Jane Gray. Spinning the Threads of Uneven Development: Gender and Industrialization in Ireland during the Long Eighteenth Century. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2005. x + 199 pp. $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7391-0947-2.
Reviewed by John Smail (Department of History, University of North Carolina Charlotte)
Published on H-Albion (September, 2007)
Gender, the Household, and Peripheries: Reviving Social History?
As Jane Gray notes in her introduction, Ireland is not usually associated with eighteenth-century industrialization. However, this supposed agricultural backwater was in fact home to a substantial linen industry geared towards the export trade. Gray's book is an analysis of the development of this industry, focusing on the period from the mid-eighteenth century to the Famine, by which time the emergence of factory spinning was transforming the character of this formerly rural industry. Overlaying the historical treatment of the Irish linen industry in this book is Gray's critique and revision of the two main theoretical models that have been used to analyze rural industrial development: proto-industrialization and world systems theory. Drawing on the explanatory strengths of both and, crucially, linking those strands with an analysis that gives primacy to gender, she crafts a convincing model that both explains Ireland's trajectory and has potential for application in other contexts. The first two substantive chapters of the book provide an introduction to Ireland's linen industry and its development during this period. Linen production in Ireland was a household operation distributed widely across the countryside. However, because it took the work of four spinners to keep one weaver supplied with yarn, this distribution was not uniform. The production of cloth was concentrated in the weaving districts, mostly in the north east. Here, linen cloth was produced in household units, usually headed by a male weaver, that had to supplement their supply of yarn with purchases in the market. In contrast, very little weaving took place in the spinning districts; there, yarn was prepared by women, often from flax grown themselves, as a valuable cash supplement to an agricultural household economy. Each of these two districts had a different set of gender relations. In the weaving districts women's contribution to the household economy was large unremunerated since their labor was subsumed in the household's output of cloth. In the spinning districts, in contrast, women's labor was often the sole source of cash income in the household. A crucial insight of Gray's analysis is that the development of both districts was crucial to the rapid growth of the Irish linen industry in the later eighteen and early nineteenth centuries, but the pattern of growth was different in each case, an observation that usefully extends the core/periphery distinction of world systems theory. In the former, production of linen could only increase by the replication of additional household units of production, generally by subdividing holdings in a process that tended towards proletarianization; in the spinning districts, in contrast, expansion was geographical as markets developed that incorporated more women into the industry.
In the next two chapters, Gray subjects these broad patterns to a more detailed analysis. Using the census returns for Cavan, a county at the southern tip of Ulster on the border between the spinning and weaving districts, Gray shows that the development of linen manufacture in particular communities hinged upon the relative economic contribution made by agriculture and thus varied both spatially and temporally as "core" and "periphery" developed in relationship to each other. Generally speaking, households without access to good agricultural land, households with more or better land that were close to centers of linen marketing, or households taking up linen manufacture during boom years were more likely to exhibit household composition and demographic patterns associated with a significant "investment" in proto-industry. The next chapter balances this statistical analysis with an exploration of gender relationships within the household using a variety of sources including traditional poems and ballads. Gray argues that in important ways, gender relations helped structure the development of the rural linen industry, for example by marking spinning as women's work even though it might have made economic sense for men to participate as well. She also stresses, however, that participation in the trade had the potential to disrupt established gender relations. The final chapter of the book examines the Irish linen industry in comparison to contemporaneous developments in the linen industry in Scotland and Flanders. The different economic, demographic, geographic characteristics of these three regions highlight Gray's argument about the importance of gender in shaping paths of economic development.
Thirty years ago this book, which presents the results of regression analyses and seriously engages with theories of economic development, would have been within the mainstream of the field of economic and social history. Today, however, both its methods and topic mark it as something outside the mainstream, in this instance belonging not to history but to the author's discipline of historical sociology. This fact will probably limit its appeal to those interested in the history of Irish economic development, but that is unfortunate because this engaging and readable book raises questions and explores approaches that are significant despite their relative marginalization in the current state of the discipline. To be sure, the book is not without its weaknesses. Focusing on production, Gray does not look much at the ways in which linen cloth and yarn made their way through the market and does not, therefore, address issues about sources and uses of capital. I would also suspect that there would have been other kinds of sources through which to address the internal dynamics of gender relations in the household, sources that would better bridge the gulf between the discussions of theory and analysis of census, on one hand, and the analysis of ballads, on the other. It is, however, that blend that gives this work its broader relevance, and its success rests upon Gray's convincing and innovative use of gender as an analytic tool (something that would have been far ahead of its time three decades ago). By using gender to disrupt and refine the powerful but simplistic models of both proto-industrial and world systems theory, and by exploring gender relations both in statistical and cultural sources, Gray offers a model for a kind of history that deserves more attention.
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John Smail. Review of Gray, Jane, Spinning the Threads of Uneven Development: Gender and Industrialization in Ireland during the Long Eighteenth Century.
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