Clio Talks Back

I.M.O.W.'s debut blog, Clio Talks Back, will change the way you think about women throughout history! Be informed and transformed by Clio Talks Back, written by the museum's resident historian Karen Offen.

Inspired by Clio, the Greek muse of History, and the museum's global online exhibitions Economica and Women, Power and Politics, Karen takes readers on a journey through time and place where women have shaped and changed our world. You will build your repertoire of rare trivia and conversation starters and occasionally hear from guest bloggers including everyone from leading historians in the field to the historical women themselves.

Read the entries, post a comment, and be inspired to create your own legacies to transform our world.

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More about the history of “women’s work”

Women’s history month offers us an opportunity to think about the history of “women’s work.” Clio has long been concerned about this topic, particularly with reference to the issue of money and value. Clio asks: who decides what “value” is, who gets paid for doing what, and why? And how much? Or how little?
We know from examining women’s history that “women’s work” encompasses many tasks (some agreeable and others onerous) for which women have never been paid. So how can some people today still treat paid employment as the sole form of “women’s work”? What planet are they living on?
Clio’s colleague Ellen Fleischmann, who studies the history of women in the Middle East, has signalled another aspect of “women’s work” – another form of unpaid work that women do and have done on behalf of the societies they live in or aspire to create. Let’s hear what she has to say about this question, with respect to the development of nation-states – long a topic in “men’s” political history.. This is “political” work for which women have rarely gotten the credit they deserve, much less any form of pay. This seems to be a universal phenomenon.

“Women’s work” – whether supporting the nationalist struggle or engaging in social welfare activities oriented toward “uplifting the nation” – has too often been considered auxiliary, conservative, and nonpolitical. Rethinking both feminism and nationalism requires eschewing gendered notions of politics and resistance. In the nationalist context, gendered notions of what was considered meaningful in the way of “active” or “passive” resistance have contributed to obscuring the nature of women’s participation. The kind of work women engaged in was crucial to the nationalist struggles; for one thing, the fact that women were involved at all contributed to legitimizing nationalism as a communal, collective, unifying ideology. For another, no movement can endure without the sustenance of daily, mundane “support” activities. The provision of necessities such as food, medicine, and funds; and, on another level, the dissemination and use of information for intelligence and propaganda purposes, are not secondary. History’s gendered focus on the “main” struggle – armed battles and rebellions, confrontations between nationalist leaders and colonial powers, diplomatic and political maneuverings – obscures the urgent necessity of the work that takes place in what is perceived as the margins. It is perhaps only because the “marginal” work is performed by women that it is considered the footnote to the nationalist narrative rather than constituting the “real” work in and of itself. A history that expands the central narrative to incorporate the margins and that recasts these limited concepts would allow us to more fully recognize the complete contours of the nationalist narrative in all its richness and complexity.”

Clio says: this is what women’s history is all about – rethinking and expanding the central narrative to the point where the activities can be taken into account, and the criteria for value of "women's work" rethought.

Clio asks you: what aspect of history’s central narratives have you questioned lately?

Source: Ellen Fleischmann, “The Other ‘Awakening’: The Emergence of Women’s Movements in the Modern Middle East, 1900-1940,” in A Social History of Women & Gender in the Modern Middle East, ed. Margaret L. Meriwether & Judith E. Tucker (Westview, 1999), pp. 89-139; quotation pp.114-115.

What is "women's work"?

Clio has been reading a new book called “Getting to 50/50: How Working Couples can Have it all by Sharing it all, and Why it’s Great for Your Marriage, your Career, your Kids. .. and You.” The authors are two young Californian mothers who are trying to combine professional careers with family life – a dilemma that is troubling a lot of young women today.
Clio is concerned about one thing, however. In this book, the authors, Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober, treat “women’s work” as what they get paid to do. Employment for money is the important thing. That is “work.” The lessons of the book revolve around splitting household labor with paid labor, but the authors never question the thinking that equates “women’s work” with their employment.
Yet one of the great feminist insights of the last 30 years is precisely that women’s work is “never done,” and that “work” or “labor” encompasses far more than what one gets paid to do. Indeed, it embraces most of what women do – and don’t get paid for.
This aspect of thinking about “women’s work” is not new. It dates well into the early nineteenth century, when male political economists began to think about “economics” exclusively in terms of paid jobs for breadwinning men that would enable them to “support” wives and children. Even then, feminists fought back against this type of thinking. Even then, some wrote poignantly about this problem and even demanded pay for housework.
Listen to what one woman in France had to say on this subject. Jeanne Deroin was a married woman, an employed woman and a mother. In 1848-49 she campaigned for women’s rights, including the vote for women, and posed her candidacy (unsuccessfully) for the French legislature. She was, in fact, the first woman in Europe and perhaps in the world to run for political office. Here are her reflections about “women’s work” in reference to the poor women of Paris in the early 1850s.

Women’s Work

“It is in the household that woman’s work is the most tiresome and the least appreciated.
“We are not speaking of a household where there is a live-in nurse and a maid for each child, and domestic servants to do all the work; we are speaking of the majority, of the proletarian household, where the mother alone cares for several children, where there is not always means to pay the laundress, where the wife must get up before dawn, often exhausted by having had to nurse her newest child through part of the night. She lights her stove and prepares her wash water, in order to wash her children’s clothing and the diapers. Moreover, she hasn’t enough of anything to be able to wait a week; the lodging is small, the basins inconvenient; the sink is either one floor up or two floors down, and the stairway is dark. Her husband gets up to go to work; his pants are torn and must be mended but a child cries or the clay casserole tips over; the woman runs; the husband gets impatient; the repair gets done. He leaves and the washing begins. The two biggest children get up and ask for their breakfast; the littlest ones cry to be gotten up; the sudsing finished, she hangs out the wash as best she can, wipes up the spilt water, makes the soup, dresses the littlest children and gives everybody breakfast; she puts some bread in the baskets of the bigger children and sends them off to school; she has not yet had time to sit down for an instant in order to nurse the little one who is crying loudly.
“The landlord’s wife enters: she is an early riser, a woman of order, a good housewife who does her own canning and makes her own jam, repairs her laces, cleans her own ribbons and embroiders her collars. Everything is neat and tidy in her quarters before nine o’clock. She rouses her maid and her domestic at five a.m. and supervises them, pushes them, prods them, so that the tasks get done promptly and well. Thus, upon entering, she is indignant at the laziness and disorderliness of her renter. The beds are not yet made, the room is not swept; the chipped bowls used for breakfast are still sitting unwashed on the floor; the poorly bleached diapers hang on the line, the torn caps and socks full of holes dry on the back of a chair. She concludes from all this that her renter doesn’t get up early enough and doesn’t work hard enough. She asks for the rent more severely than she might have otherwise and leaves, threatening to throw them all out if it isn’t paid by the fourteenth.
“Upset and already exhausted with fatigue, the poor wife nurses her infant, changes it and puts it back in the cradle, and leaves it in the charge of an obliging neighbor’s children so that she can run to the central market to buy potatoes a bit cheaper. She returns in haste, loaded down, breathless and perspiring. She nurses the infant to stop its crying, puts her irons on to heat, peels her vegetables, irons the caps, mends the vests and pants, fixes the shirts, darns the socks, repairs the slippers, and prepares dinner.
“The children come home from school: one has torn his blouse, the other has a bump on his head. She scolds the first one and bandages the second. During this time the potatoes have burned; her husband returns, and the soup is not yet poured over the bread. He is tired and in a bad mood, and displays his astonishment that a woman who has nothing to do but take care of her house is incapable of getting up dinner. He sulks or flies into a rage and, when dinner is over, he goes to bed. The wife undresses and puts the children to bed, washes the dishes, and is able to mend the most urgent items. But she has to interrupt her work every few minutes to calm the baby, whose cries are waking up its father, who gets upset at not being able to sleep and recover from the fatigue of the day. Often the poor baby has been changed with a diaper that is still wet; he gets colic, and the mother spends part of the night calming him. She scarcely gets a few hours of sleep and wakes up only to recommence the same life. And they say, in speaking of her, that only her husband works; she doesn’t do anything. She has only her household and her children to take care of.”

When Clio first read this account some 130 years later, she cried. Who among us has not confronted a similar experience?

Source: Jeanne Deroin, “Le Travail des femmes,” Almanach des Femmes (1852), as translated by Karen Offen and published in Victorian Women (Stanford University Press, 1981), pp. 304-305.

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