University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Economic and Social History Seminars > Ellen McArthur Lecture: Eve Also Delved: Gendering Economic History (2)

Ellen McArthur Lecture: Eve Also Delved: Gendering Economic History (2)

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2. The spinster: a tragic heroine of the industrial revolution?

Lecture 2 takes these arguments down to a specific occupational/industrial case study in terms of the tragic fate of the hand spinner, an until recently forgotten figure in the British industrial revolution. This has changed with the success of Robert Allen’s ‘high wage economy’ interpretation of industrialisation, and inclusion of the spinning jenny in his list of macro inventions. The spinster moves from the economic periphery to centre stage, her earnings depicted as growing sufficiently dramatically to prompt the invention and innovation which placed the textile industry in the vanguard of the first industrial revolution, a perspective which rests heavily on Craig Muldrew’s earlier empirical work on the extent and remuneration of hand spinning. The lecture draws on current research (with Ben Schneider) which uses previously neglected sources to estimate the productivity, employment and wages of female and child spinners. In contrast to the high wage view, our data do not show a steady rise in wages prior to the spinning innovations of the 1760s and 1770s. I will speculate why spinners did not share in the HWE and suggest an alternative interpretation of the appearance and expansion of the factory system.

This talk is part of the Economic and Social History Seminars series.

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