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Working Women in History

(62 Posts)
CKDexterHaven Mon 18-Aug-14 15:37:39

I was thinking about the way history is taught, and even the way feminism is taught, and how it erases the work of working class women from the story. The narrative seems to go that women first got exposed to the world of work during the two world wars and then the sexual revolution of the 1960s was the first time women got to go out into the world of work. What is really meant is that women started to work in the middle-class professions and skilled working-class trades that they had been disbarred from prior to the twentieth century.

I've read that women do the majority of the world's work today because the majority of that work was gruntwork. It was ever thus. Not only have women done domestic work and service but they worked down mines, they worked in mills and factories, they worked as street hawkers, they nursed plague victims, they gutted fish, they picked crops, they sifted brick-dust, they collected street manure, they worked as bouncers ... all back-breaking, hard, physical, unpleasant labour.

I think the 'women started working in the twentieth century' narrative gives rise to the idea that women were delicate, sheltered, maternal creatures kept by chivalrous, bread-winning men and maybe it would be better for women if things went back that way. It also gives rise to the idea that all society's ills are caused by working women either stealing men's jobs or neglecting the family home when, in reality, not many women could afford to be just housewives. You also get men like Billy Connolly moaning about how manhole covers should never be called personhole covers because women's libbers never want to do the dirty jobs like working down a sewer, ignoring the fact that women have always done and still do a lot of the dirty work.

Any other examples of the jobs women have done in history that break down the myth of the delicate, cushy life of kept women?

CaptChaos Mon 18-Aug-14 15:51:50

The surname Brewster is a matrilineal one, because women brewed all the beer in Britain, which at a time when the water would probably kill you, saved lives.

I'm sure I'm going to make LRD's teeth itch now, but women during the middle ages did the majority of spinning and weaving of wool, which was the foundation of Britain's wealth. Everyone was expected to work the strips of land they 'owned'. Men tended to be the only ones acknowledged in this though, but, you have to remember that women were seen as chattel, belongings.

In hunter gatherer societies, women do most of the grunt work, they find the majority of foraged food, while men go and hunt, sometimes unsuccessfully, so it is the women's work which keeps the tribe alive.

As far as I'm aware, the idea of the kept woman only really exploded with the explosion of the middle classes during the Victorian era, and even then it was only women of the middle classes and above who didn't work, all other women worked and they did awful jobs, down mines, in sewers etc.

Billy Connelly is an arse, I'm surprised his rather more talented wife doesn't tell him to STFU to be honest.

LRDtheFeministDragon Mon 18-Aug-14 16:05:55


I must be a terrible person. Because I came on to say exactly what chaos has said I would say. It's true.

However, CK, I'll take issue with this, too: What is really meant is that women started to work in the middle-class professions and skilled working-class trades that they had been disbarred from prior to the twentieth century.

There are loads of women in skilled trades, aside from the wool trade, well before the twentieth century. You have medieval women who were artists and illustrators of books, women notaries, women scribes, women teachers. In fact, women were so commonly teachers that it was one of those jobs that people assumed was a woman's job.

It does seem to get worse after the Renaissance, but I am sure people who know more later history would find women in skilled trades afterwards, even if not very many.

I am agreeing with your basic point, though. I just think it's even worse than you say. People make up utter tut about women not working, or not working in skilled trades, because they want to pretend we've made huge progress in the last century.

Well, so we have in some ways, but I think the 'women didn't used to work' story is there to make us feel both pathetically grateful we're now 'allowed' to do so, and guilty we're (supposedly) putting men out of a job and responsible for all the economic ills of the world.

It's a load of shite.

AMumInScotland Mon 18-Aug-14 16:11:31

I think part of the problem is that 'the past' is about the 1950s to a lot of people, so the backlash against women going out to work, in the post-war years when demobbed men wanted the jobs back is seen as "How things were back in the day" and a sort of golden age that we should all aspire to.

Whereas it was really just a tiny blip in the overall pattern of history, which was that both sexes needed to work to keep a family going, and things like 'housework; and 'childcare' just had to happen at the same time as the rest of the working day.

LRDtheFeministDragon Mon 18-Aug-14 16:17:47

Oh ... and as for breaking down the 'delicate women in cushy jobs' thing:

- Women in warfare. Joan of Arc isn't unique. Women followed the camps and if they weren't involved in actual fighting, were involved in going over the battlefield to find dead/wounded men. Women also defended their own homes when attacked - there are archaeological remains of women with defensive wounds that show they were in combat. For example:

- It was primarily women, not men, who worked march factories. They got 'phossy jaw' which literally made the flesh deform and melt off the bones.

- Women miners. In the nineteenth century women worked down mines, sometimes in the most dangerous and cramped parts where adult men couldn't fit.

- Women butchers. Women work in this trade in medieval England. I include it not so much because it's physically hard (though it is), but because it's bloody, which is not stereotypically 'feminine'. hmm

To add to that, Margaret Foster makes the excellent point in her account of her maternal ancestors' lives, that the 'ordinary' work of running a household at a time when you might not have water on tap, where you had to carry coal for the fire, etc., would have been backbreaking.

This site has more details about trades. I don't know the provenance of the site, but it looks pretty accurate to me.

scallopsrgreat Mon 18-Aug-14 16:20:21

Just to add to the back-breaking work: prostitution. But ya know women do that coz they lurve it.

LRDtheFeministDragon Mon 18-Aug-14 16:26:04

Yep, indeed, scallops. sad

FaFoutis Mon 18-Aug-14 16:38:05

Not many current historians would agree with that version of the women / war /work narrative. It comes from the 1960s /1970s when male historians thought that the 1960s were the pinnacle of a social revolution for women that had been building from WW1 onwards. It now considered to be largely bollocks by most younger historians.

The old view seems influential though, it is still there in popular history and documentaries etc.

SevenZarkSeven Mon 18-Aug-14 18:45:51

I'm a bit rubbish with history stuff but my understanding of this is that it comes from a Victorian idea which caught on enormously about women and men having fundamental differences with women's spheres being home & hearth & babies and men's spheres being everything else. And a sort of fetishisation of women's place in the home etc. So while of course women had always worked this idealised picture of women at home with babies all over them while the man went out and earnt the money became a sort of entrenched and maybe aspirational idea which over-rode what actually was. The whole 1950s thing is that also I guess.

I read a book about it once I think confused

Anyway sorry for garbled and probably not very accurate post! Anyway I googled and it's this sort of thing wiki

So the fantasy basically erased the reality, for all but a tiny minority of wealthy women.

LRDtheFeministDragon Mon 18-Aug-14 18:50:00

YY, it's true - my mate, who is a MNer though I've not seen her on here in donkey's years, did loads of her degree on it. It's the woman as the 'angel in the house'. hmm

SevenZarkSeven Mon 18-Aug-14 18:52:51

The ridiculous thing is that if you ask a person if they think women worked on farms through history, if they worked in factories in the industrial revolution, if they worked in markets selling stuff and taverns and inns and whatever, people will say yes, I think most people will. TV progs show women doing this stuff in the olden days etc and the answer is obviously "yes".

Yet at the same time the idea that women working is a newfangled idea persists. At the same time and even for the same people.


PiratePanda Mon 18-Aug-14 19:03:28

Yes, this drives me absolutely nuts. Let's face it: working class and artisanal class women throughout history have had to work (often as part of a family unit) or starve. Upper class married women didn't have to work but often held household and did fine needlework, and nuns of course did loads of jobs we would now consider "work". It's only ever been the middle class where women didn't work and until very recently there wasn't any such thing as the middle class.

Women not working in the past is reactionary men's bollox.

LRDtheFeministDragon Mon 18-Aug-14 19:13:16

seven - yes, and people often know their own grandmothers or great-grandmothers worked.

It's cognitive dissonance, isn't it? People know the truth but it doesn't fit the general narrative.

SevenZarkSeven Mon 18-Aug-14 19:17:03

Yes it is.

It's really really odd. A clear win for the strict gender roles crew I guess.

PetulaGordino Mon 18-Aug-14 19:17:33

I am no expert on this, but in contemporary novels you will often have the butcher's wife, baker's wife, candlestick maker's wife etc, and it seems that in addition to running the household they were expected to pull their weight in their husband's business too, plus sons and daughters once old enough

PortofinoRevisited Mon 18-Aug-14 19:20:26

Women moved to BETTER PAID work in WWI. They were working before - on farms, in domestic service, lots of home industries. My family tree is littered with market gardeners, servants, gloveresses, laundresses, char women etc. The move to take over the men's jobs gave them more money and more liberty in many cases - though they still never got paid as much as the "skilled" men. They weren't all sat on their arses before 1914.

PortofinoRevisited Mon 18-Aug-14 19:22:39

And obviously there was the urge to join the War Effort by doing this stuff - munitions factories etc or joining the land girls or WVS.

TheSarcasticFringehead Mon 18-Aug-14 19:37:28

I haven't really thought about it before <bad feminist> but I agree. My ancestors lived in a shtetl and it really was a woman based economy. My grandmother's family income was entirely from the stall that her mother, her and her sister ran. It seems most market stalls and many shops- selling tobacco too- were women run, as well as making things and being in charge of the housework. I was surprised as I'd thought it was very traditional...and it was traditional, just I hadn't been thinking about what traditional actually meant. Men were the ones who studied more, though, hence not working as much. I think the men studying, women working is still played out and is very noticeable in the statistics in the Haredi community nowadays?

CaptChaos Mon 18-Aug-14 20:18:35

The other thing that conveniently forgotten is that women were allowed to work until they got married. Even within my lifetime women in the Armed Forces were not allowed to be married and as soon as they were, they had to leave, their armed forces husbands however carried on with their careers. My DGM trained as a peadiatric nurse, but as soon as she was engaged to my DGF she had to give up, she then used her experience with babies in a clinic, weighing them sad . An Aunt bonkers Oxonian chutney maker was a pioneer radiographer at Bart's during the war, the war ended and she had to leave. So it's been a bloody fallacy that women, even genteel women didn't work in the 20th century, they were actively prevented from working.

SpeverendRooner Mon 18-Aug-14 20:24:20

I read somewhere (don't recall where, so no reference - sorry) that there's evidence of women on warships in the days of sail. Camp followers on board, as it were. Apparently, there are references in ship's logs to them getting involved in fighting - bringing powder and shot from the magazines in battle at the very least. Since boarding actions were not uncommon at the time, I imagine that they were sometimes involved in hand-to-hand fighting, on the defensive side at least.

SevenZarkSeven Mon 18-Aug-14 20:28:06

Also of course there is the fact that women have always had a whole bunch of hard graft around pregnancy and children. Which has handily had the label of "work" removed from it and replaced with "satisfying expression of maternal instinct" or "sitting around" or whatever.

How is it that when sold the "different spheres" feminine ideal thing the idea that a woman perpetually pregnant / BF / giving birth, having babies and children hanging off her and having to look after them, source food for them, cook for them, keep them clothed and up to scratch roof over their heads as best she can is not doing any work confused

SevenZarkSeven Mon 18-Aug-14 20:29:45

CaptChaos yes that happened to my great aunt too, she worked in a hospital and was told she would have to stop when she got married, luckily she was able to continue working on a self-employed basis outside of that.

It's really not that long ago.

LonnyVonnyWilsonFrickett Mon 18-Aug-14 20:31:44

I know a pp mentioned miners - I'm from a mining town which was known for the women going down the mine, but that was pretty unusual in the area. The people from my town are still known as 'dirty' locally - the inference being the women of the town were so busy mining for money they didn't have time to keep their bairns clean.

Owllady Mon 18-Aug-14 20:38:27

Sorry, I never post here but I come from a working class mining family, as does my husband and the fact working class women are acknowledged is something that grates tbh.

My gran is her late 80s and feels her and her colleagues efforts were not recognised historically during ww2 and that the concentration is always on the women's land army, who rightly or wrongly she perceives and projects as muddled class women. My gran worked for vickers

Owllady Mon 18-Aug-14 20:39:31

Are NOT acknowledged!

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