Prof Jane Humphries CBE explores the value of 5 centuries of women’s unpaid labour

Prof Jane Humphries in lecture hall

We were delighted to welcome economic historian Professor Jane Humphries CBE  (NC 1967) who gave the third lecture in our 150th Anniversary Lecture Series, on the topic of the value of women’s unpaid labour through history.

The lecture is now available to watch online150th Anniversary Lecture Series – Professor Jane Humphries, economic historian – #Newnham150 – YouTube

Starting with the memorable story of Hannah Cullwick and Arthur Munby, she explored the relationship between women’s paid and unpaid domestic labour.  Economist Arthur Pigou wrote in 1920 that, “If a man marries his housekeeper or his cook, the national income is diminished”: the paradox is that exactly the same services were carried out by Cullwick in her role as Munby’s cook as as his wife, but her labour went from being paid to being unpaid, and hence economically invisible. Jane Humphries argues that this inability to recognise or value women’s work has led to a devaluing of many key areas of activity, including childcare and caring for the elderly.

Prof Jane Humphries is well known for her innovative research techniques to uncover the forgotten history of working-class men, women and children in the Industrial Revolution. She was Reader and then Professor of Economic History at Oxford from 1999 to 2017. She is now Emeritus Professor and Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.

In this talk, Prof Humphries shared new, unpublished work, once again having developed an innovative approach to investigate hitherto invisible aspects of women’s labour. Using a range of historical sources from the 15th to the 19th centuries, she compared the costs of raw goods against the costs of board and lodging over time. She identified that the rising cost of board and lodging – that is, the provision of suitable accommodation and meals – is due to the additional work done by women to turn raw goods into an end product as society’s views of ‘respectable lodging’ shift.

Her sources demonstrated how, over 5 centuries, ‘respectable’ lodging became increasingly sophisticated: from a meal of cheese and bread to an apple pie, candles, a bed, a private room and proper fireplace, laundry and much more. Much of the new respectability involves women’s unpaid labour in the home, removing them from work outside the home. Humphries analysed the costs of purchasing these services, against the total household income of ‘respectable’ working families.  Her conclusion that, even without including laundry, childcare or elder care, women’s unpaid domestic labour had a value equivalent to 8-17.7% of the total domestic income. Those who did not have a family member providing these services would need to purchase them, making daily life in Britain during this period considerably more expensive than conventional economic history accounts for.

This was the first lecture to take place in person, and indeed our first hybrid lecture, with an audience both in College and via Zoom. The talk itself was followed by a lively Q&A discussing what the pandemic has shown us about the value of women’s work, debates over approaches to economics and economic history, and the importance of economic feminism – discussions which carried on into the subsequent Formal Hall.

Many thanks to Prof Humphries for this fascinating talk, and to the organising team.