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Unique database provides new insight into the history of work

The database ‘Gender and Work’ has been compiled from information about the actual work people did in Sweden from 1500 to 1800. Professor Maria Ågren is responsible for the research project.

By creating a database using historical source materials, researchers have been able to show that the division of labour between the sexes in the period 1500-1800 was both similar and different to the one we have today.

Since 2009, the Department of History at Uppsala University has been compiling the database ‘Gender and Work’. It is the only one in the world. The researchers have recorded every observation regarding actual work tasks which they found in various historical source materials. They have paid special attention to materials from court trials.

“The court materials are a fundamental source. Witnesses mention in passing the work they do when giving evidence in a court of law,” says Maria Ågren, professor of History at the Department of History at Uppsala University and responsible for the research project.

The researchers have gone through their source materials searching for verbs/verb phrases associated with various kinds of work, for example, ‘to milk’ or ‘sell fish’. They have also included verbs associated with leading and delegating work. Research into this area has been done before but it has been mostly based on the study of norms and less upon actual, factual historical circumstances. The researchers have read the hand-written source materials to look for verb phrases connected with work. They have also sometimes used digitally stored source materials and automatic searches.

When Maria Ågren first spoke about her idea, she was told by other historians that finding verb phrases associated with work would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Not only do such verb phrases need to be found but a large number of observations are also required to validate the results. However, external research funding, including a Wallenberg Scholar grant, has made it possible to build up the database and thus create a picture of history we were previously unable to see. The database currently holds around 22 000 observations.

“The same method we use can be used to create better economic models for today. In large parts of the world there are no reliable statistics showing what people work with or how they make a living. If we don’t know what people do, we can’t obtain a realistic picture of economic development. It’s also important to cast some light upon the importance of women. It’s easy to come to the wrong conclusions since women don’t figure as much in historical source materials.”

By studying the contents of the database, the researchers have formed a new picture of the division of labour between women and men from 1500 to 1800 in Sweden.

“We can see that what people worked with was not primarily related with gender but rather to do with marital status. We thought that gender would be important which was why we called the project ‘Gender and Work’. What was important, however, was whether a person was married or not.

Getting married was important for both parties, for her just as much as for him. Married people enjoyed certain rights and privileges and married men and women were more likely to be involved in delegating work.

“Another key feature we can see is that both men and women worked and were expected to contribute towards the household’s economy. This is very much like modern society. Extending Maria Ågren’s period as a Wallenberg Scholar for five years allowed the project to examine materials from the 1800s which show this.”

“The major question we still want to answer is what happened during the 1800s which changed things? Was it a long gradual change or did society change drastically and then return to the situation we have today and had from 1500 to1800?”

3 June 2016