Abstract The central focus of this paper is women's participation in the rural labour market. While research has recently begun to look at the labour of farm women, on both a theoretical and an empirical level, the employment of rural women outside agriculture has been almost completely neglected in the U.K. Here an attempt is made to explore broad theoretical debates surrounding the extent and nature of women's involvement in paid work and to apply these debates specifically to a rural context. Emphasis is placed on the importance of understanding women's employment participation in relation not only to the needs and characteristics of the economy, but also to the division of labour and balance of power within the domestic household. The second part of the paper analyses women's employment in rural Suffolk. This section explores the constraints operating upon women's access to paid work and relates these constraints to aspects of policy as well as to women's wider role in the family and in society. The importance of both the central and the local state in influencing women's access to, and experience in, employment is considered with particular reference to the operation of the Rural Development Programme.