Women and Work in Preindustrial Europe

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The contribution that women made to preindustrial European labor was the fiber that held together the most central economy, the economy of the home. Though at some level women could be found in many occupations, most were employed in labor that revolved around domestics and specialized female contributions.


Yet, with the importance of their work and the need that it filled, it was most often relegated to a lower status and was maintained servile to the power structure that it served.
Most women during this period worked in occupations that were done at or near the home. The need to maintain a family life often kept them oscillating between short periods of employment and the duties of motherhood. Out of convenience and necessity, a woman's choice of occupations was limited from birth. As Hanawalt observes, "The division of labor by sex was set early in a child's life" (8). A woman's dowry would be the initial contribution that women would make to the economy. It was most often used to set up the household, and then used to keep it running (Hanawalt 17). The tilling of soil was a solely male domain, while women became the bakers, cooks, tailors, and thread makers. This was done to support the home life and generate supplemental income. The brewing of ale, to be used in the home, was a typical example of a steady outside income, as was spinning thread (Hanawalt 11).
While the woman's dowry and marriage became a pooled resource to support a family, slavery was an institution that supported the manors and generated a source of unskilled labor. Though oppressive, slavery was, as Sturad remarks, "... an acceptable alternative to for the organization of unskilled labor through the medieval period" (39). ...
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