Searching for professional women in the mid to late Roman textile industry

Anna Kelley*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Since the 1960s, feminist historiography has been hard at work challenging established narratives of women’s roles in past societies, although with greater impact in some disciplines than others. Studies of production in the ancient world, in particular, continue to exclude women from discussions of professional labour. When women do appear in texts, modern scholarship has tended to treat them either as exceptional cases, or as part of an unskilled, casual workforce. Utilizing a variety of source materials, particularly Egyptian papyri, this article examines women’s labour in the mid to late Roman textile industry, which in recent historiography has typically been relegated to the category of ‘domestic’ production. Drawing upon a comparative model for women’s manufacturing roles in the Middle Ages to highlight important distinctions between women’s roles and their documentation in manufacturing between time periods, it becomes evident that Roman women were crucial actors at all stages of commercial textile production, although they possessed limited levels of control within the industry. Establishing women within the better-evidenced Roman textile sector, despite legal and social norms that historically obscured them, opens the possibility of finding professional women in other industries in the ancient world, and continues the process of re-evaluating the economic history of women throughout the ages.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbergtac007
Pages (from-to)3-43
Number of pages41
JournalPast & Present
Issue number1
Early online date30 Jul 2022
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2023


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