Essay #2- Women’s Work
Women have been working throughout American history, whether within or outside of the home (or both). In general, one’s society has always placed certain expectations on the female gender—to be a mother, a wife, a housekeeper, a cook, and/or a second source of family income. Expectations for female work varied according to many factors—her race, ethnicity, "biological clock", and other factors, largely govern what types of work that is expected for her to do.
Native American women, traditionally food producers and agriculturists, generally enjoyed a society in which men and women were mutually respected for the types of work they did. Though much of the labor in Native American societies was clearly sex-typed, neither the work of men or women was deemed more "important" than the other. Indian women controlled much of the means of food production, were involved in craft production, and were actively involved in child rearing. Along with these roles, some Indian women achieved leadership roles in their communities—women chiefs were not an unheard-of occurrence.
Native American women clearly possessed some autonomy and authority in their communities. Older women tended to have more authority, and could reach status of being an "elder". Other older Indian women were esteemed spiritual/religious leaders and healers, such as Coocoochee. The egalitarianism and mutualism of many tribes gave women these leadership opportunities, but would slowly roll back these occasions as Indian people were infused with European ideas about gender roles. Also, as Native Americans were pushed further west onto arid lands, and hunting became their key to survival, women seemed to lose some of the mutuality as they were no longer the chief producers and managers of food resources.
The European ideas of gender roles, especially in the English colonies, often dictated the types of work and position in society that women should hold. In the earlier colonial stages (1600s and 1700s), labor (and women) was in great demand, thus women were free to be somewhat more active in economic activity than they would as the population became more established. White women in these early stages, while still "inferior" to men, often worked along side him in the family business, learning skills and doing work much like the man was doing.
Many young women in this colonial period gained apprenticeships with tradeswomen in milliner, sewing, or upholstery shops. Here, she could gain skills that would eventually afford her wages to supplement the family income. Some older women, often married and with families of their own, chose to work out of the home as well. While opportunities were limited, women could find work outside the home as domestic help, and even nursing and midwifery.
Martha Ballard is a great example of this—as her teenage daughters could maintain much of the household management, she was free to pursue her profession in midwifery. She was not only a midwife, but respected in her community as a healer, nurse, pharmacist, and good neighbor. Women like Martha Ballard would eventually be shut out of the medical profession, however, as "physician" and "nurse" came to be male professions.
Single women at this time, who never married, were expected to stay with their closest male relative and serve as unpaid help to his family. The term spinster would be applied to many of these women, as they often took care of much of the spinning and weaving duties in these homes. Many spinsters chose not to marry because of the sheer effort and physical stress it was to have a family of their own at the time. Older single women, who were often widows, had a bit more freedom to chose their work. Many took their inheritances and used them to start businesses of their own, something they were allowed to do with their feme sole status.
As the 19th century brought many changes in the production of goods, the status of women’s work also began to change. Gone were the days of working alongside her husband in the family business. In the early 19th century, as more men began to work as wage earners, leaving the home to go to work, women’s status also changed. They were now left with more responsibilities of child-rearing than had been when the whole family units worked together in business. This lead to the creation of a middle class, "ladies" who were now left to manage more affairs of the home than they previously had been. This happened almost specifically in the Northern part of the early republic.
Lower and working-class women, who’s families had never owned their own businesses, saw the shift to a market economy as a chance to enlist in the ever-growing workforce in factories. Textile mills, like at Lowell, employed a great amount of young women from farming families to work long hours for meager wages. Many jumped at the opportunities of the textile industry to save money or help supplement the income of their families. Another opportunity open to this class of women, so long as they had some education, was to be a teacher. Teachers were recruited from much of New England, and were sent to the West to help small, frontier communities establish schools and education.
As westward migration began to ensue around the same time period, women who moved westward with their husbands and families were faced with the challenges of settling in the "unknown". Although the construction of new homes was mostly done by men, females on the frontier were faced with many new challenges concerning their domestic work.. Being often devoid of their old kinship and social networks, women in the West had only their husbands (and often teenage daughters) to turn to for help with child-rearing. They were also faced with challenges of food production and manufacturing of everyday necessities that could have been simply purchased back east. Western women were the originators of many social institutions in the west, as they formed social networks that lead to the creation of schools, churches, and even libraries on the frontier. Other women’s work on the frontier was running boarding houses, saloons, and even prostitution when there was a demand for these services in many areas of the West.
In another region of the country, Southern, elite women during this time period found themselves in themselves in the unique position of plantation mistress. Many were left to manage huge plantations as their husbands were away on business (or later, away at war). Southern women often worked alongside their slaves in some domestic work, such as sewing or quilting. Young Southern socialites, or "belles", often did not work, but spent their hours socializing and entertaining with the ultimate goal of marrying wealthy men. This, they did as their slave women toiled in the fields, doing heavy work that would never be given to a white women, despite of her social class.
The Civil War brought many changes in the nature of women’s work. Some women during the war broke through the professionalization of medicine as "men’s work" to become nurses to aid in the effort. Middle-class and upper-class women worked as volunteer activists, enrolling in societies such as the Sanitary Commission in the North. Women in working-class women, often with husbands away at war, had to find new ways to support their families with very few options available. Southern slaveholding women’s ideas of work even changed, as many became fulltime managers of plantations as well as the head of the household. Women on both home-fronts played pivotal roles in whether the war effort was to stay alive.
After the war, a major Reconstruction program regarding the labor of women was the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau and its educational goals. Women—African-American or White, from the North and from the South—all took on the task of providing an education to new population of citizens, over four million freed slaves. Women from the North were sponsored by charitable societies, went to the South and took residence among the Freedmen where they provided classes for the young and the old as well. This program is an example of the work that some women pursued until the end of Reconstruction in 1877.
The work experiences of women varied greatly, according to many factors at any given point in a woman’s life. Through out the nation’s history, it is important to see the value of their work, whether it only reached within their homes, within their families or kinship networks, their communities, or even to the national level. It was not until women realized this value, that they began to demand their rights and respect in society.