Clio Talks Back

I.M.O.W.'s debut blog, Clio Talks Back, will change the way you think about women throughout history! Be informed and transformed by Clio Talks Back, written by the museum's resident historian Karen Offen.

Inspired by Clio, the Greek muse of History, and the museum's global online exhibitions Economica and Women, Power and Politics, Karen takes readers on a journey through time and place where women have shaped and changed our world. You will build your repertoire of rare trivia and conversation starters and occasionally hear from guest bloggers including everyone from leading historians in the field to the historical women themselves.

Read the entries, post a comment, and be inspired to create your own legacies to transform our world.

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Women and Credit Worldwide

Did you know that women worldwide and throughout history have been continually involved in financial transactions, notably in credit, investment, and capital formation ?

Long before microcredit projects began to foster female loan cooperatives in societies such as India, with the Grameen Bank and SEWA, women were involved in small-scale financial operations.

Some of Clio’s male historian colleagues have contributed greatly to illuminating aspects of women’s economic involvement in earlier times.

A survey which sheds a great deal of light on the subject is "Women and Credit in Pre-Industrial and Developing Societies" by William Chester Jordan of Princeton University.

According to recent historical findings on women’s economic involvement in Europe, there is “something distinctive about women’s roles in credit.” [p. 1] . . . “both men and women were pawnbrokers and moneylenders.” [p. 2]

According to Jordan, the sexual division of labor in earlier times was remarkably less pronounced in this area of finance than in many other arenas of women’s labor, such as the manufacture of cloth, baking, or poultry-raising.

This all changed with industrialization and commercialization, and western prescriptions for a strict sexual division of labor.

Clio suggests that you have a look at this study, which addresses not only Europe during the middle ages and early modern period, but also sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean in the colonial and post-colonial period. Eye-opening!


William Chester Jordan, Women and Credit in Pre-Industrial and Developing Societies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.

David Herlihy, Opera Muliebria: Women and Work in Medieval Europe. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990., from Google images
Ela Bhatt receives award at Radcliffe Institute View Larger >
google images
Ela Bhatt speaking View Larger >

Ela Bhatt, advocate for economic independence for women in India

Ela Bhatt is a lawyer and social justice advocate who has become the public face of a movement that she founded in 1972 – SEWA, or the self-employed women’s association (or “Service”). SEWA has since grown to over 1.2 million members.
Begun in Ahmedabad, in western India (the state of Gujarat), SEWA organizes poor women, helping them to help themselves, by asserting themselves as self-employed women. More generally, it attempts to revise thinking about the poor. If, for instance, a huge percentage of women in India are self-employed, why had they been considered “marginal”? One of SEWA’s most significant contributions is to help these women “generate the self-respect needed to resist exploitation.” (Bk., p. 34) By all accounts these efforts have succeeded magnificently because they address real needs.
Led by Ms Bhatt, SEWA has established a bank for its members, a maternal protection program, and many other services, based on the members’ expressed needs. The organization seeks out talent among its members and helps them to develop it. It confronts authorities, such as policemen who were “selling” protection in the marketplace, and has even helped get laws changed.
On May 27th, 2011, the Radcliffe Institute awarded its Radcliffe Institute Medal to Ela Bhatt. Last year Bhatt was honored at the Global Fairness Initiative Awards. Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, “She has spent nearly every day of the past four decades helping move more than a million poor women in India to a position of dignity and independence, gaining access to opportunities they never dreamed possible.”
But let’s let Ela Bhatt have the last word:
“We not only want a piece of the pie, we also want to choose the flavour, and know how to make it ourselves.”
Well said!

Kalima Rose, Where Women are Leaders: The SEWA Movement in India (Zed Books, 1992).

“Ela Bhatt to Receive Radcliffe Institute Medal,” Radcliffe Magazine (Winter 2011), p. 13.

Singing "The Song of the Shirt" - 1840s England

In the land of Jane Eyre and royal weddings, times were tough for poor women.

In 1840s England, before sewing machines had been perfected and come onto the market, many poor urban women, young and old, stitched garments by hand, attempting to earn a living as seamstresses. They were very poorly paid, and the long hours of work they put in to earn enough to eat could ruin their eyes and, more generally, their physical health, not to speak of their mental health.

A certain Thomas Hood (1799-1845) immortalized these seamstresses’ plight in a poem, “The Song of the Shirt,” that was published in the popular English publication, Punch, in 1843. It was a sensational success and reappeared in America, in French translation – and perhaps in many other translations. In the age of the global sweatshop, and despite the mechanization of sewing, its message remains relevant.

Clio recommends reading the entire poem, below.....

With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread:
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt;
And still, with a voice of dolorous pitch,
She sang the “Song of the Shirt”!

Work! work! work!
And while the cock is crowing aloof!
And work – work – work,
Till the stars shine through the roof!
It’s oh! to be a slave
Along with the barbarous Turk,
Where woman has never a soul to save,
If this is Christian work!

Work – work – work!
Till the brain begins to swim;
Work – work – work!
Till the eyes are heavy and dim!
Seam, and gusset, and band,
Band, and gusset, and seam,
Till over the buttons I fall asleep,
And sew them on in my dreams!

Oh men, with sisters dear!
Oh men, with mothers and wives!
It is not linen you’re wearing out,
But human creatures’ lives!
Stitch – stitch – stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
Sewing at once, with a double thread,
A shroud as well as a shirt!

But why do I talk of death,
That phantom of grisly bone?
I hardly fear his terrible shape,
It seems so like my own,
Because of the fasts I keep:
Oh God! that bread should be so dear
And flesh and blood so cheap!

Work – work – work!
My labor never flags;
And what are its wages? A bed of straw,
A crust of bread, and rags;
A shattered roof, and this naked floor,
A table, a broken chair,
And a wall so blank, my shadow I thank
For sometimes falling there!

Work – work – work!
From weary chime to chime;
Work – work – work,
As prisoners work for crime!
Band, and gusset, and seam,
Seam, and gusset, and band, --
Till the heart is sick, and the brain benumbed,
As well as the weary hand!

Work – work – work,
In the dull December light;
And work – work – work,
When the weather is warm and bright;
While underneath the eaves
The brooding swallows cling,
As if to show me their sunny backs
And twit me with the spring.

Oh! but to breathe the breath
Of the cowslip and primrose sweet,
With the sky above my head,
And the grass beneath my feet;
For only one short hour
To feel as I used to feel,
Before I knew the woes of want,
And the walk that costs a meal!

Oh, but for one short hour!
A respite, however brief! –
No blessed leisure for love or hope,
But only time for grief!
A little weeping would ease my heart,
But in their briny bed
My tears must stop, for every drop
Hinders needle and thread!

With fingers weary and work,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rangs,
Plying her needle and thread:
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt;
And still, with a voice of dolorous pitch –
Would that its tone could reach the rich! –
She sang this “Song of the Shirt”

Reproduction of title page
Louise Bourgeois's Observations 1609 (vol. 1) View Larger >

Louise Bourgeois, midwife extraordinaire

Today’s guest blog on the French midwife Louise Bourgeois is contributed by Clio’s longtime colleague, historian Alison Klairmont Lingo, at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Louise Bourgeois (1563-1636), French midwife extraordinaire, was the first woman to publish a medical treatise on childbirth and women’s illnesses (1609). In her capacity as royal midwife to queen Marie de Médicis, the second wife of King Henri IV, she also had the honor of delivering the future king Louis XIII, thus ensuring peace and stability in France by facilitating the birth of a healthy male heir for the Bourbon dynasty. Only males could succeed to the French throne.

“Born into a wealthy, property-owning family living just outside the city gates of Paris, her life fell apart in 1589 during the religious civil wars when mercenary troops reduced everything in her neighborhood to rubble, including her home and other family properties. With her surgeon husband already at the front, Bourgeois fled to safety within Paris with her mother and three small children.

“Upon her arrival in Paris, Bourgeois eked out an existence by doing needlepoint, her only marketable skill, and by selling personal property. She discovered her medical calling by chance when a honneste femme; i.e., an unlicensed midwife who had delivered her children, counseled her to become a midwife. Bourgeois’ reading skills and connections to the medical world through her surgeon husband made a career in midwifery a natural choice, the older woman told her. Reluctant at first to engage in a craft, perhaps because it seemed lowly to her, perhaps because of the responsibility for human life it entailed, Bourgeois considered the woman’s advice more seriously once economic necessity forced her to do so.

“Bourgeois trained herself by reading the works of the famous royal surgeon Ambroise Paré who had reintroduced birthing techniques for delivering malpresenting babies without the use of crochet hooks or knives, as was the usual practice. She then began delivering the children of women from her district. Word spread of her skill until ultimately she rose to the position of royal midwife, a post she acquired through a vast networking scheme that called upon her aristocratic clients, their husbands, and the royal physicians who had recommended her to Marie de Médicis.

“Clearly Bourgeois benefitted financially by becoming royal midwife. The celebrity and confidence that the king and queen bestowed upon her resulted in a payment to her of 900 livres for four royal births, an amount more than eight times that of the average yearly salary of a sage-femme pensionnée (a salaried midwife hired by a municipality). Eventually the king settled upon a yearly pension of 300 écus, a goodly amount when compared to the 26 livres a year made by midwives in the city of Nevers in 1602. Thus, in 1605, Bourgeois and her husband were able to buy a house in Paris to replace the one they had lost during the civil war, a.k.a., the ‘troubles.’ They were still living there during the second decade of the seventeenth century.

“The life of Louise Bourgeois, published author and royal midwife, is a true success story and a warning tale in one. Bourgeois’s economic future depended on staying in the good graces of the royal family. After Henri IV was killed by an assassin in 1610, she lost her royal pension but not her title and position as royal midwife. At this juncture in her life, she complained that she had lost the Paris clients who she had neglected out of necessity during the peak of her activity at the royal court. Nevertheless, she continued to write and to publish while concerning herself with building a family medical dynasty. Two more volumes of her three volume work Observations diverses appeared in 1617 and 1626, respectively. These volumes include case histories, autobiographical materials, advice to her daughter, her thoughts on the moral and spiritual role of the midwife, criticism of physicians’ and surgeons’ behavior in the birthing room, as well as recipes for medicaments that any housewife could make up in her own kitchen.

“Bourgeois’s daughter Marie also became a midwife and one of her sons became an apothecary. Another daughter, Françoise, married a medical student who launched a brilliant career facilitated by Bourgeois’s professional connections and the huge dowry she and her surgeon husband gave to their son-in-law. Thus, Bourgeois remarked, ‘The whole body of Medicine is complete in our house.’

“In 1627, one year after the final volume of her Observations diverses was published, Bourgeois suffered a serious professional blow when a very important royal died in her care. The loss of the child sent the court physicians and surgeons into an attack mode. Their autopsy report left the impression that Bourgeois had in effect killed the baby by not removing all of the placenta from the mother’s womb, an unacceptable omission. While Bourgeois responded to the post-mortem autopsy report with great vigor, an anonymous author responded in kind, accusing the royal midwife of incompetence and insubordination. (At the time, physicians and surgeons were the midwives’ professional overseers). We don’t know how Bourgeois fared after her fall from grace. However, her overall reputation seems not to have suffered outside of courtly circles. The appearance of her last publication, Recueil de Secrets (1635), published a year before her death, suggests that at least as far as her publisher was concerned, her practical wisdom was still in demand. Recueil de Secrets contains recipes for a variety of illnesses, including, but not limited to, women’s maladies.

“Louise Bourgeois’s popularity can be measured by the numerous editions of the Observations diverses that appeared in French throughout the seventeenth century, along with translations of her works into Latin, German, Dutch, and English ever since. Although her fame and the recognition of her contributions to the field of obstetrics has waxed and waned over the centuries. today she is widely recognized by historians as an outstanding woman of her time.”

Clio Notes: The author of this profile, Alison Klairmont Lingo (University of California, Berkeley), is currently writing an introduction, medical glossary and other accompanying notes for the first complete English translation (by Stephanie O’Hara) of the Observations diverses sur la sterilite. perte de fruit & foecondité , accouchements et maladies des femmes et enfantz nouveaux naiz (Paris, 1609, 1617, 1626). The volume is being prepared for publication in a series entitled “The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe,” produced by the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies Publications (CRRS), Toronto, Canada. For further information, contact

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