It’s one of the great unanswered questions of English History.
The theory, at least for early-modern England, was pretty clear. Men were supposed to earn the money, women did the domestic chores and raised the children (and then also earned some money). Not for nothing did a proverb of the time have it that a woman’s work was never done.
I have to admit, the evidence for us menfolk is not great. Husbands were supposed to be masters of the household, but they weren’t expected to actually get their hands dirty in it. According to a popular manual, published by the Marquis of Halifax in 1688, it was indecent, unmanly, for the husband to get involved in the ‘Oeconomy of House’. I’d love to hear from fellow early-modernists about any evidence they might have, but I’m not aware of the standard (male) diarists and autobiographers of the period saying anything about mucking in with the wife.
There’s even one poor Cambridgeshire husband – discovered by Bernard Capp in his wonderful work on early-modern gender relations – who got roundly mocked about his village for staying at home, doing housework, while his wife was busy getting down and dirty in a rather different way with their servant.
My work on the Lancashire poor, too, throws up some intriguing examples of husbands who struggled to cope when their wives died (or left them).
Some poor single fathers reported the difficulties of looking after children now they were on their own. James Hart, a widower from Westhoughton worried in 1657 that he didn’t earn enough to pay for someone to look after his three children. Nursing children presented obvious difficulties for men, too. John Kellett of Walton-le-Dale described in 1683 how he was lately widowed and, ‘not being able to pay for nursing his youngest child nor having any subsistence for the other two’, his children were ‘likely to be starved’.
And work got in the way. John Howard, a drover from Chadderton, described his work in 1670 as being the ‘driving of two little horses’ loaded with coal, by which he ‘is much forced to be from his children’, yet he ‘cannot be without someone amongst his children to dress and order them’.
Petitions like this strongly suggest that it was the wife who was doing most of the childrearing. When she died this left the husbands actually having to apply for poor relief to pay for someone else to come in and do it (though John Howard at least seems to imply that he would’ve been more involved if work hadn’t called on him to be away).
That such appeals could even be heard is intriguing. Parishes were – in theory – notoriously stingy when it came to doling out cash for poor relief. That they might countenance paying husbands to employ child-carers shows how wedded they could be to the gender norms of the age. Otherwise why not just pay the single father to look after the children? (though it’s worth mentioning that employing childcare might give work to a poor local woman, which had other benefits for the parish).
But these cases also pose really interesting issues for gender historians. In fact, the issue of whether men did housework or took much part in the raising of young children is one of the most urgent ones that feminist historians need to grapple with. For, if men were culturally programmed to avoid some of the essential tasks, or if their social position depended on avoiding them, it actually left them economically reliant on their wives. Ironically, the gendered division of labour (which arose out of a misogynist culture), might – as Joanne Bailey points out in her superb book on marital breakdown – have actually helped to blunt the day-to-day force of male domination.
We also need to think about how this balance of marital power interacted with class and social status. Sure, there were plenty of powerful and influential women in the period: Bess of Hardwick, Lucy Hutchinson, Queen Elizabeth I. But were poor women less powerful? Or did they, in their own, more circumscribed world, actually enjoy more freedom in the household and the community than their richer sisters?
We’re perhaps pre-programmed to assume that poorer households in the past were more likely to be characterized by the rough misogyny that history so often throws up. We assume, often without especially strong evidence, that wife-beating – for example – would have been more widespread in poor households, where the stresses and strains of daily life were more visceral and emotionally destructive. Perhaps there’s also an element of condescension amongst historians. We are, after all, still a thoroughly middle-class profession, despite what some of us like to pretend.
Yet, might we not turn these assumptions on their head? Might not the domestic position of poor women actually be better, in some ways?
Think about it this way. In poor households, the margin between subsistence and catastrophe was much thinner. There was no possibility for husbands to use their financial clout to pay for servants to do the ‘women’s work’.
But this work still had to be done, and the Lancashire petitions show the difficult straits poor households could fall into if the wife died or left. Ironically then, the rigid ideas about gender roles in the household actually meant that women were indispensable to poor husbands. This gave them power.
Probably the greatest English thinker of the period, Francis Bacon, summed up men’s relationships with their wives in characteristically pithy fashion. ‘Wives are young men’s mistresses’, he said, ‘companions for middle age; and old men’s nurses’. It was a cycle of relationships that didn’t especially allow for patriarchal domination. Men and women were mutually dependent. Meanwhile William Perkins, a puritan theologian who wrote one of the most important ‘how to’ guides to marriage, described husbands and wives as ‘yokefellows’. And such mutuality surely became more important as the economic margins became thinner, the ‘household oeconomy’ more fragile.
In fact, men were in a bit of a Catch-22. If they didn’t do all those boring domestic chores, they were dependent on women. If they did, they looked unmanly to their neighbours, and so again lost power.
This is not to paper over the blunt patriarchy and misogyny of early-modern society: the women who carved out their own niches of power and occasional influence were going against the grain, and were forced to work with and within a society that remained quite brutally male-dominated.
But it does suggest the reality was probably less grim than some theories might lead us to believe. And it may well be that poor wives were, in their own worlds, the most powerful women of all.