MC history professor authors book on women in 18th-Century Brittany

Dr. Nancy Locklin

Dr. Nancy Locklin

When Dr. Nancy Locklin set out to research the lives of women in pre-industrial Europe, she was prepared for a journey full of roadblocks and dead-ends.

“Even in graduate school, we were told that, when it comes to women’s studies, there’s not much to work with,” said Locklin, associate professor of history at Maryville College. “So when I began, I thought finding this information would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Changing her approach, Locklin said she not only proposed a “slightly radical experiment” for how scholars gather information on the female population, she was able to put together a more accurate and comprehensive view of the women’s role in family, society and the economies of their communities. The result is the book “Women’s Work and Identity in Eighteenth-Century Brittany” recently published by Ashgate Publishing Company.

Combining interests, conducting research

The daughter of a French-speaking Canadian mother and the granddaughter of Massachusetts mill workers, Locklin said she has always been interested in French history and in the economics of manufacturing. While an undergraduate student at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., she based her thesis on the mill workers of Lowell, Mass.

In graduate school, she was able to put the two interests together and add another.

“I had an interest in the idea of ‘women’s work,’” she said, explaining that she always found it strange that people easily accepted the fact that women took care of the children, cooked the meals and worked in clothing, either producing it or cleaning it, yet there existed this notion about households of pre-industrial times “that the men worked and the women did not.”

“Of course, part of that issue is how you define work,” she admitted.

Studying for a doctorate degree in history at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., Locklin considered focusing her research on the work of women in early modern Normandy because they were known to have formed guilds in the Middle Ages. But a scholar who had already compiled some information on that population changed her mind.

“She suggested that I concentrate my research on a region of France about which not much was known for that time period,” Locklin said. “She said little had been written about Brittany.”

A northwestern peninsula that borders both the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay, Brittany is a province that could be described as the “Appalachia of France,” the history professor said.

“A Parisian might describe a Breton like a New Yorker might describe someone from Appalachia - they’re backward, they speak funny, they’re closed off and unfriendly,” she said. “Of course, those are stereotypes and not true of the people living in these regions.”

Taking the scholar’s advice, Locklin settled on Brittany and made six trips to the region between 1996 and 2006 including one year spent as a Fulbright Scholar. She found the place unique for its Celtic heritage and strong cultural identity.

Locklin spent the majority of her time in Rennes, the provincial capital. She found volumes of centuries-old records housed in the departmental archives of d’Ille-et-Vilanie, but made occasional day trips to five other archives in the region.

“For all of the things that were going on at that time, France maintained a huge bureaucracy. And it was also a very legalistic culture - so much so that the average worker would know that he needed to see a notary in drawing up a contract,” Locklin said. “And it was French law that a notary had to create a copy of everything.”

Those notarial records in addition to tax rolls, personal letters, court proceedings and even minutes of guild meetings greatly informed her research but was incredibly time consuming, she said.

On one trip, her mother accompanied her as a research assistant.

“I was able to get through two times as much material as if I were alone,” Locklin said. “The process involved going through huge stacks of papers. None of it could be useful, or all of it could be useful. You just don’t know until you start reading.”

Locklin’s ‘slightly radical experiment’

Had Locklin approached archival specialists and librarians with inquiries about women in the province in the 17th and 18th centuries, she would not have been handed those volumes of documents. Records were not organized into categories of gender.

Citing the work of scholars who earlier had studied pre-industrial women in Europe, Locklin wrote in the introductory pages to her book: “I would like to continue their work on the subject of women by proposing a slightly radical experiment: while studying women, we must try to ignore the fact that our subjects are women. This will help our work in a number of ways. First and foremost, it will expand our available sources. I found I was most successful in the archives when I stopped looking for women. By that, I mean I stopped looking for women workers; instead, I looked for workers and found women among them. I looked for heirs, for taxpayers, for criminals, for parishioners, and so on.

“When I went searching for women, I found very little,” she wrote. “But, when I chose some other category to frame my research, the sources revealed what I needed to know. I believe that this approach has given me a clear view of what women did and how they fit into the bigger picture.”

In her introduction, Locklin wrote that historians and scholars “do women a disservice by defining them exclusively by gender.

“If we studied women as workers and producers, as consumers, as neighbors, as heirs, etc., we could get a much clearer picture of women’s complex realities,” she wrote. “Identity is a complicated matter. Gender can be a component of identity, but sometimes other aspects of identity emerge as the most significant, defining characteristics.”

Surprising revelations

In 2000, Locklin completed her doctoral dissertation, “Women in Early Brittany: Rethinking Work and Identity in a Traditional Economy.” For the next six years, she continued to research, write and present on the subject. The revelations of her findings deepened her interest in the subject and in the history of women, in general.

“For so long, history was about men, except for a few queens,” she explained. “In recent years, historians have realized that we gain a better perspective of the past if we study the other half of the population.”

Locklin said she was surprised by much of what the centuries-old documents revealed.

“I didn’t expect to find dual-income households. Finding husbands and wives with different occupations and belonging to separate guilds was very unexpected,” she said, adding that the varieties of households that were recorded were impressive.

Many households were family businesses. Some households were comprised of single, unrelated women who shared an occupation. Some households were headed by widows; others were headed by wives who were married to men who traveled extensively for work purposes.

She was also surprised to see work wrapped up in a woman’s identity.

“Typically, a man is identified by what he does for a living; a woman, by who she’s related to. And we assume that women see it that way, too. What I found was that women of Brittany in that time period did define themselves by the work they did.”

In addition to women in Brittany and issues of work and identity, Locklin’s book examines women under Breton law and social life and honor in its four chapters.

In terms of women’s contributions to family, society and economics through their work, Locklin said she sees more similarities than differences when comparing women of 18th-Century Brittany and today’s women in westernized countries.

“I think these findings are empowering for women and men because they say something about expectations. We shouldn’t feel like we have to live up to expectations or feel guilty about breaking with tradition. Oftentimes ‘tradition’ isn’t what we think it is.”

Classroom applications

Although her book went on sale Oct. 30, Locklin has been sharing her research and her research methods with students for several years.

In her western civilization and world history courses, students study societal identities and issues of work and socio-economic status of men, women and children. As a part of her HIS371: Regional Identities course scheduled for the spring, students will, among other regions, study Brittany and Appalachia as places and cultures that seem to defy their national characteristics.

And in her HIS162: Introduction to the Study of History, where she talks about effectively using archives for historical research, Locklin puts up on a classroom screen a scan of an 18th-Century Breton document. Notwithstanding the language barrier, she points out the difficulty in reading some long-deceased notary’s handwriting.

“I tell them that there’s nothing they could write in a Blue [Exam] Book that I won’t be able to read, because I can read that.”

To order “Women’s Work and Identity in Eighteenth-Century Brittany,” visit

© 2008 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!