The Empowerment of Women’s Work
It’s interesting how in a year when everyone has been staying home and staying safe, our family has somehow still managed to make new friends. My dad moved into a new apartment right before COVID closed everything down, and his neighbor above him happens to be the sweetest old lady who has adopted him as a surrogate son. They have become fast friends, keeping each other company and entertained when most other opportunities for human contact were closed to them.
A while back she was telling me about her child-rearing days in the 1950s and 1960s. One way she made extra money for the family was to iron clothes for her friends and neighbors. Back then most clothes needed ironing, as they didn’t tend to be made from the wrinkle-resistant synthetic fabrics that most clothes are now. She would stay up late and work after the children had gone to bed, and apparently she made quite a bit of money from this work, which she was quite proud of because she liked the thought of being able to help her husband.
It was this last statement that struck me about her story. The notion of “women’s work” doesn’t seem to garner much respect these days, but once upon a time what we now think of as “women’s work” were jobs that allowed women to contribute to the livelihood of their families while simultaneously raising them. Is this a notion that should be demonized then, or should we rethink the concept of “women’s work” as tool that has through the ages empowered women to secure an income for themselves while raising children?
To answer this question, we must first consider why certain jobs came to be viewed as “women’s work” in the first place. One suggestion is that since much of the hands-on work of raising children has traditionally fallen to mothers, then in order for the mother to be economically productive during her child-rearing years, any work she does must be compatible with raising children. This is why it has traditionally been men who have done the more dangerous jobs, such as hunting, working with machines, and serving in the military. Society had already taken into account that women needed certain accommodations as mothers, so the burden of work that was not compatible with having children underfoot was taken up by men, while mothers became experts in the type of work they could do from home around their children. That included sewing, spinning, weaving, and all manner of fiber arts that could be picked up and put back down again as needed when a child needed tending to. In other words, the notion of “women’s work” may have been less about women not being able to do the same type of work as men, and more about women choosing certain types of work because they expected to have their children with them.
Unfortunately the Industrial Revolution moved those fiber-based jobs out of the home and into dangerous factories, and since women were accustomed to doing those kinds of jobs, they followed suit into the factories, and they brought their children with them. We now know how disastrous that was for children and have since put strict child labor laws in place, but the idea of women having safe jobs that they could do with children in tow never seems to have recovered from that. Now many mothers are faced with the choice of having to work enough to make paying for childcare worth her time, or stay home with her children and lose out on the opportunity for added income for her family. In that vein, I would say that the old days of “women’s work” were almost more progressive than they are now in the way they accommodated women with children.
I propose a return to “women’s work” — the kinds of jobs that can be done (by men as much as by women) with children underfoot, stopped and started as needed, and worked on a flexible schedule. These kinds of jobs look different today, but if COVID has taught us anything, it’s that these kinds of jobs do still exist. Yes, it is often challenging to work around children, especially when they are little, but what better way to teach them about being responsible adults than by allowing them to watch adults being responsible? What better way to promote family unity than by teaching our children about life as we go about life, as it had been done for thousands of years? And what better way to empower parents to provide for their families without worrying about who will care for their children while they work? Not all jobs will be able to provide this kind of flexibility, nor should they be expected to, but there should be no shame in a parent’s choosing work that allows them to work around raising their children. Raising children is, after all, the most important work a parent will do.
- Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994.
- Brown, Judith K. “A Note on the Division of Labor by Sex.” American Anthropologist 72 (1970): 1073–1078. https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1525/aa.1970.72.5.02a00070.