Historians to shed light on women’s work

15 mars 2010

Jan Luyken 1694, Netherlands, History of work information system.

We know very little about what people worked with in the past – and especially little about women. Now a database about women’s work is being created to answer many questions. For one thing, it has been shown that women are very important to the growth of a country.

Maria Ågren, a professor of history, will be working together with about ten research associates to sift through thousands of old documents in pursuit of the tiniest scrap of information that can provide a clue to what people worked with in the past. What these scholars are primarily interested in is the working conditions for women – what kind of work they did and under whose control it was done. When these observations are then pieced together, they will constitute an aggregate pattern that can provide answers to questions that until now have been virtually impossible to answer. 

“We will be able to run searches through huge amounts of data and discern connections in a way that the human brain alone would never have managed to detect,” explains Maria Ågren, who is directing the project.

She has been granted SEK 3 million per year for five years from the Wallenberg Foundation for research. During that period Maria Ågren hopes that she and her colleagues will be able to gather roughly 100,000 observations covering the period from 1550 to 1800.

One source of inspiration is current research that highlights the importance of women when it comes to growth in third-world countries.

“Researchers have uncovered major differences between countries there that have invested in the livelihoods of women and those that have not. This may also help explain why European countries developed so differently,” says Maria Ågren.

These researchers are therefore looking at what regulations and norms were in place in Sweden regarding women’s and men’s work, and will then compare how they were actually followed.

“It might be that in many places in Sweden women were allowed to work in areas they had no formal right to work in,” says Maria Ågren.