The creation of a political economy of sexual divisions has undoubtedly been one of the most significant intellectual outcomes of the recent feminist revival. The call in the early seventies for the development of an historical and materialist (though not always Marxist) account of sexual division, oppression and conflict met with an immediate and enthusiastic response, so that the last few years have seen the emergence of a prolific literature exploring the articulation of capitalism with the sexual division of labour and its attendant relations of sexual authority and subordination. Attention has been drawn to the home as a centre of production as well as of consumption, socialization and psychological retreat; and the question of reproduction, in all its senses, is now a central concern of many Marxist studies of the workings of capitalism. Women’s responsibility for childcare and housework no longer passes unnoticed—a natural, unchanging phenomenon unworthy of serious consideration—but has come to be considered in both historical and comparative perspective. As yet, however, most of the work in this vein has been historical in conception rather than in detail. For example, the ‘domestic labour debate’, which has sought to establish the essential relationships between domestic labour, wage labour and surplus production under capitalism, has been conducted at a very high level of theoretical abstraction with little regard for historical variations in the form of capitalism.footnote1 Elsewhere, studies of the impact of industrialism and capitalism on the position of women may have adopted a more substantive approach, but have nevertheless tended to represent this process in the most broad and general terms.footnote2

The impact of these efforts has certainly been dramatic. Whereas a decade ago ‘the family’ was widely regarded as one of the most boring topics on the sociology curriculum, greeted by students and teachers alike with a politely stifled yawn, it is now the subject of intense controversy—a revival which parallels its re-emergence as a major political issue. Yet, in the absence of detailed historical study, much that is doubtful or contentious has been put forward as though it were known fact. In particular, a number of suppositions concerning the position of women in pre-industrial and pre-capitalist western societies seem to have acquired a widespread currency, without ever having been subjected to close, direct and empirical evaluation. It is held that in the pre-capitalist era the basic unit of production was the family; that this was a largely self-sufficient entity, with no institutional separation of production and consumption; that women participated fully in all kinds of productive effort; and that there was no demarcation between domestic functions and the rest of the productive process. Hence, it is inferred, responsibility for the disintegration of family activities, the stripping away of its productive functions (other than domestic labour), the creation of a new, restricted role for women (that of the ‘housewife’), the consequent growth in the dependence of women on men, and the emergence of a new sphere of domesticity and personal life can all be attributed to the rise of capitalism or industrialism. Much of this argument is, in fact, of dubious validity. Furthermore, insufficient attention has been paid to problems of periodization in the pre-industrial era. There has been a tendency on the part of some authors to collapse into a single category (‘pre-industrial’ or ‘pre-capitalist’ society) periods of history which are really quite distinct in time and character.footnote3

The present essay attempts a relatively detailed elaboration of one such issue: the sexual division of labour among the peasantry of feudal England. (To avoid tedious repetition, the generic label ‘peasantry’ will be used to cover landless agricultural labourers and full-time estate workers, as well as bona-fide landholding peasants. When the term is being used in the narrower and stricter sense, the context will make this apparent.) This period has been chosen in preference to that immediately preceding the industrial revolution because of the transitional nature of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. In discussing those later centuries, it is always difficult to tease out the vestigial influences of a bygone feudalism from those of an emerging capitalism, unless one has a clear idea of what had gone before. This difficulty is less of a problem when studying the twelfth to the mid-fifteenth centuries, which may be regarded as the high watermark of English feudalism. Here the trouble lies rather in a dearth of reliable evidence. Indeed, the lack of information on the lives of common people is so frustrating that ‘histories of feudal women’ (and there are a surprising number) almost invariably turn out to be histories of women in the nobility and urban middle classes. The unrecorded lives of peasant women are passed over in despair, with rarely more than a page or two devoted to their condition.footnote4 I hope this essay will show that a fuller appreciation of that condition may in fact be possible. The evidence assembled here is not original, but has been extracted from a broad range of secondary sources including economic histories, demographic studies, histories of inheritance and landholding patterns, and sociological accounts of village life and organization. As far as possible, however, all its arguments are based on documentary records and on what can reasonably be deduced from them.

The division of labour is not a simple concept, but may be considered from a number of different standpoints. Of these, three seem to be especially relevant to the division of labour by sex: the division between surplus production and labour on one’s own behalf (necessary labour); occupational specialization; and the distinction between domestic and non-domestic labour (i.e. the allocation of housework and childcare functions). This final element may, of course, be viewed as part of the overall pattern of occupational specialization; but its special features and its pertinence to our present concerns both indicate the need for separate treatment.

The study of women’s participation in surplus labour (defined here in the Marxist sense, as labour appropriated by an exploiting class of landlords) is interesting not least because of the light it may shed on female involvement in communal and class activities. The fact that women are largely ‘hidden from history’ is commonly acknowledged. What may be less clear is whether that invisibility has been due to the blinkered vision of predominantly male historians who have simply failed to notice the feminine contribution to public life, or whether women have been prevented from ‘making history’ in all ages by virtue of a relative confinement to the seclusion of the hearth. (Not that this would excuse the historians’ traditional lack of interest in the private domain.) Among socialist feminists, the current conventional wisdom is that the sharp dissociation of public and private spheres was a consequence of the rise of capitalism. But if that is so, why do relatively few women’s names appear in the recorded histories of peasant uprisings in the feudal era, or even in the annals of local class struggles over levels of rent?footnote5 The historians cannot be entirely to blame for that. Does the general absence of peasant women from the front line of the class struggle indicate that they were already excluded from direct involvement in surplus production? Or was that absence dictated by other motives: subjection to male authority perhaps, or some contemporary sense of sexual decorum governing the kinds of behaviour in which women might decently engage?

It is commonly held by socialists, following Engels, that sexual equality and the liberation of women are dependent on their entry into social production and the socialization of housework.footnote6 This implicitly recognizes that the impact of class exploitation is always two-edged. If exploitation is the evident source of oppression and degradation, it also confers the possibility of exercising power. Those who produce a surplus do not wait for the revolution before engaging in a struggle over its control and, except in some rare instances of total defeat, they will win at least some measure of self-determination in the course of that struggle. Rodney Hilton’s work on peasant movements and struggles shows the truth of this in the feudal context. To be excluded from surplus production is therefore to have your horizons limited and to be restricted in your scope for self-determination (unless, of course, you happen to be enjoying the fruits of someone else’s surplus labour). It is plain that within the feudal peasantry women did not have equal status and authority with men, and it may be that an examination of the sexual allocation of surplus labour will point us towards the sources of that subordination. It is in any event a necessary precondition for investigating the way in which power relations between men and women within the labouring classes evolved during the transition from feudalism to capitalism. We cannot kmow the measure of capitalism’s responsibility for creating a situation where women are persuaded to regard themselves principally as ‘home makers’ (facilitating their exclusion from ‘productive’ surplus labour, or else forcing them into its least organized and lucrative sectors), until we know the nature of its inheritance from the former mode of production.

The degree of occupational specialization by sex, the second of our three aspects of the division of labour, is more thoroughly documented than either of the others and, perhaps because of this, it has been afforded disproportionate attention by mediaeval historians. The evidence has generally been deployed to show that there were virtually no manual tasks performed by men (neither in agriculture, nor crafts, nor by-industry) that were not also at some time undertaken by women. The intention, laudable no doubt, has been to show the injustice of excluding women from any occupation on the grounds of a presumed natural or physical incapacity. But if we do still need proof for such arguments, a stronger case may surely be made by turning to the vast and nigh incontrovertible evidence furnished by modern anthropological studies.footnote7 It is really quite spurious to belabour the mediaeval evidence, which is meagre and inconclusive by comparison. Given women’s proven capacity to perform the whole range of tasks, it is actually far more interesting, when looking at the feudal evidence, to consider why certain occupations did tend to become the special province of one sex or the other.