Women’s Work by Alma Boykin
So, Sarah’s recent posts about feminism, plus some reading I’ve been doing for an upcoming book, got me thinking. What is women’s work? How did it affect women’s place in society? Here are some very, very general thoughts and observations, with a few books for more reading if you are interested.
The idea that women do certain tasks and men do others, and rarely the twain shall meet, goes back a very long way and has a great deal of truth to it. It has nothing to do with “patriarchal oppression” and everything to do with biology. Despite claims in the media within the last few months, human males (the individuals with an X and Y chromosome) do not give birth. They do not lactate. Bearing children and rearing them was the original women’s work, the main focus and goal of women’s lives for much of human existence. There were a lot of other things as well, but anyone who wants to complain because “B culture oppressed women” has to look at women’s and men’s physiology and what it took to survive for most of history. You cannot fight off marauders while chivvying two small children and carrying a third.
Once we get past “having little humans,” the next tasks for women were gathering, a little hunting and fishing, and doing things with hides, furs, and fibers. These were all jobs that could be done with children in tow, or while children napped, and that contributed to survival. You can watch children and spin wool or other long fibers into yarn and thread. You can dig tubers or gather clams and keep one eye on a child. Tubers don’t run, and they don’t fight back. And gathering had a better chance of providing calories than did hunting. Granted, when hunters are successful they brought in a lot more nutrition per pound than did gatherers, and the two together were the best strategy for group long-term survival. But if the aurochsen got away, there were still tubers and fruit and nuts and maybe a snared rabbit or netted fish.
With the so-called Neolithic Revolution[s], and the rise of agriculture, things shifted a little. When you have draft animals and heavy farming, men will have to do more of the work, and their contribution to survival becomes greater. Women were still very, very important, because children, and pottery, and textiles, and some gathering, and processing food so it could be stored, but women’s work became less visible and less obviously critical to survival. And women with small children, or very pregnant, still couldn’t fight well. As long as upper-body strength is critical, guys have an advantage in aggregate. (See Adriana Meyer’s Amazons about the steppe nomads and classical Greeks for an example of where technology made women warriors far more important than was normal among settled peoples.) This change was not because of the evils of the patriarchy, or because a sedentary, matrilineal and matrilocal and matriarchal egalitarian society was cruelly overrun by he-man woman-hating horse-riding Indo-Europeans. Actually, the cultures of Old Europe had some problems with climate change and water-logging of soils to contend with even before the Indo-Europeans showed up. But that’s not Grrrrrrl Power! It’s called Life.
The change seems to have come about because of physical strength, and children. As long as physical strength and pure muscle power was vital for survival, guys were more important in the eyes of the law. Warriors fought, warriors moved around, and warriors could raid and bring in more goods for prestige and better survival. Guys could handle the large livestock more easily than women, especially nursing women, or women trying to wrangle small children. The thought of trying to break a horse to harness with a toddler wandering around scares me spitless. Little kids are fearless. Fearless plus large animals is a very bad thing. And since men seemed more important for survival, and were more visible, they gained more rights because they could carry out the duty of defense. Roman law sealed it, at least in southern and western Europe. Germanic-influenced law was . . . different. And economic realities were different again.
Weaving and making clothes became women’s work, at least in northern Europe. And in places where enslaved women and other crafts workers could be forced to do it. There’s some evidence that the introduction of large frame looms shifted the weaving and making of high-end luxury fabrics to men, much as tailors and professional weavers tended to be men. Once there was cash involved, the fancy stuff moved out of the women’s quarters, sometimes. Women’s work was still important for survival. No kids = no humans. No preserved food, no warm clothes, no safely prepared food, no medicinal herbs, no hens or other small livestock meant very hungry people. Women’s work was always important, but not visible in the sense that it appears in archival records. Archaeological records, yes. Other non-traditional sources, like business accounts, and letters, and law-suits, and other things, oh yes, you’ll find women.
Even in China, which has not been exactly a feminist paradise, women had a lot of rights up until the Mongol conquest and the subsequent Ming Dynasty. Although the neo-Confucian writers of the late Tang and Song Dynasties (roughly AD 700-1250 CE) insisted that women should stay in their proper inner sphere and only concern themselves with matters of the Inner Courtyard, they had few difficulties with women managing the household budget, overseeing household management, buying and selling property for the good of the family, inspecting properties to make sure the tenants were taking care of things, and other “matters of the household.” And filial piety meant that even the Neo-Confucian who disapproved of his mother’s Buddhist practices kept his mouth shut and let her do her thing, because respect for his mother and domestic harmony was far more important than obliterating Buddhist superstition, at least until the 1250s.
When we look at medieval and early modern Europe, we see women working. They did not have the same legal rights as men, or so it seems in many cases, but a little more digging reveals cases like that in Lübeck, the imperial free city on the Baltic, where widowed women who managed property for minor heirs or for absent merchant husbands had the same rights and duties as their male counterparts. They had to help defend the city, they participated in religious and social events, and did business in the name of the family. Nuremberg looks like a patrician patriarchy, and it was, but again, women had to know how to help keep the books and manage the household, which might have ten or twenty members. A good wife, competent in household management, was crucial for the family’s success, and the patrician’s letters and bequests show this. There are numerous accounts of noble women acting as advisors to their husbands and sons, or preparing castles for defense, or defending against sieges. Women had fewer legal rights on paper, but by tradition and necessity they had a lot of clout. They always have.
The New England colonies had the legal tradition of “deputy husbands,” where women were authorized under law to do everything necessary for the family and family-business while their husbands were away. They had to.
And no farm could possibly succeed without a good farm-wife, the bachelor farmers of Scandinavia being exceptions and rather late in history. Women cared for the family, ensured that food was prepared and preserved, raised kitchen crops, cared for livestock, kept the house in good repair, doctored the sick (two footed or four), taught the children, sold extra produce on the market, tended dairies and processed dairy products for home use and sale, made and repaired clothing, and other things as needed. Are you tired yet?
What do all these things have in common? They are sedentary. They can be done with children in arm, or on the floor, or in the house. And they are not outdoors where people can see them. Women were defensive fighters, physically and morally. When Black Jack Ketchum and his gang tried to rob the Gallegos house and estate store at Gallegos, NM, the matriarch got the kids and other women into shelter, then sniped with a rifle from upper floor windows, shot a few of the bandits, and drove them off. The men finished the job.
To read more: Elizabeth W. Berber. Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years. Great when she sticks with textiles, not so great when she wanders into other areas.
Man Xu. Crossing the Gate: Everyday Lives of Women in Song Fujian. A little heavy on gender-history theory, but otherwise excellent.
Steven Ozment. When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe. About Nuremberg. The family that lost 9 children before one lived to his first birthday is heartbreaking, but not unusual.