In today’s Well, I Didn’t Know That! post, I knew I wanted to feature a podcast. I have gotten out of the habit of listening to them. This post felt like the perfect opportunity to dive back in, find a show/topic that I really enjoy… and feature it! And that I did! In today’s post, I feature Philippa Gregory’s podcast, Normal Women.
The show discusses various topics relating to women throughout the last 900 years. The content stems from research Philippa has undertaken in writing her upcoming book of the same name.
The topic I took particular interest in relates to women, and whether they have been perpetually underpaid for their labour in society.
The gender pay gap between young women, whilst it does exist, it far less dramatic than women in later life.
I discovered via this podcast that by the time women are in the 50-59 age bracket, they are paid 80p for every £1 earned by a man. That’s a huge difference! Not covered in the podcast, but when you consider women often lose out on pension contributions if they take a career break to have and raise children – that’s quite a disadvantage!
Domestic – Work?
Domestic work used to be classified as work by political scientists (aka economists) in British censuses, even if it wasn’t paid for.
Women either typically worked at home, or assisted their husbands in the labour market. For example, women were the backbone of upholding miners and their labour in the 19th century. They often performed tasks for their husbands that enabled them to do their jobs – mending kit, laundry etc. So much so, wives of miners often experienced more health complications than the men who performed the labour in the dangerous conditions.
Other examples include women working for their husband’s businesses and not being paid equally. As assistants, they were paid for assisting other paid workers… but for some reason, not their husbands. It was also customary to hire men for positions and assume that women would take up ancillary roles (headteacher/matron, priest/pastoral care) to name a couple of examples.
Nowadays, domestic work isn’t taken into account in the modern census even though it’s believed to make up 60% of GDP.
It may surprise you to learn that there are glimmers of times in history when women could earn as much as men.
The podcast stated that the Black Death wiped out between 45-60% of the British population in 1340’s. The consequences of that meant that demand for labour skyrocketed. Women not bound into existing working contracts and able to take up casual labour capitalised on the opportunity. They demanded equal pay. Sounds like we’re going in the right direction, doesn’t it? Well, just a few years later in 1351, the government stepped in. To prevent women from being able to demand a fair share, they introduced the Statute of Labourers. This prevented anyone from demanding a wage higher than they earned prior to the epidemic. For women, that meant putting them back ‘in their place’ behind men.
It’s not the only time the government introduced laws that directly disadvantaged women. The Statute of Artificers 1562 Act meant that anybody, including women doing domestic work around the house, could be called to perform agricultural labour. They couldn’t refuse without suffering imprisonment. Further, women had to be employed year-round – they couldn’t work for themselves. In principle, the law was brought about to control trade and encourage training in skilled professions. In practice, it meant that women were ‘apprenticed’ to domestic chores they were already doing, and not paid a penny for their efforts.
Skills women contributed to the economy were also frequently replaced by advances and technology. As they were unable to obtain mortgages or take out loans, they were prevented from starting businesses of any kind of industrial scale like their male counterparts. Their manual labour wasn’t required, and they couldn’t share a slice of the pie either.
Only in 1919 was UK law was changed to allow women to enter legal professions. Previously, they had been barred from the opportunities for the required education and also to practice.
Historically, women have been underpaid and severely disadvantaged. Whilst women have significantly more rights than they ever did before, that’s not to say that we’ve caught up.
Normal Women highlighted that in the modern labour force, women hold the majority of low pay jobs even when working – the care sector particularly.
Women are being actively recruited into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professions, providing opportunities for specialisation that hasn’t always been available. However, statistically, it has been proven that when women are brought into a profession, the remuneration for these jobs goes down over time. It’s proof of women being paid less than their male counterparts, otherwise the average wouldn’t come down!
If you have enjoyed the content of the podcast and this post, then keep your eyes out for Philippa Gregory‘s book of the same name being published in February 2024.
If you’re interested in other books on this theme, I can also recommend Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Pérez.