Patriarchy project 1b: Household as economic unit

The household economy has been and continues to be a fundamental component of patriarchal structures in most historical and contemporary societies, but it’s quite hard to pin it down in terms of significance and historiography. As a phenomenon, it sits somewhat uneasily in the overlap of economic history, family history and social history. It’s also particularly difficult to discuss in general terms, because households and household economies differed so much between classes/social status groups. The domestic economy of a medieval noble household or an urban patrician family was strikingly different from that of a peasant household in terms of scale and organisation. And yet there’s enough commonality that I think we can find some parallels for analysis.

Viking loom weights: image by Nick Thompson (

To start with, we need a vague sense of the field. The household economy is about how certain forms of labour get divided within the household (a group of people who live together and share a common life). The most basic tasks are childcare, food preparation, and especially in temperate climates, the cleaning, heating, lighting and maintenance of dwellings, and the provision and cleaning of clothes. In the pre-industrial world, there’s also a strong overlap between domestic work, various agricultural tasks and textile production for the market.

The household economy is also concerned with who controls (financial) resources within the household and who receives any additional support coming from outside (government or charities etc).


There are a number of ways in which the household economy disadvantages women relative to men in the same household. The most obvious factor in modern societies is that unpaid domestic work takes up disproportionate amount of a woman’s time that could otherwise be used for wage labour (so women potentially end up poorer relatively to their partners, unless the household resources are split evenly).

In addition, socially determined divisions of labour requires women (and also sometimes men) to do labour for which they have no aptitude and/or do not enjoy. And domestic work also has a low status in the modern world. (I need to investigate to what extent that is true in earlier periods).

One common problem in household economies is that women and children don’t receive an adequate share of household resources, with husbands/partners either squandering money on their own desires or being miserly. In addition, if societies are premised on the household as economic unit, women who do not fit into one may find it difficult to survive outside a conventional household. This may be partly because they are unable to carry out certain essential heavy labour tasks. But historically it has frequently also because they are not eligible for additional external support, e.g. government and charities traditionally being unwilling to assist single mothers.


One of the problems with discussing change over time is the class difference between households. As I’ve already implied, the household economy of a Roman peasant is very different from the “household economy” of a Roman noble owning thousands of slaves. The main distinction I want to make (though it’s blurry in practice) is between situations where the materfamilias of a household does all the “women’s work” herself (or with her female relatives’ help only) and those where she has at least some non-family help with domestic tasks. I think that there were historically very few elite households where all the “women’s work” was delegated, so that the controlling woman was purely a manager/employer. There was always moral pressure that elite women themselves did some kinds of textile work (such as Penelope’s weaving in the Odyssey) and some aspects of childcare.

The outside help that higher status women got with household tasks was most often via slaves, servants or other wage labour, though there are some medieval labour dues that include aspects of domestic work, such as cloth or food production. In all the periods I look at, I’m going to need to consider both the housewife as domestic worker and the noblewoman/gentlewoman as domestic manager. I also need to examine stewards and the like: male employees or slaves who played a “middle management” role within households. This is one of the key points in patriarchal systems in which class trumps sex. Malvolio in Twelfth Night simply doesn’t have as much power as Countess Olivia, although he can hope to gain it by marrying her.

In terms of economic history, one of the things I need to look at is the changing supply of non-family domestic labour. I think this breaks down in terms of broad periods into an antique and early medieval period of unfree domestic labour, the move towards paid servants in the High Middle Ages and then the re-emergence of slavery in the early modern period. I also need to look at the growth (and occasional decline) of markets for food, clothing and laundry services, to see how it gradually became possible to outsource some of those activities to the commercial sector. On the other hand, though a lot of the history of domestic work has looked at “labour-saving devices”, I’m not sure whether there are many significant innovations between antiquity and 1700. Better grain milling may be one, but the kitchen stove, for example, is an eighteenth-century innovation in the West.

I also need to look for changing attitudes towards domestic work. When I’m exploring early modern research in particular, I want to look out for an issue that Susan Amussen has suggested, based on the seventeenth century West Indies: that racialized work played an important role in defining gender differences in the colonies. Broadly, enslaved black men and women were both doing heavy labour producing commodity goods (although not necessarily the same tasks). In contrast, white women on plantations were increasingly seen as non-workers, even if they were in fact quite busy domestically. And it was that colonial experience that lead more generally to non-commercial labour becoming seen as not proper work.


The household economy looks to me at least partially like a case of path dependence. A standard division of labour and specialisation within a pair-bonded domestic unit (men’s work versus women’s work) may well have been more efficient in early hunter-gatherer societies than both of a couple doing all the tasks. And when you have children learning how to do tasks from their parents (and possibly learning preferentially from the parent of the same sex), then you have a very strong mechanism for perpetuating labour divisions, even when you have much larger and more complex households, which don’t need to have their domestic labour divided on rigid gender lines.

I also want to look at how much long-term cultural persistence there is in a division between work inside and outside the house (which I think turns up in ancient Greek texts on the household economy). And as I’ve already mentioned, early modern colonialism may be the practical context in which domestic labour came to be devalued as against production for the market.

Women’s agency

In the modern West there have been two different female responses to the problems of the domestic economy (along with the vast majority of women who have just put up with it). On the one hand, some women have tried to valorise domestic work, whether it’s via wages for housework or being a domestic goddess. On the other hand, some feminists have tried to avoid/reject domestic work or encouraged men to do more of it. I suspect that details of individuals’ experience of domestic work is only going to be visible in the early modern period, but I am interested in whether we can see any of the same attitudes towards it at that point.

2 thoughts on “ Patriarchy project 1b: Household as economic unit

  1. You could try looking at some of the work on the collapse of the imperial Roman economy which lists specific technologies which the authors think made a big difference in everyday life, and maybe some of the archaeological and ethnographic work on North America on which household goods indigenous people were very eager to get access to and which they ignored (iirc iron or cast bronze cookpots were in high demand). But yeah, this is going to be hard to study (you might want to talk to Hanne Sigismund Nielsen on early imperial Roman ideas about gender and marriage in typical inscriptions versus early imperial Roman ideas about gender and marriage in textbooks).


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