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Rosie the rivetter

It’s National Women’s month, and International Women’s Day has just passed. So I thought it a good time to turn an eye upon women’s place in the world of work. Let’s  celebrate some unsung heroines.

History is bunk (Henry Ford)

A study of most conventional history books tells you that a woman’s role throughout the ages has been to look after the home, and bring up the children. It was only during  the first world war that women left the family hearth to help out in the jobs vacated by conscripted men. Consequently, their  presence in the workplace is very recent, and a bit of an historical anomaly.

Well, I declare:  what a load of old tosh!  

Women have always worked for a living, in the most unexpected roles. But, just as history is written by the victors (to misquote Churchill), historical  accounts of everyday working practices were generally written by men. And to them, the role of women in the workplace was not a very interesting topic of documentation. But look! The evidence is certainly there if you peer more closely at the records. And I mean the actual source records – the censuses, the contemporary narratives. We shouldn’t rely solely on others’ interpretations.

Also, the thing is, there has always been a bit of a class divide, when it comes to work. It’s true that the daughters and wives of the gentry and upper classes weren’t expected to have gainful employment. But it’s  been a very different story for the common people. 


Here’s what  William Fitzherbert designated as a peasant’s wife’s tasks, in his Book of Husbandry, from the 1140s:

If the husband has sheep of his own, then his wife may have some of the wool, to make her husband and herself some clothes… she may also take wool to spin for the cloth makers. That way she can earn her own living, and still have plenty of time to do other work… It is the wife’s occupation to winnow corn, to make malt, to wash clothes, to make hay and to cut corn. In time of need she should help her husband fill the dung-cart, drive the plough, and load the hay and corn. She should also go to the market to sell butter, cheese, milk, eggs, chickens, pigs, geese and corn. And also to buy the things needed for the household. 

One of many jobs for the woman of the house

Not much time to just sit and look pretty, then. You can see women working on the farms and in the fields, in innumerable medieval manuscripts. Under the feudal system, peasants had to toil on the lord’s land for a designated number of days each year, for free. This left the women having to tend the family’s smallholding. The unspoken thing of course, was that the husband had discharged the feudal obligation, but  the wife’s back-up role in the affair was unpaid.  So it’s easy to leave out of the historical narrative.


Even in medieval times though, women could earn their own living. One particular  trade dominated by women was the brewing of ale. In a time when water supplies were often contaminated, ale was a safer source of liquid refreshment.  And a large quantity was needed – average adult consumption was around a gallon a day.

But ale needed to be brewed continuously, because without hops it deteriorated quickly. So, ale would be brewed continuously and regularly by women in their own homes, in between all the other tasks they had. The common English surname of Brewster actually denoted a female brewer.

It was a short step from brewing ale to selling ale – again very much a female profession. An “alewife” was the precursor of the modern fierce stereotype of the pub landlady. You can see in medieval prints like this an alewife advertising the sale of her beer. There’s a  branch of a bush  displayed outside her house (it was often holly) – an early example of the pub sign. 

An alewife, with early product placement !

From ale to beer

Everything changed when the English started drinking beer, rather than ale. Beer had hops added, to preserve it for longer, a much more economical proposition. But the new process required different  skills and technology. The beer-making process was  spearheaded by the Flemish, who migrated to England to dominate the trade. And the Flemish brewing process was dominated  by men. So gradually, women were elbowed out of their traditional role of home-brewers of ale, and the process moved to central breweries.

But women still clung on to their traditional role of  selling beer. Again, it was a job that could be done from home, and fitted well with family life. In researching his family tree, Mr. Albion found that his great-grandmother Sarah Howard was listed on the 1901 census as a beer retailer. She dispensed it from her “front-room” in Salford.

Join the guild

Besides helping on the family small-holding, and brewing and selling ale, medieval women took part in a surprising number of trades and professions. They even joined trades guilds, although they weren’t allowed to be in positions of authority.  Of course,  they had a traditional place in the textile industries, spinning, weaving and sewing. 

But a deeper search of the records produces surprising evidence. For example, in the guild records of Paris, you can find women working in many male-dominated professions, including:


A Knight’s tale

Looking at this list, I was reminded of a favourite film from my son’s earlier years – A Knight’s Tale, starring Heath Ledger, which we watched on repeat. The film mixes quite accurate history with mischievous modern twists. (In one scene, the actors perform a formal medieval dance to the strains of David Bowie’s Golden Years. Very clever, and it’s on Amazon Prime if you’re interested).  One of the hero’s trusty band of companions is a feisty female blacksmith – so not so far from the historical truth, after all.

A natural advantage

Although they struggled to compete in a male-dominated world of work, women had one natural advantage – they tended to out-live their husbands. And there were no reasons in law for a woman not to be able to take over her late husband’s business, often until the eldest son came of age. 

Lady blacksmith – from the Holkolm Bible

And here’s where genealogy gives you the source evidence, especially the censuses.  On the 1891 census return, one of my son’s  many-times great grandmothers on his father’s side  is listed as a blacksmith in Odiam, Hampshire. Ellen Porter actually ran her late husband’s forge, employing a number of men – whilst, according to family lore, only having one arm. Now there’s a woman I’d like to meet! 


And going back a further hundred years from Ellen, I found my own many-times great grandmother, Elizabeth Northover, of Salisbury, Wiltshire. She ran her own business as a mantua-maker.  Mantua was a  rich embroidered fabric, but the term was used generally for any rich material. Today we’d call a mantua-maker a dress-maker.

Elizabeth  must have been a successful business woman, because there in 1784 is the record of her paying government duties for taking on an apprentice, Mary Marriott. 

I carried on looking through the same record and found other women business owners and  their apprentices. There were many other  mantua-makers – there’s always a demand for new dresses.  As you’d probably expect, there were quite a  few milliners and  also several women running weaving enterprises, including a baize weaver, presumably used for billiards and card tables. I also found a lady currier, or leather-worker, as well as a female bookbinder. 

In Chipping Sodbury I came across Elizabeth Watts – a “Colour Maker”, paying duties for her apprentice, James Williams. I’m not sure what a Colour Maker was, but I suspect it might be an archaic spelling for “collar maker”.  

Lady blacksmiths

And in Prescott, Lancashire, a full 100 years before Ellen Porter, the one-armed lady blacksmith, there was Mary Rhodes, Blacksmith. She’s recorded paying duty in 1784 for the indentures of her apprentice, William Webster. Female entrepreneurs in the eighteenth century, who’d have thought it?

Coade of Conduct

Here’s a brief diversion: what do these carvings and statues have in common? 

The lion guarding Westminster Bridge:

The pediment on the old Naval college, Greenwich:

The lion over the gates at Kew Gardens:

The answer? They are all made of Coade, which is a manufactured stone, similar to a hard ceramic, and created by – Miss Eleanor Coade.

Eleanor set up her own company: Coade’s Artificial Stone Manufactory, based in Lambeth, London. She ran the company  from the 1760s, until she died in 1821. Ms Coade was a successful  business woman, and the company included members of royalty and the aristocracy amongst its customers. 

Countless English stately piles have statuary made of Coade stone. It’s a light diversion to try and spot them, when you’re next allowed out to visit a National Trust property, or other national treasure.

For example, you can find Coade statuary at Brighton pavilion, Buckingham Palace and Richmond’s Ham House. And there’s a fine exhibition about Eleanor and her stone-making process at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich. They had a rather magnificent Coade lion on display, last time I visited.

Running the estate

So, we’ve taken a look through history’s spyglass, and seen ordinary women quietly earning their livings in a predominantly man’s world. But what of those from the upper classes, who weren’t expected to work?

It’s true that convention prevented women from richer backgrounds earning a living. But  there’s plenty of evidence for their roles in society outside the home. In medieval times, when the lord of the manor was fighting away in wars and crusades, the lady of the manor was actually expected to govern in his stead.

In fact, Christine de Pizon, a widowed noblewoman,  wrote a treatise on that subject, around 1430:

...she must know the laws of warfare so that she can command her men and defend her lands if they are attacked…

…she must know everything pertaining to her husband’s businesses so that she can act as an agent in his absence and for herself if she should become a widow…

There were  intellectual pursuits too. Female playwrights and poets, such as Aphra Behn. Writers, such as Anthony Trollope’s mother Frances, who supported the family by her writing when the family fell on hard times. Ada Lovelace, born in 1815, who is credited with inventing the first computer program (hence, “Ada”, a modern computing language, named in her honour). 

Get thee to a convent

And of course, richer women in medieval times could always follow self-determination  in that semi-autonomous female kingdom – the convent. These were self-sufficient societies where women enthusiastically took up roles traditionally filled by men in the outside world.

They could specialise in intellectual studies, music and especially medicine.  I haven’t even touched on the historic involvement of women in the world of medicine – their traditional roles around child-birth, tending the sick and laying-out of the dead – that’s another post in the making.

Hiding in plain sight

It’s easy to get swept along by the prevailing narrative of the age, assisted by the media and dare I say it, a mainly male cohort of historians. Women workers from the past  really are hiding in plain sight. Why?  I think because the people looking tend to be men, who aren’t much interested in lady blacksmiths, female stone manufacturers and their working sisters.

But there’s two ways to deal with this. The first is, to always question what the “motive behind the message’ is. So for example – following the second world war, in the space of ten years, how did we get…

from this   to this…

The answer here is – political motivation. In this case, an effort to get women to give up the jobs they had performed during the war years.

Women should go back to the kitchen, in order to free up jobs for the men returning from war. You’ll get no  moral judgement from me as to whether this approach was right or wrong. I just give the tip never to take media at face value. This is as true of a seventeenth-century satirical cartoon in the Times, as of a contemporary commercial on TV for washing powder.

The second way to deal with the apparent absence of women workers from the records – ask the question: who’s interpreting the records, and what’s their agenda? History isn’t scientific (although you could argue that it should be!). It’s studied and written-up by people with their own conscious – and unconscious – biases.  

So, go back and look at the underlying records yourselves. A subscription to a genealogy website lets you scour through the stories of your own female (and male, of course) ancestors. It can become addictive. And don’t just read an historian’s account of what went on, perhaps go and look at the underlying sources yourselves. 

Women’s stories have always been there, they just need to be found and given a voice.

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