The effect of complex economic changes on gender roles in this period is extraordinarily difficult to measure. No simple contrast between a traditional, pre-industrial world, and modernised, urban, industrialised societies can do justice to the changing balance between paid and unpaid labour, between domestic work and work undertaken outside the home. Expectations of women’s work were undoubtedly shifting: but the question which is of interest here is how far women themselves identified and articulated what was happening, and how far they voiced their own concerns and grievances. In the late eighteenth century, a sexual division of labour was common and accepted at all levels in the three societies here considered. That division had its focus on the primary responsibilities of women: on childbearing and childrearing, and on the necessary work of maintaining the household: cooking, cleaning and washing. But beyond those primary concerns, women might have a range of acceptable tasks which could contribute to the welfare of the household either in cash or in kind. These were such different tasks as communities thought appropriate for women, where labour was in demand: the work of the dairy or the garden, casual agricultural employment, paid domestic industry, including spinning, lacemaking, knitting, or perhaps assistance in a husband’s trade or craft, or the running of a small shop.


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© Jane Rendall 1985

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