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“Sure as hell not scared”

“Sure as hell not scared”

Angélique Janssens inspired by Jane Humphries

She is from the north of England, “from a lower social class, which is still easy to hear in her accent”. Jane Humphries (1948), professor of Economic History at All Souls College in Oxford, does not disguise her roots; on the contrary, she likes to joke about it. “She is small in stature, inventive in her academic work, super intelligent and sure as hell not scared,” says Angelique Janssens, endowed professor of Historical Demography, with a special focus on gender and labour.

For most economists, history is a soft sector, but not for Humphries. Her interest lies in the economic growth and development during the Industrial Revolution and the role that women and children played in this. “In 2010 she wrote a beautiful book Childhood and child labour in the British Industrial Revolution. Where other historians tend to refer mainly to the nineteenth-century government sources, most of which report on male labour only and are filled with quantitative data, Jane also read autobiographies, letters and interviews from that time. A time-consuming process, but also very innovative. She reveals the hidden history: how and to what extent women and children contributed towards the social and economic transformation process of the nineteenth century. She shows that women did indeed contribute to the Industrial Revolution, and that this part of history is more complex than often is thought.”

Typical of the assertive Humphries is her performance in the documentary The Children Who Built Victorian Britain. Standing in the centre of Birmingham before three life-size golden statues of Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch (known as The Golden Boys who played a major role in the development of the steam engine and thus became key figures in the British Industrial Revolution), she says that these three men could only shine because of a certain group of workers: “It was children!”

Janssens also tries, in her - more demographic – research, to reveal the lives of women and young girls. For example, she studied two birth cohorts from the register of births, deaths and marriages from four towns in the Netherlands, including Tilburg and Enschede, to discover the course of women’s lives in the nineteenth century: how many children did they have, what were the intervals between births, which factors played a role in the postponement or limiting of pregnancies? And is there a difference between, for example, servants and textile workers? The former lived inside their employers’ homes and had a subordinate position, but textile labourers had their own salary, were independent, worked together with men, did the same work, albeit for a lower salary.

Just like with Jane Humphries, an academic career was not in the line of expectations for the young Angélique Janssens. “I am sixty now and am from a time when girls did not need to achieve. I went to the girls’ secondary school, but I didn’t even think about a school of higher education. An aunt pronounced my mother crazy. What was the point?”



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