This is not least because both such narratives overwhelmingly depend on anachronistic measures, in the form of occupational identities (most of which were male specific) and the generation of cash income.Given historians' increasing emphasis on the extent of pre-industrial growth, that has contributed to the rejection of classic accounts of industrialization as a seismic shift triggered by technological advances, it is particularly important that we pursue approaches that encompass women’s input.The English legal convention of ‘coverture’ – whereby men assumed ownership of their wives’ moveable property on marriage – has long been approached by historians in terms of the constraints it placed on married women’s agency.
As a precursor to the industrial revolution, de Vries posits a shift in which the labour of married women was reallocated from household production for home consumption towards more commercially oriented activity.
This in turn, challenges the validity of the U-shaped curve conventionally used to represent trends in women’s economic activity over the longer term.
From a hypothetical pre-industrial peak, women’s apparent retreat from the labour market during the nineteenth century has been linked by historians to rising household incomes, shifting farming systems, and industrialization.
This is not to suggest that gender inequality is an unimportant aspect of economic history, but to argue that we need to explore women’s impact in the early modern economy as much as the early modern economy’s impact on women.
Paradoxically, an emphasis on the extent to which women were handicapped by patriarchal structures and practices contributes to and even licenses their persistent neglect in macro-narratives of change.