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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.
An important assertion of recent development economics is that the reduction of gender inequality can promote economic growth, although it is more doubtful whether economic growth can, by itself, lessen gender inequality.
The same logic also informs concerns among campaigners for UK women’s rights that the government’s programme of austerity measures risks widening gender inequality.
We can learn as much about the early modern economy from women as we can about women from the early modern economy.
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.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.However, it also granted singlewomen relative autonomy over their assets, which they appear to have used with increasing frequency and skill to generate interest from loans.More immediately, the report cautions that women’s skills and talents should not be overlooked in the drive for economic recovery and growth.From a historical perspective, one of the most interesting features of this report is the doubt it casts as to whether the relatively recent upward trend in women’s labour-force participation is sustainable.
Far from equal partners in family enterprise, enjoying a ‘rough and ready equality’, women have been shown to be clustered in the lowest paid and lowest valued sectors, denied access to formal training, and paid derisory wages by contrast to men.