So What Did You Ladies Do All Day?

Women, the history books like to tell us, didn’t work until well into the 20th century. At best, we learn, poor women kept house and raised children, rich women had poor women do those jobs for them, and that was pretty much it. It wasn’t until the 20th century that women got all Rosie the Riveter and “went to work,” meaning that they finally did the kinds of interesting, public-sphere, economically productive jobs that men did. Still, in “traditional” families, woman was the homemaker, man the breadwinner.

If this is basically what you were taught about women and work, think again.  Women have always worked. Not just in the sense that child rearing and domestic labor are enormously economically relevant (i.e., the “working world” couldn’t continue to spin if no one did the laundry or fed the kids).  Not just in the sense that women of color and poor women have rarely had the option not to work. No, women of all types, across the board, have always done the kinds of jobs we’re willing to recognize as jobs.  You know, the stuff men do:  public sphere, skilled making-and-selling, wheeling-and-dealing, gotta-make-a-livin’ work.

Want proof?  Start with the much-quoted “woman of valor” passage from Proverbs in the Old Testament, basically a job description for the ideal second century BCE woman. Not only does the “Proverbs 31 Woman” do “women’s work” like spinning, cooking and taking care of her family, but she’s dealing in real estate, farming and is a tireless entrepreneur:

She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. …She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.

Across history, women’s and men’s labor has often been divided up—medieval women might have bundled reeds while men got up on the ladders and thatched the roofs, Renaissance women might have been stitching shoe uppers while their cobbler husbands cut leather for the soles.  But the real division of labor in women’s lives has only very rarely, and only for a relatively few women, looked anything like the “women do unpaid domestic labor while men do ‘real work’ for money” dynamic we’ve been taught to believe.

As historians such as Stephanie Coontz have discussed at length, until the late nineteenth century married couples were typically co-workers.  Our foremothers were not halves of two-career couples, but halves of a two-person career. Crafts guilds assumed it: In some cases, craftsmen with living wives were not assigned apprentices, because wives filled that role. Legal authorities also presumed a two-person working unit. In colonial Taunton, Massachusetts, a man who attempted to get a permit to run a tavern after his wife had died was refused because no one could do that job alone.

Not infrequently, widows took over family businesses when husbands died. Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin, widowed at 27 in 1805, took over her husband’s winemaking workshop.  The company’s still in business, producing something you may have heard of–Veuve (French for “widow”) Cliquot champagne.

All of these things, including women taking over their dead husbands’ businesses, were commonplace, even mundane. So why don’t more of us know it? Because what we learn about history depends a lot on who writes it. And where the people who write history work, as they so often have, from a viewpoint that’s middle-class, white, male and Victorian in its assumptions, you may rest assured that the women’s work you see in historical writing will conform to their expectations.   Everything and everyone else will be invisible.

Women’s labor has been essential, tireless and diverse, and by no means limited to the “women’s work” most people (many feminists shamefully included) are so quick to dismiss. Of the many things women’s history has to offer us, perhaps the most important, from a political perspective, is to teach us how to take off our Victorian blinders and actually see women’s work—all of women’s work—for the integral ongoing contribution it was, is, and continues to be.

Above: “Two Women at Work” in a vineyard.

Photo public domain, originally by Richard Roland Holst.


  1. Indeed, it depends on who is writing the history. One of the things I’ve noticed, is that much of the myth I’ve heard over my decades about women is morphed into things about disabled women, which I discovered when I became disabled. Since I’ve become disabled by severe ME/CFS (mis-named chronic fatigue syndrome in this country), I’ve been asked “what do you do all day?” since I’m 98% homebound. Over a couple of decades. (Answer: art as can.) Women artists’ work is seen, now, in 2010 as “inspirational” (which is funny, considering that some of my art is protest/political art) by a male artist I know, who should know better.

    I have been a participant in the women’s movement, as can, pre-disability and during. We have come a long way, but there’s a long way to go in understanding each other as women and each other’s lives. I really do appreciate this blog site.

  2. This is a nice post with one problem. As a historian, I am troubled by the opening salvo “Women, the history books like to tell us, didn’t work until well into the 20th century. At best, we learn, poor women kept house and raised children, rich women had poor women do those jobs for them, and that was pretty much it.” You are welcome to malign the history taught in our K-12 schools, as much of it is indeed pretty limited. But please do not paint history BOOKS with the same brush. Historians have been doing fascinating research into the history of women’s work since at least the early twentieth century, and publishing it too. Alice Clark, not even a professional historian, but definitely an active feminist, wrote an early classic in the field: _The Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century_ (1919, rpt. 1992). Beginning in the late 1960s and 1970s, many more feminist historians added to this splendid beginning. Today women’s work is a vibrant area of historical research spanning the centuries and across the globe.

  3. Marlena Machol says:

    Funny story: Many years ago, my sister, Terry, had a child, a little boy, Christopher, who was bouncing-off-the-walls hyperactive. It was all she could do to keep their apartment in order, following Christopher around all day and picking up after him. Every evening her husband, Danny, would come home, look around the apartment that was as tidy as when he’d left that morning, and at Terry, sitting exhausted on the couch and he’d say, “So, what did you do all day?” The tone implied she’d clearly done nothing. One day Danny came home, surveyed the wreckage that was their apartment and, after a stunned silence stammered, “My house…my home…my happy home…what happened?” And Terry replied, “Well, you know how every day you come home and ask me what I did all day?” “Yeah?” “Well, today I didn’t do it.”

  4. You might mention how instrumental women’s strikes were in the Russian Revolution and the Garment Workers’ strike in this country, to name a few. In both instances working women were the leaders. And then, of course, there is always Mother Jones.

  5. Catherine says:

    While I appreciate the content and intent of this post, you seem to be condescending to your audience quite a bit with the assumption that most people don’t know that women have worked throughout history. I can’t think of very many women or men who believe that, let alone feminists. And bookstores are lined with history books that reinforce that. If this is something that maybe you learned recently and were surprised by, it might be worthwhile to hear this from that perspective instead.

  6. Hanne Blank says:

    Catherine, FrenchTurk, and anyone else: I do apologize if my tone or content was bothersome. I’m a historian by training and part of what I do for a living is to write history, so I’m quite aware that there’s been a lot of work done on women and labor.

    As for the rest, I can speak only from my perspective as someone who has a lot of conversations with folks about history, and who finds that in general, most of the people I talk to honestly don’t know much about history beyond whatever they got in high school and possibly some core classes in college and later exposure to the History Channel. My post here is directly influenced by a set of questions I had from an audience to whom I spoke a few months ago, in fact.

    Clearly here I am speaking far more to the choir than I am accustomed to doing, when it comes to history and women’s history particularly, and I’ll do my best to bear that in mind.

  7. Actually, I have to disagree with the statement that ‘Not just in the sense that child rearing and domestic labor are enormously economically relevant (i.e., the “working world” couldn’t continue to spin if no one did the laundry or fed the kids)’. It’s really only been since the mid 20th century that the value of domestic contributions was called in to question. And that questioning was done by women themselves during the “liberation” movement. Prior to that time, no one questioned the value of raising children and keeping the home fires burning. Men as well as women knew that without the very real contributions being made at home, men were not free to go out and pursue work, conquer strange lands, work the fields or do anything else. Men were as dependent on the daily pursuits of the women (cooking, making clothes, raising the next generation of farm workers etc) as women were on the men.

    It’s a shame that it is WOMEN who seem to be the ones who put the least value on the home front.


  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

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