A Biography of Alice Clark (1874-1934)

To kick off our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group – marking 100 years since the publication of her groundbreaking Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century – Tim Stretton provides some valuable context in this short biography of Alice Clark. Tim is a Professor of History at Saint Mary’s University, Canada, and has contributed a chapter on Alice Clark to a recent book on Generations of Women Historians. The next post – discussing the Introduction – will follow next week. So get reading!

Tim Stretton

Clarks_vintage_photograph_-_man_packing_Clarks_Tor_ShoesAt first glance Alice Clark seems the most unlikely of historians. Due to ill health she managed only sporadic periods at school and she never went to university. She was a capitalist, not a scholar, spending most of her adult life as a director of the family business, known today as Clarks Shoes Ltd.  Yet from a young age she was a voracious reader and would have joined her sister at Cambridge had her parents not felt strongly that the shoe company would benefit from the involvement of a female family member.

In common with almost every one of her relations, she was also a lifelong activist for good causes and I think Working Life of Women is best understood as serving the project to achieve votes and greater equality for women. Her initial subject, when she moved to London in 1912 to work on the suffragist campaign, was not women’s work, but the history of Quaker ideas about gender equality. What puzzled her was the contrast between the striking levels of autonomy 17th century Quaker women experienced––in tandem with the defiance they showed in the face of persecution––and the deep conservatism of Quaker authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. The organization’s gender segregated meetings and prolonged reluctance to endorse the cause of female suffrage left Clark disillusioned and she set herself the goal of understanding the causes behind this decline in female independence.


Eileen Power: an influence

Recurring bouts of tuberculosis explain Clark’s initial stepping away from the shoe business. It was after an extended period recuperating from a severe attack that she made the decision to take a hiatus from the company and devote herself to women’s rights. While conducting research in the British library she met Eileen Power, the holder of a Charlotte Shaw Studentship at the London School of Economics, and ended up applying for a Shaw Studentship herself in 1913. She was successful, despite being 39 years old and lacking formal qualifications, and benefited greatly from the supervision of Dr Lilian Knowles, later appointed the first professor of economic history in Britain.

She used her stipend to employ Dorothy George to transcribe documents and learned much from discussions with George (who went on to write London Life in the Eighteenth Century, published in 1925) and with Eileen Power, who was set to become one of the best known medieval historians in Britain. Her other influences included the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (author of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft [Community and Society] (1887)), and various of his graduate students, including Kurt Albert Gerlach, who went on to be named the founding director of what was to become the Frankfurt School. It was Gerlach who first suggested to Clark that she write a book about Quaker women and then later recommended that she switch focus to women and work.

Soon after beginning her research she became a committed member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and as soon as war broke out she turned her back on the archives to volunteer, first helping women made unemployed by war and then assisting refugees and other victims of the conflict. For Alice Clark good works always took priority over scholarship, which helps explain why it took until 1919 for her book to appear and why she abandoned plans for publications on the history of married life and motherhood, girls’ education, apprenticeship and service. After working with refugee organizations in the 1920s she returned to the shoe factory and helped it to become one of the most enlightened companies in Western England, housing and schooling many of its employees and providing them with a share of corporate profits.

Modern researchers tracking changes in women’s employment patterns in the seventeenth century immerse themselves in the existing historiography and pay careful attention to conditions either side of that period. Clark did neither of these things. There was no deep well of existing scholarship to draw from, and time did not permit the conducting of original research into the 16th and 18th centuries. Instead, her focus on the 17th century rested on two observations that we might better term hunches. The first was a change she detected between the late 16th and the late 17th century in the literary representation of women (English had been her best subject in her final year at school). The second was the contrast she saw between feisty, intelligent and competent female Quaker preachers, missionaries and workers, and many of the privileged middle class women of her own day. Where Quaker women had run farms and businesses and kept complex financial accounts, Alice Clark did not know any other women who were company directors. In fact the experienced Bristol solicitor who drew up the articles of incorporation for Clarks expressed himself astonished at the very idea of a female director. Again and again in her activism, and in Working Life, Clark compared the 17th century not with the 18th century, but with her personal experience of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

* Sharon Howard has also written a biographical blog post about Alice Clark, posted in 2005, which can be found here. For those who have access Clark has an Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry here.

Please add comments below the line, or discuss on twitter using our hashtag: #AliceClark100


10 thoughts on “A Biography of Alice Clark (1874-1934)

  1. Pingback: Alice Clark’s *Working Life of Women in the 17th Century* at 100: An Online Reading Group | the many-headed monster

  2. Thanks for this series! I am utterly & newly impressed that Alice Clark is the author of one of my favorite books from grad school, AND a director of one of my favorite shoe companies. This changes everything for me.

    The bio presented here connects AC much more to the 19th C than to the 20th, in that she was NOT professionally trained (I had assumed she had at least been to university), and the tuberculosis. (TB is a very 19th C disease.) We really are prisoners of history, aren’t we?

  3. A great post and I love the idea of the series and conversaton. I have always read Clark (and Beatrice Webb) in light of Frederick Engels’ The Origin of the Family, and the belief that a universalising theory of history could be crystalised in a critique and analysis of types of family organisation. For me, this context helps make sense of 1st and 2nd wave feminisms’ focus on both sexual liberation, and communalism – and many other varieties of radicalism. It also feels to me, to throw into sharp relief the more recent rehabilitation of ‘marriage’ as somehow an acceptable social form, that isn’t inherently defined by forms of property and the control of (re)production.

    My wonder in thinking through some of the silences – is whether the discrediting of eugenics in the second world war, did not make the pre-war focus on the organisation of the family as a core analytical category, more difficult to sustain – leading in turn to the post-war rise of a British Marxist tradition that could largely ignore gender in a way previous generations of social historians simply didn’t. In this light the Communist Historians Group focus on political topics and organisations looks a little counter-revolutionary and gendered in root and branch. You could write this up as a parallel to the exclusion of women from computing.

    • Hence Anna Clark on EPT where unionisation and the breadwinner wage excluded women (in some processes, although the extent of exclusion may be exaggerated.
      BTW, you may find that women are well integrated into OpenSource computing.

      • Definitely Anna Clark! The discussions swirling around the community in London when she was writing the Struggle for the Breeches was all about how to revise that Thompsonian narrative, but what seems more interesting now is how the vibrant world of women historians in the interwar years, seem less prominent in the 50s and 60s when a particular stamp of social history was nevertheless flourishing.

  4. Pingback: Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: ‘Introductory’ | the many-headed monster

  5. I too am so interested and would like to join in. I see no place for subscribing to this blog so as to make sure it arrives monthly. Please provide a place to subscribe to the blog. Ellen Moody

    • Glad to hear you’re interested, Ellen! You should be able to subscribe to the blog by going to the front page and clicking on the button in the bottom right-hand corner. At least that’s how it works on my laptop – it may be different on different devices and browsers.

  6. Pingback: Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: ‘Capitalists’ | the many-headed monster

  7. Pingback: Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: Conclusion | the many-headed monster

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