Women’s Work: So What Did You Ladies Do All Day?

women's work
“Two Women at Work” in a vineyard; Photo public domain, originally by Richard Roland Holst.

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.

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Hanne Blank is a writer, a historian, a cook, and a domestic worker. She is the author of various books including Virgin: The Untouched History (Bloomsbury, 2007), Unruly Appetites (Seal Press, 2003), and the forthcoming Straight (Beacon Press) and Homework: Sex, Politics, and the Soul of Keeping House. A Midwesterner by birth and inclination, she currently lives, works, and teaches in a nineteenth-century stone millworkers' cottage on a dirt road in Baltimore.