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Faculty of Economics

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van den Heuvel, D.W.A.

The multiple identities of early modern Dutch fishwives

Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society

Vol. 37(3) pp. 587-594 (2012)

Abstract: This contribution investigates the identities of Dutch fishwives in the early modern period. It shows that beneath the stereotypical portrayals of female fish sellers as rowdy, bossy, and disorderly women at the margins of society lay a very different and much more diverse historic reality. The contribution studies the fish trade in eighteenth-century Amsterdam, a city that was one of the principal commercial centers in Northern Europe and had a highly specialized and well-developed system of fish markets. Based on an analysis of empirical data on one of the principal fish markets in the city, the central eel market, it reveals the participation in the fish trade of a group of women very different from the stereotypical fishwife: relatively well-off businesswomen with substantial trades and long-term careers. It shows that these women benefited from close links to the local fish sellers’ guild and closely knit family networks that allowed them to combine motherhood with business and secure their children a position in the trade. Even though rowdy fishwives may very well have been a part of early modern Dutch urban society, this contribution argues that a great variety of fishwives operated in the markets and in the streets, and, more important, that the reason for certain fishwives to engage in disorderly behavior perhaps may not have been the product they sold but rather the marginality of their position in the trade.

JEL Codes: N33

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