Results - Gender and Work

Based on this dataset and on contextual data from a variety of other sources and research literature, the main conclusions of the GaW project were as follows:

  1. The division of work in society was flexible. Both men and women appeared in most categories of work. Even for people who did have an occupation proper, a salary and an occupational title, the concept ‘multiple employments’ describes well what their time-use consisted in, and this was true for both men and women. However, most people performed unsalaried and unwaged work and had no occupational title at all. For them, ‘multiple employments’ was an even more apposite description. Thus, it was true that women’s work was conspicuous by its intermittent, casual, non-specific and catch-all character, as previous research had claimed, but this turned out to be true for men’s work too.
  2. The flexible division of work went hand in hand with a household model described (by the Swiss historian Joachim Eibach) as ‘the open house’. In contrast to a model of the household that stresses its closed, monolithic and self-sufficient character, the new model is one of networking across household borders. For instance, one important finding was the large volume of trading activities (often by women) and the ubiquity of teamwork. Obviously, both commercial and cooperative activities transcended the borders of the household, speaking exactly to the permeable or open character of early modern households.
  3. To a large extent, women’s repertoires of practices reflected their marital status. The pattern seems to have been similar for men, although in their case the conclusion is less secure because of incomplete data coverage. Still, marital status turned out to be a very important variable to explain the patterns found in the dataset.
  4. Gender did however have an impact, in two ways. First, men were overrepresented in certain types of work (e.g., military work, administrative work) and women in others (e.g., work with livestock, care of children). Second, there were important gender differences within each category of work; for instance, the managerial tasks carried out by men were only partly the same as those carried out by women. Men were more often described as ordering others to do things whereas women were described as asking others to do things. Whether this difference reflects gender-specific behaviour (men ordered more often) or gender-specific language (women’s ordering was veiled by a language of asking) is difficult to tell. Nevertheless, it is clear that men’s and women’s practices of work did reflect their sex, although not as unambiguously as we had expected. The method and the database used in the project were well fitted to capture these subtle nuances.
  5. Among people with few resources (poor people, old people), gender had a very strong impact. Women were harder hit by the combined effects of poverty and old age when it came to their chances of supporting themselves. These women were particularly vulnerable and lacking in agency, and their exposure to hardship does appear to be ‘a history that stands still’.
  6. Moreover, gender had a strong impact in large-scale work organizations. At small estates, the gender division of work was flexible, just as it was in households, but at large estates and royal demesnes the gender division of work was much more dichotomous. Large-scale units were not the dominant form of production in the early modern period, however, and the main result was therefore that the division of work was flexible (see 1 above).
  7. There were no ‘separate spheres’ at this time. Instead, men’s and women’s repertoires of work practices can be described as partly overlapping circles. To a large extent, men’s and women’s work must have taken place closely to each other, even if they did not necessarily handle the same tasks. For instance, both men and women performed physically demanding forestry work.
  8. As already noted, previous research had described the gender division of work in terms of men being specialists and having overarching responsibility while women combined many different forms of unskilled and menial work. The GaW project showed instead that both men and women often combined many different forms of work, and that married women performed managerial work and held overarching responsibility. The relative impact of marital status was probably stronger than that of gender, even if it is hard to gauge the exact impact.
  9. Consequently, a main conclusion of the project is that early modern Sweden was characterized by a ‘two-supporter model’ that manifested itself both in terms of everyday practice and in terms of norms and ideals. The analysis of the verb phrases supports this conclusion, and so does the linguistic analysis of the word ‘hustru’ (wife). The big GaW database allowed us to show that, at this time, ‘hustru’ meant not only ‘married woman’ but also ‘woman who governs’. The latter meaning dovetails with point 8 above: government and decision-making were part-and-parcel of what married women typically did.
  10. Another word of interest (and as yet seldom noticed) is ‘ensörjande’ (sole-provider). Significantly, this word was used both about men and about women. If the common assumption had been that men normally supported the whole family, it would not have made sense for a man to mention and deplore that he was a sole-provider; such a man would only have exposed himself to criticism from local community. The way in which ‘ensörjande’ was used in early modern sources suggests instead that the normal situation was for both husband and wife to contribute to the economy of the household.
  11. The GaW project showed that the pronounced growth in early modern state administration created more jobs for men than for women and that, in the longer time perspective, this probably laid the basis for a more dichotomous division of work along lines of gender. But on the micro-level, i.e., on the level of concrete households, state-formation offered work and income-earning opportunities to both husbands and wives.  Households were constrained and enabled by both state-formation and growth of markets. Likewise, state-formation and growth of markets were constrained but also made possible by the everyday practices of men and women. This result challenges the idea that nothing happened to women’s work in the early modern period. In fact, this period could instead be seen as a window of opportunity.


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Höstbild från Dalarne, Per Hedman