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How Wage Work Liberated Women (and Men)

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In her essay "Redeeming the Industrial Revolution" Wendy McElroy notes how industrialization provided choices to women which had never been available before:

When women had the opportunity to leave rural life for factory wages and domestic work, they poured into the cities in unprecedented numbers. ... The women themselves believed that flight into the city was in their self-interest, otherwise they would have never made the journey or they would have returned home to farm life in disillusionment. To say factory work "harmed" 18th- or 19th-century women is to ignore the demonstrated preference that they themselves expressed. It ignores the voice of their choices; clearly, the women believed it was an improvement.

This view is in contrast to the anti-capitalist view often promulgated by both Marxists and traditionalist conservatives: namely, that people had been far more happy as farm laborers, but that industrialization wrenched people away form their idyllic and bucolic lives, forcing them to degrade themselves with wage work.

The Historical Importance of Wage Work

The idea that people — and especially women — rarely left rural occupations willingly for wage work in the cities isn't supported by the historical evidence. Moreover, the trend toward urban wage work is much older and more established in Western European culture than is often assumed.

While many associate urban wage work with only the Dickensian images of nineteenth century factories, Europeans — especially Europeans in northern and Western Europe — began moving to cities in the late Middle Ages, and these trends accelerated over time. By the early modern period, a majority in many areas was engaged in wage labor. According to Tine de Moor and Jan Luiten van Zanden, by the sixteen century, in "Holland and the Guelders River area, up to 60 per cent of the working population were dependent on wage labour." And even before the sixteenth century, in England "being a wage labourer was a normal part of the life cycle of a very large part of the population."1

It should not be assumed, however, that this was seen by the workers themselves as a problem. For over a century and a half after the Black Death ended in the mid 14th century, wage rates grew substantially, and for both men and women, "there were a variety of options to choose from." Men had more options than women, but for women, options in various times and places included brewing, silkweaving, spinning, and embroidering.

Life in the city held other attractions as well. According to Retha Warnicke, "Urban women probably had less restrictive routines than their country counterparts, for early sixteenth century visitors were amazed at their freedom. ... While unmarried girls of propertied classes were more closely confined, apprentices and lower-class women seem to have danced in the streets, to have played rather rough games, and to have drunk beer and ale with the men."2

Effects on Marriage, Sex, and Family Formation

These new economic realities were important factors in the rise and endurance of what has come to be known as the "western European marriage pattern." Contrary to the commonly held idea that most people in the past married while in their teens or very-early twenties, John Hajnal in 1965 asserted instead that the people of Western Europe, from the Middle Ages onward, often married much later than this, with the average marriage age being 23 or more for women, and 26 for men.3 The amount of time that passed for Western Europeans between the onset of puberty and the beginning of marriage was longer than in any other region. Western Europe was also notable, Hajnal continued, for the unusually high number of people — sometimes as high as 20 percent — who never married at all. This same marriage pattern did not hold in southern Europe, such as in Sicily, or in eastern Europe. And it certainly wasn't the case in places like China.

The relative ease of finding wage work for young people meant that the opportunity cost of early marriage increased. Young people could hope to experience a period of relative economic independence in their youths that preceded marriage, and many wage workers elected to prolong their pre-marriage working period. For women, this allowed for some economic leverage which afforded more bargaining power in finding a suitable husband, and in establishing financial independence from parents.4

By itself, of course, these economic trends would not have been enough to provide independence for young women. Outside Western Europe, civil governments and social convention placed young women both under the control of parents, and marriage was often a matter of a family handing over the young woman (or girl) to a man who would take her into his home.

By the early modern period, this was not the case in Western Europe. In the Middle Ages, Roman Catholic legal scholars had begun to move toward a "consensus" model of marriage in which the validity of a marriage depended on the consent of both the man and woman. While the opinions of parents remained important, families could no longer impose a marriage contract on spouses. Van Zanden, et al write:

The fact that both the man’s and his future wife’s consent was necessary for marriage meant that it was a contract between ‘equals’ since neither one could impose consensus upon the other partner. This means that in principle the bargaining position of women in such a marriage pattern [i.e., the Western European marriage pattern] is relatively strong: a woman could (try to) select the kind of husband that suited her.5

In practice, this meant that women could, of their own accord, elect to enter in marriage later, even if their parents wished otherwise. Other legal changes ensued which also guaranteed women better inheritance rights if the woman became widowed. This, in turn, encouraged women to continue with wage work, even after marriage, since she stood to maintain ownership over the fruits of her own labor in case she was widowed.

This relatively advanced degree of equalization was enhanced by earlier changes in thinking about sex within marriage. By the late Middle ages, some Catholic legal scholars began to argue for raising the age of consent for marriage, and for the equalization of the so-called "marital debt." According to James Brundage in Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe:

canonists in this period [i.e., the thirteenth century] also insisted that marriages contracted before the parties reached the age of puberty were not binding unless the individuals were capable both of assenting to marital obligations and of fulfilling them. Alanus favored adopting a further distinction based on Roman law that would have made the validity of marriage depend upon the parties having reached "full puberty" which civil law set at age seventeen, rather than "incomplete puberty," which girls were presumed to reach at twelve and boys at fourteen. Alanus's proposal found little support, and most commentators continued to assert that twelve and fourteen were canonical minimum ages.

Marriage may have been permitted at twelve, but as we have seen, in the following centuries, many couples elected to wait much longer.

Moreover, being built on consent between only the two parties entering into the marriage agreement, married couples enjoyed prerogatives which made them immune to outside demands if they threatened the couple's relationship. Brundage continues:

[A] married serf whose wife demanded that he make love to her at the same time that his manorial lord required his services in the field ought to obey his lord, unless there was imminent danger that his wife might commit fornication. If the wife insisted, however, he was obliged to comply with her demand — the wife's rights took precedence over the lord's. ... The obligation of the marital debt was so serious that in the view of one Anglo-Norman glossator it constituted a telling argument against polygyny, for, he declared, no man could hope to satisfy more than one woman.

Significantly, the woman's right to "intercourse on demand" was legally equal to that of the man's, although canonists admitted women were less likely to invoke this right in disputes. The legal commentary here, however, is illustrative of how the marriage bond could be immune from outside demands — even those of a lord.

This independence for married couples is another characteristic of marriage within the Western European marriage pattern. Outside Western Europe, family relations were far more likely to be subject to outside influence and to fit into what is known as a "joint family" pattern. Joint families occurred when younger married couples within an extended family were expected to remain in the same household as an older patriarch, and subject to his wishes. By the end of the Middle Ages,  this sort of family was becoming rare in Western Europe and gave way to the nuclear family in which new married couples were expected to form an entirely new household upon becoming married.

But this could be done only after a woman freely consented to marriage, and if the couple had access to resources which could fund this new household. Urban wage work made this possible for both men and women.

None of this should be interpreted as creating a situation in which women were at a legal advantage over men. That wasn't the case. Compared to women in eastern Europe and China, however, Western European women enjoyed a remarkable level of autonomy.

But even under these conditions, many doubted marriage was always the most desirable option. Roman Catholic views of marriage were less enthusiastic about the institution than was the case outside the west, and this led to fewer marriages in the west, and more warnings about marriage overall. Warnicke, for example, describes "[a] homily of the thirteenth century [which] had warned young girls against marrying a 'man of clay' who would enslave them and force them into the 'drudgery' of housework."6  The implication, of course, was that celibacy was preferable to an undesirable man, or, as sixteenth-century poet Anna Bijns put it more forcefully: "Unyoked is best! Happy the woman without a man."

Ultimately, a critical element in all of this was the move toward an economic system that allowed both women and men to establish economic independence through wage work. The changes were quite revolutionary. As De Moor and Van Zanden conclude, the shift to wage work allowed for growth in formal schooling, and for new institutions designed to "address issues of old age or single parenthood."7 These changes helped set Western Europe apart as it built the foundation for the even greater advances in standards of living which would come latter. It was "the long-term dynamism of this structure which helps to explain the long-term success of this region in the world economy of the early modern period."8

Nevertheless, to this day, anti-capitalists both left and right continue to attempt to paint a picture of the past in which urbanization and a move to wage work presented a step down for workers who, we are told, would have preferred to remain in the countryside.  Many people who lived during this period would likely have disagreed.

  • 1. Tine De Moor and Jan Luiten van Zanden, "Girl power: the European marriage pattern and labour markets in the North Sea region in the late medieval and early modern period," The Economic History Review, 2009. p.12.
  • 2. Retha M. Warnicke, Women of the English Renaissance and Reformation, Praeger Publishers, 1983.
  • 3. This varied within western Europe, but overall, western and northern Europe, and especially the North Sea region, experienced far higher rates of later marriage, and cases of people never marrying at all.
  • 4. See De Moor and van Zanden, "Girl power..."
  • 5. Jan Luiten van Zanden, Tine De Moor, Sarah Carmichael, Capital Women: The European Marriage Pattern, Female Empowerment and Economic Development in Western Europe 1300-1800. Oxford University Press. 2019.
  • 6. Retha M. Warnicke, Women of the English Renaissance and Reformation, Praeger Publishers, 1983.
  • 7. Tine De Moor and Jan Luiten van Zanden, "Girl power: the European marriage pattern and labour markets in the North Sea region in the late medieval and early modern period," The Economic History Review, 2009. p.3
  • 8. Ibid., page 4.

Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is executive editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public policy and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities and Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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