Most social historians writing about working women in pre-nineteenth century Britain have tended to concentrate on fairly large groups, such as factory workers or domestic servants, often in an attempt to reach some conclusions regarding their standards of living and social position. Another approach has lead feminist historians to search for underlying causes of women's exploitation through the locus of class and gender. Without ignoring these crucial issues, this volume written by cultural historians takes a slightly different approach, focusing on the status of small, sometimes tiny, groups of women holding marginal positions in the labour market, and often employed on an irregular basis. Women such as housekeepers, nurses, camp followers, governesses, actresses and musicians, to take some of the cases examined in this volume, generally did not have stable, permanent employment. Even female tradesmen often only worked for short periods of their lives. The temporary, unreliable character of such work can be partly related to the changing needs of women at different periods of their lives, but it also has much to do the status of women's work in eighteenth century British society.
Providing case-studies of women's work in three different environments - middle and upper class households, male dominated communities and societies and the world of the arts - this collection asks fresh questions about women's aspirations and identity at various levels of society. In comparing and contrasting these varying spheres of female employment, this book throws in sharp relief the contrasting attitude to women's work inside and outside the home, and how the latter was often regarded as having a potentially destabilising and transgressive effect on British society.