Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: ‘Capitalists’

This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Amy M. Froide offers some reflections on the first main chapter of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, on ‘Capitalists’. Amy is a Professor of History at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. You can access the book here.

Amy M. Froide

When we were organizing this blog project I very quickly claimed Clark’s chapter on capitalists (and I may have even said I was willing to fight Amy Erickson or Laura Gowing for the privilege of writing about this chapter. When we made up our schedule I found that this post would be due right at the end of term, and it was then I realized why the wily Erickson and Gowing so graciously ceded the field to me).  This anecdote does contain a salient point: many of us early modern historians have chosen to study issues pertinent to women and work and this group is a marker of Alice Clark’s influence and legacy.

It is notable that the first body chapter of Clark’s book is on the topic of capitalists. As Tim Stretton noted in his biographical post on Alice Clark, she herself was a capitalist, a director of the family firm that is now Clarks Shoes Ltd. (It is good to know that the money I have shelled out to that company over the years is in a way a homage to Clark). Despite her personal knowledge, Clark eschews a detailed definition of capitalism in this chapter and instead simply equates it with the control of wealth.  She also notes that in seventeenth–century England, capitalists included those who had obtained their wealth through commerce and trade but also the aristocracy who had long controlled wealth in the form of land. The latter are in fact the primary focus of her chapter.

Many of the female capitalists Clark describes in this chapter were elite women who managed their family estates. With great foresight Clark described the economic roles played by aristocratic women in overseeing households, but also lands, crops, rents, mines and other projects. It is intriguing that the historians of women who followed Clark in researching elite women as estate managers have seen such activity as proof of women’s political authority rather than their economic agency.

Lady Brilliana Harley

Lady Harley: a capitalist

Only lately have we returned to the notion of elite women’s economic power per se. For instance, Brilliana, Lady Harley, who we usually trot out as an exemplar of women’s political and military involvement during the Civil Wars, in Clark’s hands is a businesswoman, rent collector, and estate manager. Along the same lines, I had forgotten until this rereading that Clark included women’s pursuit and ownership of royal patents, offices, and monopolies as examples of female capitalism.  This is a topic ripe for further research.

Clark cites multiple examples of women who took it upon themselves to increase the worth of their husbands’ and their family’s estates. One hundred years ago, she alerted us to the important role married women played in ensuring the economic success of their husband’s patrimony. The unremunerated and unrecognized work of wives merited her attention and thanks to the work of scholars such as Alexandra Shephard and Cathryn Spence continues to be a topic of active research today.


Home of the Fells

Clark’s discussion of capitalists depends on sources that leaned toward the personal, familial, and literary. She makes good use of family correspondence and memoirs, as well as some examples from government documents and State Papers. Today historians of female capitalists turn more toward account books, business records and correspondence, and financial papers. Clark only used one example of such a source: the household account books of Sarah Fell (who Clark knew about due to her interest in Quaker history).

Clark very briefly mentions women who were active as moneylenders, pawnbrokers, and “useresses” in this chapter. We know much more about the economic contributions of such women thanks to the scholarship of historians such as Beverly Lemire and Judith Spicksley. And my own work on women investors in companies, the government, and the Bank of England certainly owes much to Clark’s forward thinking. But we certainly have more to do in investigating women as property holders, rentiers, and entrepreneurs.

Clark’s focus on the control of wealth meant this chapter details more examples of elite and genteel female capitalists than those from the middling sort. She does mention examples of women involved in shipping, trade, and provisioning. And she cites isolated examples of a female ironmonger, paper mill owner, and the Quaker weaver Joan Dant.  Clark tells us that Dant is one of the few women whose personal story “is known in any detail” [p. 32]. One hundred years later we thankfully know about many more businesswomen than Joan Dant. While Clark includes this female weaver as a capitalist she chose to address women in textiles, trades and crafts in separate chapters (of which you will hear more in future blog posts). Such separation means that the chapter on capitalism skews heavily toward elite women.

As Susan Amussen noted in her post on Clark’s introduction, some of Clark’s arguments are based on prescriptive literature. One of Clark’s most significant assertions comes in this chapter on capitalists. She posits English women were not as involved in business affairs as Dutch women and that elite women withdrew from business involvement as early as the later decades of the seventeenth century. The scholarship of the last 30 or so years has largely poked holes in this thesis. While the English may have worried about the economic acumen of the wives of their commercial rivals and there are some anecdotes that attest to this concern, subsequent research has not shown a drop off or decline in the economic roles played by women in the elite and middling ranks.

If anything, there may have been an increase in women’s involvement in economic and financial matters and there was certainly a consistent level of women’s participation well into the eighteenth century. While the quintessential goal of both male and female English capitalists was to retire to a country estate or elegant town home, further research reveals that Clark’s assertions of female idleness and unfamiliarity with business affairs were not the case. Nevertheless, Clark’s assertions inspired this historian and many more to go forth and research the economic history of women in the past and for that we owe Alice Clark a debt.

10 thoughts on “Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: ‘Capitalists’

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

  2. I have read Alice Clark’s introduction and the chapters on agriculture and textiles many times, but I can’t remember the last time I read the chapter on capitalists. I should, of course, read and referred to it when I was writing about Alice Le Strange. So thank you Amy for reminding us about the riches that are here: tonight (after the day’s meetings and marking!) I will definitely be reading this chapter again.

    • I agree with you Jane. There are all kinds of nuggets that I had forgotten about in Clark’s chapters. If we don’t already, we should remember to mine them for thesis topics for our students.

  3. Wow, this is a peculiar take on “capitalism”. I wonder if it was a common definition in the early C20. But no matter how peculiar her definition, AC might have been right to focus on the landed classes, as per the new book WHO OWNS ENGLAND, reviewed here in Guardian: Among other stats, perhaps one-third of the land still belongs to 1066 families.

    • Judith, it reminds us how much our definition of capitalism is still refracted through Marxist thought. Alice Clark’s definition may be more historically relevant, for the pre-industrial period especially.

      • Well, yeah, Amy, but Marx’s definition is the standard one and looks to have been so in 1919 (per OED). I like it. If capitalism is simply “wealth”, a lot of good thinking and good history gets messed up, not to mention all the ink spilt on the Rise of Capitalism. Given that AC was herself a capitalist in the standard sense, I think it’s kind of intriguing that she dodged that meaning. I wonder if contemporary reviewers commented on this. Will try to check.

  4. I found two reviews. Neither says much on AC’s use of ‘capitalism’, which is, I now think, a tempest in my own teapot. In any case, and if my pasting works, you can see the reviews here:
    Clark review 1.pdf
    Clark review 2.pdf

    • Not necessarily a ‘tempest in your own teacup’: Factors of production: Land; Labour; Capital. Sometimes they are intermingled, but shd perhaps not be confused.

  5. My question would be: what makes women’s management of landed estates significant for the seventeenth century – addressed as much to medievalists as early-modernists?

  6. Indeed, that is a very good question – and one which could only be asked by a historian fully conversant with the subject at hand. Everyone else would be saying ‘What, really? Women managed estates?’ Which I think is part of our problem – that we are continually addressing such different audiences at once.

    I take Dave’s question to be not whether women were more active in this area in the 17th than in the 16th or the 18th centuries (to which the answer would be almost certainly not), but rather what evidence of women in control of capital means or should mean to us as historians.

    For clarification, the OED defines capitalism as:
    “The possession of capital or wealth; an economic system in which private capital or wealth is used in the production or distribution of goods and prices are determined mainly in a free market; the dominance of private owners of capital and of production for profit.”
    (I think that is the way that Clark uses it, in seeing exploitation as the evil, and arguing that there was a better way to do capitalism.)

    That women controlled capital in the past – both agricultural and industrial capital, as well as labour – can be viewed as a disappointment by anyone who thinks that women are somehow morally above engaging in the exploitation of their capital, or who wishes to celebrate ‘how far women have come’ in achieving control over capital today. It can be viewed as an achievement by anyone looking for evidence of agency and economic or political power. But what it means to me is connected to the fact that women’s control of capital historically should surprise no one. That fact that it does reflects on the way that history has been narrated for the past two centuries and is clear evidence that:
    a) advantages, rights, agency and capital can be lost to the point where they are forgotten, and
    b) the best way to keep a subject group down is to assure them that it was much worse in the past so they’ve ‘come a long way’ and ‘it’s only a matter of time’, but
    c) ‘Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle’ (MLK)

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