Women’s Work

I know we are all sick of Josephine Asher (don’t read the article, you will just want to fry your own eyeballs). Besides a whole heap of other points made by other people, there is still one thing she says that everyone seems to be taking as read.

Well into the last century the husband provided his family with a home and food and this sole responsibility gave him a sense of power and purpose. And women didn’t feel pressure to justify their existence with a career. They were proud home makers and mothers.

Just try to ignore the vomit-inducing offensiveness of this statement and think about this: she, and many of her blogger critics, seem to have swallowed the “historical fact” that women worked at home (for free) looking after children and doing housework “well into the last century”. That that’s all they did. Also, leaving aside the whole library of scholarship about why women’s work in the home *is* work and should be recognised (perhaps paid) as such, the statement that women didn’t work is, simply, NOT TRUE.

First of all, even if you’re not an Historian and you haven’t read any women’s history there are a couple of professions – yes, professions – which might immediately come to mind. Nurse and teacher are a good start. If you thought a little more you might come up with laundress, publican, shopkeeper, boardinghouse keeper, childcarer (those naughty baby farmers). You might also start thinking about other jobs in places like factories (yes, even pre-WWII), farms and missions (where women weren’t paid but would live – a payment of sorts). Lots of women who had to stay in the home took in washing and sewing to contribute to the family income.

We’ve skipped a big one though. A profession that kept many, many women employed, allowed many, many women to support their families (and sometimes even their husbands) and was in-demand: domestic service. The idea (necessity?) of having ‘help’ went out around about WWII. That is a long history of women working.

There are other areas too. Women as artists – painters and writers (of fiction and as journalists)  – have been around for a very long time and have been supporting their families while producing some of the most beautiful work in history. Female actors have been around since at least Shakespeare and arguably earlier.

I’m not giving names – these aren’t about amazing women who were ‘firsts’ or ‘bests’, these are ordinary women making a living working outside the home. To suggest that all women did (even if it was considered that it was all women should do) was house and child keep is, as I’ve said, not true. Even if you just think about it for a minute.

If you want to think about it more, you could start with this document about heritage sites in Australia that have something to say about women’s employment and professionalism history. It isn’t a perfect document, I would argue (and have) that it has serious flaws, but it is a start. Plus, the reference list is pretty useful.

When we continue to deny that women worked out of the home in the past we deny that women are capable of working out of the home now, that somehow it isn’t possible for women to work and have children or ‘look after’ men or have dustless houses. It suggests that these are modern struggles of women who have brought it on themselves by wanting too much. If we accept that women have always worked outside of the home, even when it was seriously frowned upon and basically ignored by society, we might have come some way to accepting that men could, perhaps, be equal to women.

5 Responses to “Women’s Work”
  1. Regan says:

    Good to see a slightly different perspective on the furore this article has caused.

    On a broader, but related issue – to what extent is the ‘traditional’ nuclear family a relatively recent social construct? I’m not a historian but think it’s likely that it emerged during Industrial Rev- prior to that extended families tied to agricultural land more common? If it is a recent phenomenon, it is an interesting rebuttal to the ‘family values’ lobby which has yet to be exploited, at least on a mainstream stage.

    What does the historical evidence say?

    • The ‘family’ is a relatively recent social construct to some extent – I don’t really know much about it, but what I do know a little bit about is how the 1950s and 1960s really cemented the idea that for women to be a housewife was rewarding and to be aspired to. If a wife didn’t have to work then a family had attained aspirational upper class-ness….if that makes sense. The way this social ‘ideal’ blanketed out our understanding of the ways women worked in the past is quite astounding. Yes women were paid less, couldn’t work in certain jobs and were responsible for children and house but they weren’t discouraged from working if the family needed it. Upper class women – the real ladies of leisure – were the ones who didn’t work, but they didn’t work in the house either….we have a very skewed view of what went on, I think.

  2. Thanks jenrgriffiths on your post. I think you have raised some very good points. I’m glad my story has ignited so much discusion. Yes, women have worked for centuries. In my opinion piece “Confessions of a young anti-feminist” I didn’t say women didn’t work in the past and I didn’t say women shouldn’t work now. The point I make in my article is women didn’t always feel the PRESSURE to justify their existence with a career. I think feminism has added to the pressure on women to value careers while family and traditional roles have been devalued. I was also interested to read about the roles that women typically held in the past, like nurses and teachers and during the war – in factories. Thank you for an enlightening point of view.

    • You may have been trying to make that argument (which you won’t be surprised to know I don’t agree with) but you did use the ‘fact’ that men have been breadwinners and women “proud homemakers and mothers”. I’m pointing out that this – seemingly one of the bases of your argument – is not true. That it is therefore difficult for you to make the subsequent points you do.

      If you’re saying that the pressures of women today are somehow different to the past based on the ‘fact’ that they were valued for ‘staying home’, I’m saying that they didn’t ‘stay home’. Whether they were valued for what they did is a whole other argument.

      Women worked in factories long before WWII by the way.

      Thanks for the comment!

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kristin Alford, Paul Callaghan, Kate Bagnall, BPW Australia, Jen and others. Jen said: Why Josephine #asher and others are STILL wrong: Women's Work: http://t.co/vTUeZ7C […]

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