Europe (New York: Routledge, 2016), 36.
  2. Helmut G. Koenigsberger, Early Modern Europe 1500-1789 (New York: Routledge, 2014), 101.
  3. Beatrice Zucca Micheletto. “Only an Unpaid Labour Force? Women’s and Girls Work and Property in Family Business in Early Modern Italy,” The History of the Family 19, no. 3 (2014): 326.
  4. Kathryn Gary. “Income and the Household: Women’s Work and Wages in Early Modern Sweden,” Fernetzt, Web.
  5. David Kirby, Northern Europe in the Early Modern Period: The Baltic World 1492-1772 (New York: Routledge, 2013), 129.
  6. Penny Richards and Jessica Munns, Gender, Power and Privilege in Early Modern Europe: 1500-1700 (New York: Routledge, 2014), 26.
  7. Merry E. Wiesner, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 122.
  8. Sandra Cavallo and Lyndan Warner, Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (New York: Routledge, 2016), 57.
  9. David Kirby, Northern Europe in the Early Modern Period: The Baltic World 1492-1772 (New York: Routledge, 2013), 88.
  10. Merry E. Wiesner, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 118.
  11. Helmut G. Koenigsberger, Early Modern Europe 1500-1789 (New York: Routledge, 2014), 103.
  12. Penny Richards and Jessica Munns, Gender, Power and Privilege in Early Modern Europe: 1500-1700 (New York: Routledge, 2014), 27.
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IvyPanda. (2020, October 8). Women and Labor in the Early Modern Period. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/women-and-labor-in-the-early-modern-period/

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IvyPanda. "Women and Labor in the Early Modern Period." October 8, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/women-and-labor-in-the-early-modern-period/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Women and Labor in the Early Modern Period." October 8, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/women-and-labor-in-the-early-modern-period/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Women and Labor in the Early Modern Period'. 8 October.

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