Gender Equality in Wage Labour Relations: the example of statutory regulation in late medieval and early Tudor England
Paper given at: The 8th European Social Science History Conference, Ghent, Belgium, April (2010)
This paper resumes an old debate sparked off by Eileen Power in 1975, about gender discrimination among wage earners in the late Middle Ages, which culminated in 1999-2001 as a dispute between Sandy Bardsley and John Hatcher in Past & Present2. Though for different reasons, both Bardsley and Hatcher argue that women earned less than men. By contrast, the pioneer of historical research on wage labour, Thorold Rogers, had claimed already that in the fourteenth century “women’s work […] was equally paid with that of men.” Almost a century later, Rodney Hilton undertook to check again. He extended the question asking “were peasant women paid less than men for the same work or confined to traditional low-paid female occupations?” Comparing evidence from different regions and different years, he found that their day rates were equal whilst as full time manorial servants they “got less than men” – usually in lower paid occupations. The most detailed study on “Female Wage-Earners in the Late Fourteenth-Century England” carried out by Simon Penn concluded from records of quarter sessions that, “there is never any difference in wage rates based on the sex of the labourer.
Resuming this controversy is not intended to resolve who was right and who was wrong. It is rather an attempt to throw light on an aspect of historical development which was once a major issue of debate amongst British Communist historians: the transition from feudalism to capitalism. But this historical stage will be approached from a very different angle: as a period of the development in wage labour relations in England.