Women's Work?

by Laura Bryannan

The theme of the 1990 March/April Utne Reader is The Sexual Politics of Housework, and one article in particular was quite enlightening. "Domestic chores weren't always women's work," by Debbie Taylor, p. 80, discusses the fact that, "...the housewife role is a very recent one indeed--and confined to industrialized societies. As sociologist Anne Oakley put it: 'Other cultures may live in families but they do not necessarily have housewives. They have women, men and children whose labor is woven together to create a home and livelihood for the whole family.'"

During the time before the Industrial Revolution, when agriculture was the main source of household income, it took the participation of the whole family to get the job done. The work that the woman did to contribute was valued at the same level as the man's.

When more and more families moved to the cities in the early 19th century to work in the factories and mines, initially the owners hired whole families to do the work. Two factors emerged to alter this situation. "First was the extraordinarily high infant mortality rate in the dreadful city slums where the workers lived...because attention to domestic chores among the new proletariat had been reduced to an absolute minimum...Malnourished, disease-ridden, stunted, and crippled by the conditions in which they lived, the workers were less able to do a good day's work. Meanwhile, as machines became efficient, fewer workers were needed to work them...the most cost- effective way to run a work force was to remove women from the factories and put them to work on improving the conditions in their homes."

The article discusses how there were actually riots over this issue, with women unhappy that they could no longer provide for themselves, and men resentful of being made to shoulder the full responsibility for the family. "The rioting went on until...the transformation of women into housewives was completed. In 1737, more than 98 percent of married women in England worked outside the home. By 1911, more than 90 percent were employed solely as housewives. And this pattern was repeated throughout the industrialized world."

To accomplish this profound change in society, subtle pressures were applied. Women began to be trained to take care of their loved ones; they were taught that providing free domestic services was tantamount to creating a loving environment for their families. Men were trained to see housework as a trap: "They fear that to get involved with housework would send them hurtling into the bottomless pit of self-sacrifice that is women's current caring role."

The way out of this current situation involves seeing how relatively new (and unnatural) these views are. "Women have to unpick this confusion of domestic labor (which has its limits) and love. This is not to suggest that we should stop loving. Just that we should stop equating loving with unpaid domestic service as if the two were interchangeable. Ironing shirts yet more perfectly does not increase the sum of human happiness."

"If women were as smart as men they'd have the awards, discoveries, etc., to show for it, nyah, nyah, nyah." How many of you female readers remember this taunt when you were growing up? The June 1990 issue of the Brain/Mind Bulletin reviews a book that discusses an important reason women have been under-represented in the major scientific accomplishments department.

The research of author Londa Schiebinger in her recent book The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science, "recounts the involvement of women in the formative years of modern science: the initial freedom of well-born women to pursue science, then their gradual exclusion. They were formally banned from study and research as science became institutionalized in academies, universities and licensing."

When scientific investigation was in its infancy, the contributions of women were seen as worthwhile and important. However, as the various fields began to coalesce into "guilds" requiring training and certification at scientific academies, women were excluded and considered ineligible. Even Marie Curie, who was the first person ever to win two Nobel prizes, was not allowed to attend the Adademie Francaise.

"Even traditional female 'sciences' were lost to women. Two conspicuous examples are midwifery and medical cookery, exclusively feminine activities 'upgraded' to male professions. So-called male midwives soon proclaimed themselves physicians. As a body they then dismissed female practitioners as unscientific and eventually demanded laws to stop them from practicing. Medical cookery--the use of foods to maintain health-- became the province of pharmacologists, botanists and chemists."

One strange and wonderful reason male scientists proclaimed that women were not destined to think was because their skulls were smaller then a man's and their pelvises were larger--obviously scientific proof that a women's place is to be home pregnant and not at the university studying! Schiebinger notes, however, that there were some bastions of clear thinking:

"Italy was an exception among European countries. A woman lectured at the University of Bologna as early as 1296, and women achieved note at several Italian universities. The first academy of scientists, which was Italian, admitted women. Throughout this period a number of men praised the scientific and mathematical capabilities of women and defended their right to be trained. A few well-connected women were allowed to shine in science and medicine. Other women entered science as artisans or as assistants in the family business."

So, for all you frustrated female tinkerers, astronomers, mechanics, chemists, and other such potion-brewers: get that toolbox, telescope or bunsen burner out of the closet you shut it up in when you "discovered boys." It's great fun to fix a broken doo-dah, scope out the beasties living in your carpet under a microscope, or brew a tea "scratch" from your grandma's secret formula of healing herbs. We've been told for 700 years that the only thing women should be stretching is their bodies. This book shows that we can and should be stretching our brains too!

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Last Updated: 1 feb 99
Laura Bryannan