In current historiography, the picture of a consistent, unequivocal decline in women`s status with the advent of capitalism and industrialization is giving way to an analysis that not only emphasizes both change (whether improvement or decline) and continuity but also accounts for geographical and occupational variation. The history of women`s work in English farmhouse cheese making between 1800 and 1930 is a case in point. In her influential Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution (1930), Pinchbeck argued that the agricultural revolution of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with its attendant specialization and enlarged scale of operation, curtailed women`s participation in the business of cheese production. Earlier, she maintained, women had concerned themselves with feeding cows, rearing calves, and even selling the cheese in local markets and fairs. Pinchbeck thought that the advent of specialization meant that women`s work in cheese dairying was reduced simply to processing the milk. "Dairymen" (a new social category) raised and fed cows and sold the cheese through factors, who were also men. With this narrowing of the scope of work, Pinchbeck believed, women lost business ability, independence, and initiative.
Though Pinchbeck portrayed precapitalist, preindustrial conditions as superior to what followed, recent scholarship has seriously questioned the notion of a golden age for women in precapitalist society. For example, scholars note that women`s control seldom extended to the disposal of the proceeds of their work. In the case of cheese, the rise of factors may have compromised women`s ability to market cheese at fairs. But merely selling the cheese did not necessarily imply access to the money: Davidoff cites the case of an Essex man who appropriated all but a fraction of the money from his wife`s cheese sales.
By focusing on somewhat peripheral operations, moreover, Pinchbeck missed a substantial element of continuity in women`s participation: throughout the period women did the central work of actually making cheese. Their persistence in English cheese dairying contrasts with women`s early disappearance from arable agriculture in southeast England and from American cheese dairying. Comparing these three divergent developments yields some reasons for the differences among them. English cheese-making women worked in a setting in which cultural values, agricultural conditions, and the nature of their work combined to support their continued participation. In the other cases, one or more of these elements was lacking.