Words about Women’s Work: The Case of Housewifery in Early Modern England Abstract
Ann C. Christensen | University of Houston
Modern historiography and early modern English texts, including popular drama, treat housewifery in paradoxical ways. These treatments reveal the enduring value and yet the emerging de-valuation of women’s domestic lives and labors. My essay confronts this paradox by comparing the wide and deep cultural appreciation for housewifery, documented in feminist history, to evidence of the devaluation and dismissal of housewives’ contributions to domestic economies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I attribute this devaluation to a nascent culture of business in which husbands’ commercial enterprise—whether local or global—occurred outside the home and was seen as necessary to “maintain” their wives, who drain rather provide resources. My essay is not a defense of the economic contributions of housewifery in the Elizabethan (or any other) period. Rather, it is a comparative analysis; I read instances of housewifery in historiography and period texts to consider how we theorize housewifery’s value in Renaissance England. In “defending” housework as work, which of course it is, modern feminist studies have at times inadvertently overlooked the more troubling representations of women’s work in the home, and of the home itself.