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. 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. 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. Continue reading