Jonas Lindström on the Gender and Work project and how the past illuminates the future

“The life we live today is not the has-to-be life,” said Jonas Lindström, one of the research leaders of the Gender and Work project. After the talk with Jonas, this sentence kind of made me sit still and think through the hopeful sentiments of historical studies. I often think about why I’m drawn to history, but I’ve never come across this down-to-earth aspect, that history can assist us in coping with our daily life. During our conversation, he also talks about the past, the present, and the future of Gender and Work, the project he has been participating for almost ten years. See how he looks at it in this interview.


When did GaW project and the development of the database begin?

GaW as a project has been operating for ten years now. The preparation for the development of the database started in 2007 and Maria [Ågren] got funding for the development of the database in 2008. So the first grant was for the infrastructure part of the project. When new money came in 2010, this made possible the research project, and in that research project we use the database.

There was also new funding coming in this year to support our project for the next five years. It’s unusual to have a research project that stretches so long, and it’s quite unusual to have the idea to keep on doing this forever or for a very long time. It makes the work more meaningful. Hopefully it will be used by other people in the future too.

How did you start working with GaW?

I was a Ph.D. student when they began. I entered the project in 2009 or 2010. I was not the first to register data in the database, but one of the first. I was then working with a project which has now become a sister project of GaW, HTR (Handwritten Text Recognition). We dealt with the problem of computer reading of old texts. Then I received funding for another project with very much the same basic questions as GaW. I was fascinated by GaW, so I attached my project to GaW. I came in that way.

How did your interest in work and household begin?

I’ve always been interested in social history, and by that, I mean everyday history. Work and gender relations are a big part of that. And I’ve always been interested in issues of inequality and power relations, as well. Work and gender are related to them too. I don’t know to what extent we learn things from the past, but at least it gives us perspectives on our own lives. As I live a quite ordinary life with my family, my children, and my work, it’s the kind of history that speaks to me—the everyday history.

There’s also an element of politics in it. These are important questions in the present-day politics. Who’s going to be home taking care of the kids, for example? Whether people—man and woman—have equal opportunities in labor and educational markets is a political question. These opportunities are related to questions about childcare and ideas about gender division of labor. I think that our results have implications for the world today. We, and other historians, have shown that, the gender division of work is not stable, it changes over time. This is one area of historical research that allows us to see how historical findings have an effect on how we live our lives and how we think of our lives today. We’re able to choose. If things have changed over time, things can change again.

That sounds very hopeful, I guess.

Sometimes historical studies makes you hopeful, sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t know if it’s an emancipatory idea, but it’s just the realization that the life we live today is not the has-to-be life. We can do things with our lives, and things have become better. Life wasn’t better before, so perhaps that makes you hopeful sometimes. I wouldn’t like to live in the 18th century!


We’re able to choose. If things have changed over time, things can change again.


In terms of working environment, is it better to have many members in a project?

I think it’s always better to have more people. I try to cooperate with other people as much as possible. I did not do that as a Ph.D. student, so I can see why you should work with other people. For example, earlier today Rosemarie [Friebranz, another project member] directed my attention to a source that she had found, but which I would probably never have happened to see myself. And more brains think better than one. Obviously, working together is a good thing when it comes to the collection of data; the more people the more data you can put in. But also in the discussions and co-writing, it’s useful to have people to work with. You see different things and it forces you to make better arguments.

I think one thing that is interesting about this project is that we try to have the same method. We try to look at similar kind of sources in the same way. Because of this, we need to discuss and make evident to ourselves the interpretations we make. How should we interpret this source? Should this be a verb phrase that should be included in the database or not? We have to discuss about that, we have to find arguments. In research, you always make choices. You become aware of them when you work with other people. We have to argue for them. Different people, different ideas. The researchers benefit from it.

People in the Humanities are strange. In other research branches like sciences or medicine, they work in teams. They have realized a long time ago that you have to, and it’s better. I think the GaW project have shown that too. This was actually one aim of the project. Maria [Ågren] wanted to see what happens if we have historians working together. Because she realized also that it is an interesting thing in itself.

In your opinion, what’s the strongest point of the verb-oriented method?

There are perhaps three things which are very strong. One is that it enables us to see things that we couldn’t see using other methods. We have much more data now, and if we hadn’t used this method we wouldn’t have that kind of data. Also, looking for verbs is a way to catch activities, which I think are the most valid kind of data for both women’s and men’s work when you study historical records. Activities are more valid than occupational titles, for example. So that’s another thing.

The third great thing about the verb-oriented method is that it’s a pedagogic idea. It’s easy to see, it’s easy to understand. Again, it’s the idea of verbalizing, to make you aware of what is it that you search for. Historians have trouble explaining the qualitative method. They read texts very carefully, they say, and it’s hard to know what they are doing exactly. But if you say that you have the verb-oriented method you say that you pick out these key phrases in the text. It’s a concrete way of describing your own work.

The problem of the verb-oriented method is that it’s in fact very difficult to tell whether it’s an interesting verb or not. Where to draw the line between what is work and what is not? There are similar difficulties when you look at titles; which title is an occupation? But still, I think it’s easier to show where you draw the line when it comes to titles. With the verb-oriented method, it’s clear what we’re doing. But it’s not clear, far from clear, where we draw the line. It’s perhaps less clear that other methods.

Another problem is that although we have more data on women’s work, we still have much more data on the work of men. Especially on married men in the forties! So it’s not the perfect method. It’s not the only answer, but it’s a good answer.

From the studies carried out within the project, I can see that married women had more privileges than unmarried women. I wonder if there’s any disadvantage of being married?

Traditionally, the idea has been that the best thing is to get married and then the husband dies! Because then you become a widow, have other authorities, and become the head of the workshop or the farm, and so on. You cannot have the formal authority as a wife, because you’re always under the husband. On the other hand, when the man dies it’s more difficult because you’ve to be alone; it seems to be that widows in general had difficulties making a living. And it seems like if you were able to marry, you marry, but I don’t know if people wanted to marry or were expected to marry. Of course, you have to marry the right person. If you’re in a bad marriage, you can experience sexual abuse and all that. You’re formally under the male authority. So, being a married woman is a vulnerable position.


…if you start with binary opposition or not questioning it, you miss the point—the concept of gender.


I remember you once said that we shouldn’t study ‘gender’ and ‘work’ in isolation. Could you please elaborate that?

Yes. Karin [Hasson Jansson] and I will present a paper in a few weeks in Jyväskylä. The starting point is the concept of work and the studies of work, which are problematic for many reasons and are so loaded with ideas from the 19th and the 20th century about work as wage labor, or work as production. This concept makes invisible much of the work performed by women. That’s why we use the verb-oriented method. When we put parenthesis around the word ‘work’ and look at activities, we see a lot of new things.

Regarding the problem with gender, we follow the argument of Joan Scott that when looking at man and woman, if you start with binary opposition or not questioning it, you miss the point—the concept of gender. Man or woman shouldn’t be studied as stable categories. ‘What man and woman is’ changed over time and there are a lot of different women, and so on. If gender is used just to divide man and woman, then it’s not a fruitful way to study history.

For example, when it comes to who did what activities, the distinction between married and unmarried is perhaps more important than the difference between men and women. So, based on our analysis of work patterns, in terms of activities, in early modern Sweden, we criticize the modern conception of gender as a dichotomy between women and men, in a similar way as we criticize the modern conception of work based on the issue of gender. If you use one term to problematize the other term, then you can see new things.

So, you’ve been working with GaW for almost ten years now. How do you feel about that?

It says something about my age! It’s as long as I spent in primary school, which is 9 years. And that felt like an enormously long time. But I would like to continue, since it’s extremely fun and meaningful to work in GaW. I think it’s the teamwork which makes it valuable. I would like to continue this kind of work in some ways. No doubt we will have other research questions to ask and other kinds of method and source to work on.

Like your new concept called ‘taskscape’?

Yes. I’m curious about an idea that we hear quite often in history, that ‘space’ matters. I would like to test that idea. In what way does space matter? In what way can we study that? It’s more like a theoretical or methodological interest. Hopefully it will be a useful tool. I hope to see patterns I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t used this kind of concept, and I hope to understand better the economy of my area of study [Strömsholm] and how women, children, stablemen, and the people who work at the palace were interconnected in different ways. That’s what I was interested in when I studied the life of the miners. They often did different things, but they were dependent on each other. There’re connections between what she did and what he did. The link is interesting, and in that kind of analysis perhaps ‘taskscape’ and spatial analysis would be a useful tool. Maybe I won’t find something useful in that and it won’t be a good research article, but I will learn from it. ⧫


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