Women’s Work: from Penelope to Pelosi

Cincinnati NoondayAK Carey1713 Comments

     Delivered by  A.K. Carey at Noonday 2013


Women have always worked hard.  Until the beginning of this century, household tasks were brutally hard work.  They required physical stamina and intellectual initiative. They were also only marginally associated with gender.

It is important to remember that until very recently most women and men performed the same occupational functions.  Until 200 years ago, 90% of Europe’s families lived in the country, and were dependent upon what the land could produce.  There was little division of labor on the farm.  From the time they were small children, boys and girls helped to plow, spread manure, weed, reap, thresh.  As wives, women did all types of farm work, hauling water, tending animals, cultivating crops, in addition to the gender related tasks of nursing children, cooking food, spinning and weaving, and making clothing.

In addition to these household tasks, farm women did extra jobs to make money needed for rent, taxes, and other necessities that couldn’t be grown or bartered.  They hired themselves out as day laborers, house servants, wet nurses, or laundresses; they sold cheese or butter, they spun wool, made lace, knitted. In fact, show that peasant women rather than men, more often earned the money that guaranteed survival of the family.

Here is the description of the activities of a French peasant woman’s day less than 100 years ago: She rose and dressed, slopped the pigs and milked the cow, got the children up, dressed, fed and got them  off to school, worked a small piece of lace as she walked the cow to its pasture, c leaned the house, did the wash, worked in the house garden in which she grew, peas, potatoes,  onions radishes, beans and beets, gathered the eggs and cared for the poultry, and then prepared the midday meal for husband and children.  In the afternoon she crocheted as she walked to the fields to work the land with her husband.  She helped with the plowing, but rarely with planting because the belief was that if she sowed the seed, her femaleness would endanger the harvest.  She did the more difficult jobs of weeding, hoeing and mulching the newly planted crop.    In the fall she cut, bound and hauled the sheaves at harvest time.    Carrying a load of hay on her back, she returned at the end of the day, pulling the cow behind her.  Fix the dinner, feed the pig, milk the cow, oversee homework, get the children to bed, tidy up, mend the clothes and then return to her crocheting or sewing until bed. A peasant woman of an earlier period would have added to this carting and spinning wool and weaving cloth, and her children would not have gone to school.

But if men and women have labored together to survive and even triumph  against hostile elements, history has not accorded them equal status.   Women’s innate inferiority to men has a long and well established history in western thought and experience. Through the last 3,000 years, it has been supported by church, science, and law.  One of the effects of these assumptions of female inferiority has been to degrade the activities of women and to bar them from higher status occupations.  The history and results of these circumstances became the focus of my explorations as I prepared for an honors course that I taught in the spring.  That course looked at 19th century attitudes toward women’s work and especially women in professions.

To come full circle, that course grew, in part, out of my last Noonday paper on Florence Nightingale.  I used her experience as a touchstone,  the real‑life, well‑documented experience that provided perspective as we looked at women’s work as it is represented in the fiction of the period.

To prepare for that course, I needed to explore the origins of 19th century attitudes and opportunities for women.  This took me back to ancient tradition, our Greek, Hebrew, and Roman roots, and to Medieval and Renaissance practices. I wanted to help my students discover what kinds of opportunities had traditionally been available for women.  Had there been any activities outside of the home from which they could earn an income or at least sustain themselves physically?  What opportunities had existed for women to sustain themselves in other ways, intellectually or spiritually, for instance?

I began my research naively expecting to see a rather straight line projection slanted gradually upward showing increasing opportunity for women over the last couple of millennia. But what I found was a much hillier configuration.  There have been many periods during which women have had significant opportunities to develop intellectually, spiritually, and commercially both in and outside of the domestic realm. But gains in opportunity have not been sustained, and in every period of opportunity, women have seen their professional occupations vanish as laws gradually restricted them to the hearth and home.

As you have probably noticed, the realm of which I have made no mention is the political.  In this realm, women have only recently gained a voice and some limited influence. Even the few female monarchs have been severely circumscribed by cultural and political limitations. Without a political voice, women’s opportunities have been rather easy to limit and control.  And the lesson for us today seems clear.

In this paper, I would like to explore some of the early assumptions about women, and the activities in which they were expected and/or permitted to engage.  To do that, we need to go back some 3,000 years to the cultures of our spiritual and intellectual antecedents.

The Greek, Roman, and Hebrew were all warrior cultures, and the basic premise of warrior cultures is that men are intrinsically more valuable and important than women. From this set of assumptions come the values found in Homer, Virgil and the Old Testament. In these epics, female subordination was natural, inevitable and god‑given.

It would be hard to overstate the influence of Homer on the cultures before Christ. Over half the papyri found in Egypt from the 4th and 5th centuries were Homeric works or commentaries on them), the ideal human female is Penelope, who waits patiently for Odysseus’ to return, always keeping the importunate suitors at bay. (vol 1 16‑18). But though she is determined and cunning, she is also passive, sleeping through the departure of Telemachus and Odysseus’ slaughter of the suitors.  This kind of woman was honored for remaining within her wifely duties.  As Hector tells Andromache, women should tend to their spinning.

In the oldest part of the old Testament, women were valued primarily as bearers of children, but even here, the power is not theirs. Their ability to bear children is seen as dependent upon God who has the power to “open their wombs so that they can conceive.”

In the Old Testament, women had little legal and no political power. A women’s word stood only if her husband and father agree with her. Only a husband could divorce his wife.  There were tests for a wife’s fidelity, but none for a husband’s. Hebrew law is unusual in that it called for death for both men and women adulterers. The definition of adultery, however, differed for men and for women. A man might have several wives and concubines and still not be considered an adulterer.  He committed adultery only if he had relations with another man’s wife. A male citizen of Athens said ” we have courtesans for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of the body, and wives to breed legitimate children and be a trustworthy guardian of possessions indoors.”   Adultery was primarily the woman’s crime, and the penalties were harsh, from loss of property, to exile to death.


In these early cultures, women were defined in terms of their relationship to men, some were the slaves of men, some were the wives and some were mistresses or prostitutes.  Those were the only three possibilities open to women.  Chastity was a women’s greatest virtue, either virginity or relations only with her husband.  A women who had relations with more than one man was a prostitute.

Obviously, the ancient Hebrews, Greeks and Romans all subordinated women and severely limited their activities.  Their job was to keep the home and raise the children, girls until they married, boys until they went to men’s school at about 8.  All the early cultures agreed that childlessness was the woman’s fault, and allowed her husband to divorce her if she produced no children. Since, fertility was associated with divine approval, women who bore no children were looked down on by women as well as men.  Divorce for failure to produce children was easy for men to obtain.

Women were of recognized political and commercial value only as pawns in the larger game of political and economic alliances. Easy divorce for men, made it possible for these alliances to be changed when political necessity required it.

Virginity and chastity were closely connected to obedience, and obedience was the primary expectation of female children.  Obedience would keep them virginal before marriage and chaste afterwards.  Within the family, the wife had little more authority than the child.  She was always subject to her nearest male relative who had control of her property and her person.  Marriage meant the transfer of property from father to husband.  Penelope is again a perfect example.  She is chastised by her son for weeping at the story of the fall of Troy and her remarriage depends upon the decision of her son or her father.  Her choice is never considered.  Roman law gave the father the power to kill the daughter if he saw fit, and Agamemnon sacrifices Iphigenia to raise a wind for his fleet.

As far as women’s work goes, these early cultures passed on to European society the traditional standard that the good woman was a wife and her duty was to care for her family’s needs. Remember that the word woman, and the word wife were the same in ancient Greek and Hebrew.    From the wealthiest Roman matron supervising her slaves, to the poorest German peasant woman working in her household garden, women were responsible for maintaining the household.  Even when the male elite were freed from work, their wives were expected to perform women’s traditional tasks, spinning and making wool. Penelope in the Odyssey is expected to spin yarn like a poor woman though her yarn is in a silver basket rimmed with hammered gold.

But as you might expect, through wealth  women gained some measure of control.  All these early cultures, Greek, Roman, Hebrew, Celtic, and German allowed women to inherit especially if there were no male heirs.  One important European tradition was that families tried to keep their property intact, even if it meant giving it to a woman.  Women who gained economic power in this way, also gained more control over their own lives, and there is evidence that during some eras wealthy Greek and Roman women even managed their own finances.  These women entered into business, renting buildings and lending money. They gained educations and they constructed and endowed public buildings.

But for most women, the home was the locus of opportunity. And for women of property, taking care of the household meant more than ceremonial spinning and weaving.  Keeping the home was a large and demanding task.  These women developed many managerial, (even to say entrepreneurial) talents. For in addition to the familiar  household duties, the wife of the warrior/chieftain was responsible for causing her husband’s property to grow and increase.  In most cultures, she worked the land herself or oversaw those who did. She did all the buying and selling. She was responsible for providing food for the household and giving the servants orders.  She bought land, planted the vineyards, and was responsible for making a profit.  She spun and made clothing for her household and also to sell. She bore and raised children, ideally, boys who looked like her husband. While her husband sought glory, honor and the spoils of war, she was responsible for the maintenance and prosperity of her family and  community.

Poor women, especially those living in cities or towns, had a different set of expectations and a much harder time.  They too performed housework and bore and cared for children, but  they often worked outside the family to provide extra income.  In the commercial sphere, their opportunities were extremely limited. Only the traditional female occupations, selling food and clothing or providing lodging and food, were open to them.  Some hired themselves out as wet nurses or worked as midwives.  Or a woman might move outside the allowed and protected roles for women to run a brothel or work as a prostitute.  Any woman who used sex to add to her power was called a prostitute no matter how high her rank, (Cleopatra) p.44. In fact, any female sexuality was condemned.  Even with her husband, a woman should never initiate love‑making for that was being “over‑eager like a prostitute.”

The fear of women’s sexuality creates and contributes to the strands of misogyny prevalent in  Hebrew, Greek and Roman literature.  They all blamed women for bringing evil into the world; Pandora and Eve are teh two most obvious examples.

Monsters in religion and literature often had women’s shapes, Circe the witch who turned men into swine, the Sirens who lured men to their deaths, Charybdis and Scylla who dashed men’s brains out or sucked them into her maw, Medusa, whose look turns men to stone, and Grendel’s mother, an old hag who nearly kills the hero Beowulf.

Literature of these cultures describes women , as shrewish, lazy, manipulative, and unscrupulous, figures to be hated and despised.  page 50‑51.  A first century AD Jewish philosopher argued that “the female sex is irrational and akin to  bestial passions, fear, sorrow, pleasure and desire from which ensue incurable weakness and indescribable diseases.” (27)  In the story of Lot, Lot’s goodness is demonstrated in part by his refusal to give two male guests to an angry mob.  Instead he offers his 2 virgin daughters.

Even admired female icons in ancient myth and religion were nearly always  dangerous. Though the chief gods were male, powerful female forces controlled the lives of heroes and sometimes even the male gods, for Fate, with her power to control destiny and time, was female.  The fates performed their feats through the familiar female work of spinning and weaving.  They cut the threads of life with their scissors.

There are a few images of women as warriors.  The Amazons are mentioned often in ancient Greek legends though there is no historical proof of the existence of a cult of female warriors.  They are mentioned twice in the Iliad, and there and in other representations of them, they are almost always shown fighting against men.  Achilles fell in love with the Amazon Queen as she lay dying of the wounds he had inflicted, and Theseus married the Amazon Hippolyta.  The old testament Hebrews, who excluded women from most  culturally important activities, have the legend of Deborah who rallies the Hebrews against their enemies and slays the enemy general by hammering a nail through his head.  Judith was another female hero.  She pretended to go to bed with Holofernes and instead cut off his head with a sword and carried the head back to her people to inspire them to fight harder.


Positive images of women who are strong without being lethal are hard to find. The power of the earth and of fertility were  associated with female goddesses. Mother earth had many names, Isis, Demeter, Artemis, in different cultures. And female goddess were also associated with love and childbearing.  Many of these goddess cults had female priestesses and as priestesses women achieved their greatest power in ancient Greece and Rome.  A woman acted as oracle for Apollo at Delphi.  Female priestesses from ancient Greece to the Vestal Virgins in Rome shared with men the highest spiritual power and religious leadership. Only in Hebrew and later in Christian belief were women forbidden to perform important religious activities.

In the world of politics, there have been a few women who used their intelligence and family connections to gain power and opportunity in their own rights.  This was especially true in periods of disorder when even a woman on the throne was preferable to civil war.  This was a tradition that would endure into later periods when in times of change, like the renaissance in England, enterprising women could grasp and hold power as well as men.   The best known example of this in ancient cultures is Cleopatra who came to the throne of Egypt with her 10 yr old brother in 51 BC when she was 17.  She is strong looking but not beautiful, but when she was driven out of power by her brother and the regents, she fled to Alexandria formed an alliance with Julius Caesar. Together they led and army that established her on the throne of Egypt.

In 46 BC, she went to Rome to live with Caesar, and when he was assassinated 2 yeas later she returned to Egypt to maintain herself as queen of an Egypt newly freed from Roman rule.  In 41 BC she met Marc Antony and they joined together to rule Egypt.  They defeated opposition and Roman attempts to reconquer her country, and proclaimed themselves gods. They spread the power of Egypt over most of the middle east.

In 32 BC, Octavian declared war on Cleopatra, and her fleet was defeated.  She and Marc Antony both fled to Alexandria and finally committed suicide in order to avoid the humiliation of being marched as slaves in a Roman triumphal parade.  She was only 32 when she died.

A few women followed in her footsteps, seizing political power when the times favored them. But most of the women who gained political power ruled through or for a men, as regent for a child king or as queenly power behind the throne as Octavia or       .

But in spite of a few images and examples of powerful women, at the time of the birth of Christ, the dominant Greek, Hebrew and Roman legacy was one of female inferiority and subordination.  Women were ritually unclean  and spiritually dangerous.  They were best kept submissive and obedient managing domestic responsibilities and bearing children.  There were no professions to which they had entry, and no roles for them outside that of wife and mother.   Except on the farm, the distinction between activities appropriate for men and those appropriate for women was clear and unbreachable.

Jesus’ words and actions, however, affirmed  women as equals making little distinction between them and men. This surprises and confuses his disciples.  He saw no special flaws in women’s natures; he included them in his preaching and allowed them a role outside the family and apart from their relationship with men.  He reversed contemporary values in many areas.  In his preaching he favored the “meek” and “those who are persecuted” promising them salvation.

Jesus rejects much that earlier cultures had taken for granted.  He saw women as created in God’s image just as men are, and so rejected most of the rationales for female inferiority.  He never ascribed any special sin to Eve rather than to Adam, and baptism cleansed women as well as women.

In his parables, he used women as well as men as examples of piety, humility, and charity.  And his parables drew on female as well as male experience, baking bread and sweeping as well as herding sheep.  He saved the life of one of the most despised people in Jewish society, the adulteress and Mary Magdalene was one of his chief followers. In the Hebrew culture, women were almost never offered Talmudic teaching, but Jesus stated the purpose of his mission to Martha.  Women rather than men played key roles in the events surrounding his death and resurrection, as only they stayed and prayed at the foot of the cross after the disciples had run away.  They prepared his body for the tomb, and Mary Magdalene was the first witness to his resurrection.

The books of the New Testament that record the years immediately after his Resurrection also offer many models of women acting as equals with men.   Women labored side‑by‑side with Paul and he wrote to them as equals and leaders of their own congregations.. In some Christian communities, women were priests and prophets, in others they were evangelists, converting others to the faith. And there were many women martyrs who died during the persecutions of the Roman Empire.  St Katherine dies after being tortured on a wheel, St Blandina was whipped and burned and was finally gored to death by a bull, St Barbara died locked in  tower by her parents because she refused to obey them and abandon her faith.  St Perpetua of Carthage was said to have guided the sword of the inexperienced gladiator who killed her.

Although Jesus’ teaching and practices seem to accept women as full and equal human beings, the writings of the early church fathers gradually contradicted those assumptions.  Increasingly Christian teachings and practices carried on and justified women’s traditional  roles and their subordination to men.  These attitudes and beliefs came from 3 sources:

  1. passages in the OT subordinating women
  2. the traditions of the cultures into which Christianity spread, Greek, Hebrew, Roman, Germanic which all embraced the notion of female subordination.

3.the early church fathers describe women as inferior by nature and thus justified their subordination to men who were superior.

As Christianity spread the equality granted to women’s in the 1st century began to disappear.  Peter, Paul, Timothy, Jerome, Augustine, Tertullian all emphasized women’ inferiority and declared that women should be ruled by men.  Paul said that women should keep quiet in churches, and this became the justification for forbidding women to be priests.  He wrote that women should be not only silent but submissive later Christian leaders, all men, as you may imagine, associated all that was inferior and evil with the female and all that was good and strong to the male.  Scholars emphasized Eve’s guilt and Adam’s relative innocence.  Eve was the bringer of evil and sin; she was the temptress of man.  Tertullian says of women ” You are the devil’s gateway. …You are the deserter of the divine law.  You destroyed so easily God’s image, man, On account of your desert,…even the Son of God had to die” 79.

Augustine said that man was relatively innocent, the embodiment of the mind while Eve was the temptress, the embodiment  of the flesh.  His opinion became Christian dogma and the source of sin is shifted from disobedience to gain knowledge to the act of sex.  So sex become the great threat, and man’s lust is dangerous to his soul, but it is the fault of women.  Fear of male sexual response became fear of sex in general, and the Early church circled sex with dozens of barriers and denunciations.

The church fathers praised celibacy and wrote with disgust of anything sexual.  Paul said “it is good not to touch a woman.”  Building on this 3 centuries later, Jerome said “it is bad to touch a woman.”  Women became the means and the cause of men’s sins.

This fit very well into the pre‑Christian beliefs about women.  which Christianity soon absorbed, especially those about the power of women’s bodies to pollute.  Jerome wrote “nothing is so unclean as a woman in her periods. Whatever she touches becomes unclean.”  Bishop Isadore of Seville insisted that the touch of a menstruating woman would prevent fruit from ripening and would cause plants to die.

Childbirth was also seen as a contaminating experience.  Women were not allowed to go to church for 33 days after the birth of a son and 66 days after the birth of a daughter because she was ritually unclean.    Because of her cycles and childbirth, women were barred from an kind of role in the religious ritual.

Increasingly, church teachings required that women be obedient wives and prolific mothers.  Procreation was woman’s only value and function.  The ideal Christian wife was “meek, quiet, gentle, sincere, free from anger, not talkative, not clamorous, not hasty of speech.” With sex so closely associated with sin, the early church writers increasingly insisted that intercourse should occur only for the purpose of procreation.  Intercourse when pregnant became the sin of “fornication.” Pleasure in sex, even between married couples, was condemned as dangerous to the spirit.

Although the Greeks, Romans, Hebrews, Celts, and Germans had all valued women’s reproductive ability, all had allowed women some control over their fertility.  The early church did not.  The early Christian fathers condemned all contraception even withdrawal as “murder’ of “a man not yet born.”  Churchmen even set penalties for miscarriage.

Only virginity freed women from the weakness of her sex.  By denying her sexuality a woman could overcome many of the disadvantages of having been born female.  She rose above her “inferior” nature and could become a man.  Jerome says “as long as woman is for birth and children, she is different from a man as body is from soul.  But if she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman and will be called a man.”

Thus a significant area of work for women outside the home came to be the church.  From its earliest beginning, the Roman Catholic church and subsequently the protestant sects, in spite of their assumptions of innate female inferiority, have had a tradition that allows women to claim a life outside of marriage and family.  But unlike the life of the peasant woman which remained relatively constant over the centuries, the lives and activities of church women changed with the changing cultural and political circumstances.

In the 6th and 7th centuries, Christian men and women entering cloisters made similar pledges of obedience, poverty and chastity.  And within the convents and monasteries, both men and women could exercise spiritual and intellectual capacities to the fullest.

In the first centuries of the religion, both men and women foreswore pleasures and activities of this world to concentrate on the spiritual preparation of the next world.  This spiritual growth required the denial of bodily appetites.  These people denied themselves, as much as possible, food, water, sleep, sex, cleanliness, the things we would consider the basic necessities.  This Christian asceticism demanded sexual virginity.  Female Christian ascetics rejected marriage and children , abandoning their traditional roles to dedicate themselves to lives of celibacy and devotion.  They frequently gathered together into groups, to create religious communities.  By 800 A.D. monasteries, convents, and abbeys founded by women and men were dotted over the European landscape.

These institutions shared similar conventions.  The initiates gave up all their property and promised to remain cloistered and celibate for life.  Everyday there were periods for prayer, hymns, study and work.  These ecclesiastical institutions offered women an alternative  to marriage and childbearing. They could become “brides of Christ” and devote themselves to holy and spiritual concerns.

In the convents, women were often permitted to control and direct their own affairs.  The Abbess presided over the activities of the convent.  She was responsible for fulfilling the feudal obligations that went with the ownership of land, for many initiates were very wealthy and brought large dowries with them.  The women who were in charge of these institutions supervised the manors and activities of the vassals, as well as directing the religious lives of the nuns.  They founded churches, and hospitals, heard confessions and even excommunicated the unrepentant.

They were never, however, permitted to preach or give communion because they were excluded from ordination.  Their primary responsibility was prayer and education. But in spite of the denial of priestly status, under an intelligent and dedicated abbess, these institutions became centers for learning and prayer, almost like a small university where nuns studied the writings of the early church fathers and important Latin texts.  Some wrote works that were circulated beyond the walls of the convent: legends of saints lives, poems, even plays to be read to nuns and canonesses on feast days. One convent embarked on the creation of an encyclopedia.

But by the 11th century external forces were  at work that would limit the power and self‑determination of the women who managed the activities of the great convents. In its struggle for power with the state, the church began a period of centralization, which increased the power of the male hierarchy, especially the pope.  The property of the convents brought wealth that offered the male religious hierarchy power it needed in its civil struggles.  Such power could not be left in the hands of women. The great convents lost first their lands, and then their self‑ determination. Both new foundations and old institutions for women came under the direct supervision of male ecclesiastics.

Increasingly, higher learning took place only in the male enclaves of bishops and priests, centers that eventually evolved into the great Universities, like Paris, and Oxford.  The charters of these Universities closed admittance to any but fully ordained priests, and that excluded women.

Though the convents did not develop into great centers for learning, they continued to attract privileged young women, widows, and others who wanted to serve Christ in this way, who wished to avoid matrimony, or who failed to find a husband.  Within the protection of the convent women’s lives were narrow, but could be fulfilling.  The nuns primary job was to pray and meditate.  Though they could no longer read the classical texts, they studied books of moral instruction written just for them.  They embroidered decorative cloths for vestments or for churches, and even copied and illustrated manuscripts.

In spite of the loss of final power and authority, the nuns retained a measure of control over their lives and activities. To generate money for the support of the convent, the nuns supervised property, took in boarders, and also did spinning, sewing, weaving, and knitting. Even though nuns were forbidden to teach, many orders and families ignored this “reform.”  And many convents ran schools for girls teaching, basic literacy, some arithmetic, and prayers.


Outside the church, the Middle Ages offered opportunities for women apart from her role as manager of house and farm.  As towns and cities grew and the rise of commerce spread notions of private property, women participated in a variety of occupations for which they were paid.

As a commercial economy developed in which money replaced goods and services as a means of exchange and families devised ways in which possessions could be passed to the next generation, receiving money in exchange for services became possible for both men and women. Though working for a living as we know it was centuries away and land remained the primary source of income for hundreds of years, the pattern was established.  The sons of noble families inherited the land, and the daughters got their share (always a smaller share) when they married in the form of dowries

During this period from 1100 to 1700 the great cities began their growth.  Smaller, more rural, more controlled than the cities we know, their crowded markets and great houses still provide paid occupations for women..  In the towns the women could find work. They could acquire possessions, and perhaps even join a guild and buy property. Some could even make their way without depending upon a husband.

By the end of the 14th century, even the poorest women might find work in the walled towns   They might do piece work, perform day labor in the orchards or fields outside the walls, or wash the clothes of a wealthier family.

Country girls came looking for work and the opportunity to acquire possessions, a dowry, and perhaps, if she were lucky, membership in a guild.  Some women even owned property in their own names.  About 60% of single women found jobs as domestic servants in the houses of the prosperous.  There she might clean, care for the fires,  wash, cook, scour pans,  or even help with the trade of the family business.

These maids of all work earned little, but tried to save from their wages enough for a dowry.  Her goal was to accumulate enough savings for a dowry, money and goods that would make her worthy to marry a craftsman.  If she accomplished this, she lived a moderately secure life, as a partner in his craft, housewife, and mother to their children.  The poorer craftspeople kept their families small.  Tax roles show that those families paying the lowest taxes had the fewest children.

A fortunate woman might become a guild member in her own right if her husband died. Many, but not all, guilds allowed widows to carry on their husband’s craft.  There are records of women in the shoemaker’s, tanner’s, saddle maker’s, copper beater’s, blacksmith’s, dyer’s, hat maker’s and weaver’s guilds.

The records of the medieval retailing guilds show that women members paid for licenses to sell goods, acquire the use of prime retailing areas, and negotiate with wholesalers.  They sold fish in Paris, spices, in Ghent, and bread at Arles.  In Ghent, wives, not husbands held the right to the stall in the cloth market.  In fact, the guilds having to do with textiles and clothing were primarily female in some cities.  At the end of the 14th century, the silk and thread‑makers guild in Paris was exclusively female. 12 Guilds were exclusively female in Paris in 1300, and 80‑90 listed both male and female members.  Women worked as tailors, wagoners, brewers, candle makers, spur makers, and coopers.

The easier way for a woman to become a member of a guild  was the same as for a man, she was apprenticed as a young child.  She began her apprenticeship at about 10‑12 when she went to live with the  in the household of the master. Her parents paid a fee for her training which might last from 2‑8 years.  English silk women were paid 5 pounds and trained girls from 7‑15.

A girl owed her master or mistress obedience and they gave her clothes, shoes, bed and board.  They could beat her when they thought necessary.  When she had served her apprenticeship, the girl became a member of a guild, and was thus certified to do her craft in the city. Women in guilds enjoyed the independence of their own incomes and their own community.  the image of these women’s success brought young women to the towns and kept them from returning to the safer but less prosperous countryside.

Though medieval women had access to many crafts, they were gradually relegated to the lowest paying and most marginal jobs.  Gradually they were forbidden to be apprenticed to certain lucrative crafts such as hat‑makers or workers with fur.  Instead they were washerwomen, peddlers, innkeepers, spinners and wool combers.  Fewer women moved from apprentice to master, and most were widows of former masters who had died.

In times of economic prosperity when there was plenty of work, the regulations that kept women out were unenforced.  But when times got tough, craftsmen took measure to protect themselves.  Ordinance were passed forbidding the employment of women on the assumption that they were taking jobs from men.  The stationers company and the watchmakers guild gradually barred women form their membership, and the London publishers guide forbade all but male apprentices, though at the time 10% of the guild members were female.  By the end of the 1600’s,, guild member who taught their craft to daughters were fined.

The changing circumstances of the Renaissance and 17th centuries caused men to define new roles for themselves.  No longer required to be warriors to protect women, children and land, they were transformed into providers.  Life was still war but it was war of competition in trade or business, and the battles were fought in the market place.  The new hero was the man who wins wealth for himself and his children, distinguishing himself because of his cleverness rather than for his ability to fight.

To function as provider, men of the town sought to protect themselves from competition.  Since women were excluded from citizenship, they had no part in establishing the laws that protected the men’s means of livelihood.  This protection meant limitations and regulations that affected women far more than they affected women.

In these circumstances, the ideal women once again appeared as the loving wife fulfilling the obligations owed to her husband; bearing his children, minding his household.  Civil laws regulating dress kept women dressed “modestly” and appropriately in male eyes.  Exclusion form training and education reduced or eliminated choices for women.  Denial of citizenship to them meant that they had no say in the policies by which they were governed.  Thus privileged women accepted the male ideal of the dutiful, obedient wife and mother and took pride in demonstrating the skills and qualities of character it necessitated.  Religious and secular writers advised mothers that education in household skills took precedence over academic learning.  By the beginning of the 18th century, the Wife of Bath had given way to the patient Griselda.

Increasingly law deprived women of authority outside the family.  They were denied training and specialized professional learning.  Thus they soon fell prey to the age old assumptions of female incompetence and need for male guardianship.  The women of the towns were indeed provided for and protected by men, but at the price of their potential and actual autonomy.

With the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when more and more families entered the middle classes, women’s lives became even more circumscribed by convention and law.  Useless wives were a prime example of a husband’s success, and women were increasingly chained to their  homes by increasingly complicated household tasks, elaborate social activities and enormous families.  With each new technological advance came increased expectation and more jobs to do.  Kerosene lamps brought steady, bright light, but they also brought dozens of glass chimneys that had to washed daily, not to mention the charred silk stocking and flint that had to be used to light them.  Improved stoves made cooking more reliable and cleaner, but with them came the expectation for more elaborate fare, 6‑12 course dinners,(8‑10 courses.  A typical meal served at the home of a well off but not wealthy man in 1885 included clear soup; brill in lobster sauce; chicken cutlets and rice balls; oyster patties; mutton, potatoes, artichokes, beets; partridges and salad;  caramel pudding and pears with whipped cream; cheese ramekin and cheese straws; Ice; Grapes, walnuts, chocolates, and pears.). Consider the number of plates, glasses, pots, utensils, and linen such a meal requires.  And of course, the coal for the fire to cook it and the ashes to remove after the water was heated for the washing up.

The treadle sewing machine made sewing much faster and stronger, but the wardrobe needs of men and especially women exploded as women wore  Women wore more and more layers of garments. Typically, a young woman might wear in the wintertime a flannel blouse, with a high white collar, a leather belt, an ankle length blue skirt, 2 petticoats, on flannel one alpaca, black wool stockings, held up by garters attached to t boned corset, a set of wool underwear, a set of cotton underwear, a frilled and embroidered petticoat, and underdrawers. And this was a young lady in a very informal situation.  A woman dressed for evening, might add a few shawls, overskirts, and capes. By the mid 1800’s men’s clothes could be bought in stores or from tailors, but women’s clothes was still made or at least, decorated at home with trim and embroidery that showed off a woman’s elaborate handiwork.

The clothes of 19th century women were, of course, very impractical.  Their long skirts swept the filthy street where garbage and chamber pots were still dumped.  Yards of material kept women from moving quickly or agilely, as the 19th century progressed the skirts became fuller and fuller and needed to be supported not by petticoats but by crinolines, petticoats of material so stiff that it could stand alone.  Women wearing these had to be constantly mindful of their skirts bumping into things. Crinoline skirts made movement in crowded places difficult or impossible, and of course, would have been lethal in a place with machinery. In fact, handling a huge skirt and voluminous shawl gracefully were particularly clear indications of a lady’s status.  Oddly, women felt that crinolines were freeing since they eliminated the necessity for several cotton and wool petticoats that clung around women’s feet.

A girl’s job was to learn to take care of men.  No girl should ever allow her brother, much less her husband to prepare his own food, clean his own clothes or return home without finding a clean house and a “cheerful invitation to partake of necessary refreshment.” (144).

Daughters were not educated to make a living, but to be increasingly proficient in the decorative and domestic arts, and in the 19th century these activities were elaborated to a degree impossible for women who had to earn a living.  More servants meant more time but also more household responsibilities.  Servants had to be supervised and directed, social custom had to be conformed to and, and children had to be watched over and molded. Relatively few women adopted the aristocratic model of motherhood in which the care of the child is left almost completely to servants.  Upper class women may have continued to have their children raised by others and sent them to boarding school at early ages, but middle class women took on themselves the job of raising them safely and educating them  through their early years especially their daughters.

Magazines for women proliferated as more women became literate and needed advice in how to run their increasingly complicated homes. “Ladies libraries” began to grow.  These were bound anthologies, part instructional, part entertaining on religion, literature, and history.  Novels were popular with both men and women (though considered rather trivial) and lending libraries flourished.  there one could rent books for a reasonable price.

But too much reading was considered frivolous or lazy, if it were fiction, and unfeminine if it was not.  As the editor of one ladies magazine recommended “I would particularly recommend to  [women] to avoid all abstract learning, all thorny researches, which may …change the delicacy in which they excel into pedantic coarseness.” (141).

Instead of “idly” reading, young women were expected to spend time in activities like light housework, sewing, drawing, making music or items for the home, the more useless the better. Dr.      Gregory, in his very popular guide for daughters of the English middle class writes ” The intention of your being taught needlework, knitting and such like is not on account of the intrinsic value of all you can do with your hands, which is trifling, but to enable you to fill up, in a tolerably agreeable way, some of the many solitary hours you must necessarily pass at home.” (140).

“Work” for ladies, a coveted title, by the middle of the 19th century, meant the elegant arts of embroidery and fancy and useless needlework.  To this were added even more useless occupations, making feather flowers or hair ornaments,  flowers or fruit in wax, shell work, porcupine quill work, gilding of plaster casts,  bead work and seaweed pictures. (141).   The rooms of these homes were swathed in fabric and crammed with objects, no table was uncovered by embroidered cloth topped with artwork, no window was undraped, and no piece of furniture unupholstered and decorated with coverlets.

The household guide and god of the period was Isabel Beaton’s Book of Household Management, first published in 1861.  In it she defines 18 different types of household servant, from the ladies maid and valet to the scullery maid and footman.  Recipes were given for servants meals, families meals and elaborate entertainment.  A May dinner for 12 called for 2 soups, 2 fish dishes, 7 meats,  2 kinds of fowl, 7 puddings, and fruits, cakes and ices

As objects and meals elaborated, so did social events.  Weddings, funerals, engagement parties, dances, dinners, and afternoon visits became elaborate social rituals requiring all of a woman’s social skills if they were to proceed properly and show off her status.

At a morning kaffeeklatsh” in Germany in 1890 a young bride invited 20 women to show off her new home.  They toured the apartment, inspecting every shiny pan, closet and drawer, and admiring the embroidered chair backs, cushions, cloths, footstools, dusterbags, dishtowels etc, made by the bride, and then settled down to coffee, tea, lemonade hot chocolate and a variety of rich cakes.  The event ended after conversation and gossip with more sweetmeats, fruit and drinks.

Women had always been told that ideally they should be domestic creatures, devoting themselves to husband and family.  The increasing wealth of the 19th century  enabled larger numbers of women to try to make this ideal reality.  This was an era that brought enormous change for many,  slavery, the divine right of monarchs, distinctions between aristocratic and bourgeois men, and literal views on religion were all swept away.  But traditional views of women endured and even strengthened: in the law codes, in medical and scientific thought, in images of women and in clothing.  This relative lack of change in women’s lives heightened the opposition of the sexes and made this opposition seem all the more natural and eternal.  Women’s sphere was the home, and man’s sphere was the rest of the world.

As we moved into the 20th century, these realms seemed God‑given and inviolate.  But the  application of the electric motor to household implements, more universal education, and a voice in the political arena combined with world events like World War 2 to prepare  women to move beyond the domestic sphere and into the professional world of men.  So the stage was set for 1960 when the birth control pill, Vietnam, the civil rights movement and Betty Freidan propelled us out of our living rooms and into the schoolroom, the party headquarters, and the workplace where we find ourselves today, a bit dazed and occasionally wistful, but still game to help make new opportunitiesfor women in the 21st century.



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