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!
At 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.
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.
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