Debates - Guilds

What was the position of women in relation to the guilds?


Originally, guild literature pays lip service to the role of women within guilds. The female role was determined by their roles as wives, widows and daughters of masters, and not as full or serious participants of the guild. The choice of sources for this literature played a large role, deriving most of their information from guild statutes. Alice Clarck (1919) was the first to refute the view that women were no more than wives and daughters and claimed that the Middle Ages formed a Golden Age for women in England, in which they had access to skilled and highly paid work. In the 1980s, her theory was punctured by new research, and the view was asserted that work possibilities for women eroded in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Female work possibilities were restricted because guilds started to exclude women to check internal competition and because after the Reformation, moral attitudes towards women changed and a new cult of domesticity pushed women in the private sphere.

The last ten years, research has taken a much milder stance towards the restriction of female work by the guilds. In France, for example, Clare Crowston (2008) found in the mid eighteenth century the situation for French seamstresses bettered, when in Paris and other cities some female guilds were founded that operated on the clothing market.

(Crowston, 2008)

In Italy, female guilds existed as well, though their numbers were marginal (Laudani, 1996). For the Low Countries, Deceulaer and Panhuysen assert that in the textile industry various systems developed depending on the city and the region, ranging from independent guilds for women, through second-class guild membership to dues-paying requirements or a maximum quota (Deceulaer and Panhuysen, 2006, 155). In the Republic, women’s position within guilds or in work in general strongly depended on their social status - unmarried, married or widowed – while the position of men depended on their education and skill level. Unmarried women generally worked low waged jobs that required little education and widows could continue the work of their deceased husband, provided that they paid contributions to the guild. Married women were often officially excluded of work within guilds, but did help their husbands in their trade, therefore contributing to the production in an ‘invisible’ way (Schmidt, 2005, 15-8).

In China, the evidence on women in guilds is very scarce. So far, from the extant materials for Suzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, Foshan and Baxian/Chongqing, only one indirect reference singles out a particular guild of embroiderers as “male” (1992, 54). This might be an indirect indication that “female” guilds existed.

Regarding huiguan, the question whether women and children should be allowed to enter and live there became an issue in the nineteenth century. From mid-century onward, some huiguan admitted women for theatrical performances, separated by curtains in order to maintain the proper segregation (Belsky, 2006, p. 67). Residence of women or families with children was allowed in some Beijing huiguan since the early twentieth century (Belsky, 2006, 237-8; 262). Full or partial membership, as far as we know at this point, was neither demanded by the women nor granted. Women and young family members, as in Europe, helped in the trades, but were not even expressly excluded from the guilds. The fact that migration often came before guild formation, and that mainly the men migrated, probably compounded this situation.

A different case, beyond all kinds of formalization or official sanction, were the women’s clubs in South China, in the region around Canton (Watson, 1994, 39). Some women did not marry but convened in these societies and lived on their own in vegetarian halls (and thus as a kind of lay Buddhists) (Watson, 1994, 34). Such sororities may also have had functions of labour allocation. For a number of reasons, these institutions do not correspond to guilds, but comparison to Northwestern European beguinages might offer interesting perspectives.



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