Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: Conclusion

This post is part of our #AliceClark100 Online Reading Group. In it Susan D. Amussen offers some reflections on the ‘Conclusion’ of The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century, as well as on the posts in this series as a whole. Susan is a Professor of History at UC Merced, and tweets as @susandamussen. You can access the book here.

Susan D. Amussen

Alice Clark ended Working Life of Women by summarizing her findings in terms of her central themes. What does it mean for women when the individual rather than the household is the primary actor in the modern economy? Why don’t women get as much specialized training as men?  As the essays in this series have shown, the story of women’s work is considerably more complicated than Clark’s argument allows.  But Clark raises two new issues in her conclusion.  First, the subordination of women.  She argues that capitalism is not the source of the subjection of women; instead, ‘the subjection of women to their husbands was the foundation stone of the structure of the community in which Capitalism first made its appearance.’ (p. 300)  Second, she raises questions about political theory.  She asks about the impact of the ‘mechanical state’, represented by the works of both Hobbes and Locke.  What does it matter when women are invisible in formulations of what the state means?  Clark argues that these issues draw attention to a much wider range of issues and a longer chronology than those which have been the focus of the book.

Reading her conclusion alongside the essays that have made this series so interesting demonstrates one reason we – and our students – keep reading Alice Clark: she raises big questions.  She understands women’s work, and women’s position in society, first in relation to the history of capitalism.  At the end, though, she tells us that the big question is part of two even bigger ones, about fundamental social structures and the history of political thought.   Both of these have been the focus of extensive research over the past 40 years.  The tension between women’s agency and their subordination has been a central theme in women’s history.  We have simultaneously demonstrated women’s agency not just as economic actors but as political ones while we have explored domestic and sexual violence.[1]  Allyson Poska’s suggestion that we consider what she calls “agentic gender norms” that co-exist with patriarchy and provide a counter-vailing set of norms may be a useful way of thinking about these tensions.[2]  Similarly, scholars in the history of political thought have unpacked the ways in which contract theory not only erased women, but made women’s political action far more complex.[3]


The essays in this series make it obvious that the novice scholar who approaches Clark’s Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century will read the book with a very different perspective from that with which I read it in 1976.  Then it gave me hope that there was enough evidence for me to pursue a dissertation. The range and quality of the research since then has demonstrated where Clark was on the right track, where she missed the boat, and how much more evidence there was that she did not explore.  Yet the two things that strike me most in this series is how much she got right or mostly right, and how many more dissertations need to be written. The short essays in this series offer a road map for future research.

Clark’s big argument – that the seventeenth century marked a shift from women’s active participation in the economy shaped by domestic industry to their exclusion in a capitalist economy cannot be sustained: medievalists have repeatedly reminded us of the limits on women’s activities long before the 17th century; the definitions of domestic economy and capitalism are not really workable; and the transition to capitalism was not only far more uneven than she thought, but – as Laura Gowing showed – it often opened up work for women.  Clark’s gift was to draw our attention to women’s active engagement in the economy, and the ways in which they were not idle.  Recent research has demonstrated that if anything, she underestimated women’s active engagement in economic activity, particularly in the middling ranks of English society.

Re-reading Clark this time, I found myself moved by realizing Clark’s reliance on (primarily) support from a network of other women historians: such networks have also been invaluable to me.  One of the attractions of Alice Clark’s work for me as a young scholar was her belief in the value of women’s work; it validated mine too.  That belief, as both Tim Stretton and Mary Fissell remind us, was tied to her life experience, both as a director of a manufacturing company and a person with tuberculosis.

Yet perhaps the greatest value of reading Alice Clark is the reminder of what can be done when, as Jane Whittle notes Clark does regarding poverty, one views “the seventeenth century through the eyes of women, and with a fierce empathy for their circumstances.”  Alice Clark always put women at the center of the story, and she took their experience seriously.  A century later, reading her work provides a timely reminder of the value of that practice.

* This conversation will continue at a roundtable panel at the North American Conference on British Studies in Vancouver, 15-17th November 2019. Do join us if you are attending the conference*

[1] See e.g. Rachel J. Weil, Political Passions: Gender, the Family and Political Argument in England, 1680-1714 (Manchester University Press, 1999); Ann Hughes, Gender and the English Revolution (Routledge, 2011); Susan D Amussen, ‘“Being Stirred to Much Unquietness”: Violence and Domestic Violence in Early Modern England’, Journal of Women’s History 6:2 (1994), 70-89; For a recent overview, see Joanne Bailey and Loreen Giese, ‘Marital cruelty: reconsidering lay attitudes in England, c. 1580 to 1850’, History of the Family 18:3 (2013), 289-305; for rape, see many essays by Garthine Walker, esp. “Everyman or a Monster? The Rapist in Early Modern England, c.1600–1750”, History Workshop Journal 76: 1 (Autumn 2013) 5-31 and “Rape, Acquittal and Culpability in Popular Crime Reports in England, c.1670–c.1750”, Past & Present 220 (2013) 115-42.

[2] Allyson M. Poska, “The Case for Agentic Gender Norms for Women in Early Modern Europe,” Gender & History 30:2 (2018) 354-65.

[3] See e.g. Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Polity Press, 1988); Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender and the Family (Basic Books, 1999).

3 thoughts on “Alice Clark 100 Reading Group: Conclusion

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

  2. Cheers for this conclusion. Two large inter-related issues occur to me: intersectionality; and ‘hegemonic masculinity’ (R. W. Connell – Raewyn – now transgender). OTOH, such capacious concepts may divert the focus from women qua women.
    Were I still attending NACBS meetings, I would not miss your roundtable, but those days have passed.

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