Monday, 23 April 2007

Women's History

(I wrote this for Linuxchix, in 2003.)

Copyright (c) 2003 by Jennifer Vesperman. This material may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License, v1.0 or later (the latest version is presently available at

One of the wierdest things I've found since starting to run LinuxChix is the number of people who seem unaware that women's life has ever been different from how it is now. It seems that many people don't know how women's life was in the Western world in the 1950s, or the 1900s.

This document is a very rough attempt to correct that lack of knowledge. It is based, at present, primarily on my memory, on non-fiction books I have read (but never bothered to record the names of) and on discussion with people like my grandmother (born in the 1900s) and my parents and aunts (born between 1930 and 1950).

I, personally, believe that it's important for people to know our history. It's particularly important for discussions on the Issues mailing list, and for the sake of making real changes to women's experiences in the workplace.

If anyone wishes to turn this into a proper document with links to various historical sources and resources for people to do further research, I would welcome that.

Before the Industrial Revolution

When people generally lived in villages and lived agriculturally, women were equal partners with men. Typically, the stronger people did the heavier labour, and statistically that would mean that more men than women did the farm work and more women than men worked at the lighter crafts (weaving, spinning, pottery). Women of childbearing age typically did the child-rearing of the youngest children, for reasons which should be obvious. However, things at the very lowest, most rural level were usually roughly even. In towns, cities, and in the political, religious and mercantile structures it was very different. The industrial revolution changed things.

The combination of the industrial revolution, religious decisions and political decisions brought many people into the towns. For reasons which I don't understand, but which a sociologist or historian may be able to explain, the factory jobs and clerical jobs which actually paid a living wage usually went to the men. Factory jobs for women were lower paid, and usually paid equal to the factory jobs for children. (If you want an idea of conditions for women in factory jobs, look up the illness 'phossy jaw'. Don't do it if you intend to eat.)

Middle class and upper class women in the industrial revolution era also had problems - they were assumed to be dependant on their men. Read biographies of Ada Lovelace or Marie Curie for a summary of the lives of two women who overcame the difficulties caused by the social expectations of their gender, and actually achieved an academic life.

Post-IR to World War II

My grandmother was born in this era, married, and had the first two of her four children. This was also the era during which women fought for the right to vote - research 'suffragette' or 'women's suffrage' for information on the fight for the vote.

My grandmother lived in her parents' house until she married, then lived with her husband. Until they divorced, she never handled money beyond the grocery money. She never worked, except for the extensive work that went into running a household. (This was before houses got electricity, remember.) My grandfather always paid the bills, and if he was late paying a bill, the first she would know of it would be when the man came to shut off the gas. This was so normal that she'd talk to the gas man, tell him she hadn't known and would speak to her husband, and he'd just nod and come back tomorrow for her to hand him the envelope containing the cheque.

A woman who didn't have a husband or a father, in this era, would almost always live with some other relative as part of their household. There were a few jobs available to women who had no other means of support, but even the 'respectable' jobs paid little and usually involved belonging to a household - as a governness, a cook, or a 'domestic'.

World Wars I and II

During World War II (and to a lesser extent, World War I), labour shortages caused many companies to recruit women to do the work. Women entered factories and clerical workplaces, and did the jobs that men had always done - and, for the most part, did them well.

Once the wars were over, the women were fired. The slogan (and justification) was 'jobs for the boys!'. The men who'd been out in the war 'had' to get back into the workforce, and their right to work overrode the right of women to earn their pay. Women belonged in the kitchen, after all!

See the movie 'A League of Their Own' for a Hollywood-dramatised version of this period in history, including the women being kicked out of the workforce.

Late 1940s, 1950s

Once women had twice proven that they could work, some of them started agitating to be allowed back into the workforce. They'd had a taste of earning their own pay and running their own lives, and wanted a chance to be free of 'belonging' to other peoples' families.

However, this is the era of the 'white picket fence'. Idealised suburban families were displayed in advertisements and TV shows, and companies promoted new electrical equipment such as refrigerators and washing machines. Women were sometimes permitted into the workforce, often as teachers, secretaries, and nurses. Women's pay was significantly lower than men's in the same fields, in most cases.

(The cartoons 'The Flintstones' and 'The Jetsons' depict the role that women were supposed to welcome. I've never forgotten Fred Flintstone telling Wilma that no wife of his will have a job.)

Women started agitating for equal pay. The term 'feminisim' started coming into use.

The Pill and beyond

The Pill made an incredible difference to women's lives. For the first time, women had a choice about pregnancy - other than, of course, celibacy or dangerous abortificants. Married couples could plan their children instead of taking whatever pregnancies happened, and even had the choice to have no children! Women who did not choose to take husbands had choices other than celibacy or the very real risk of illegitimate children.

This gave women a level of freedom that had never been available before. Abortion had always been a possibility, but had a social stigma to it, and if surgical abortion by doctors was not available, it had a very real risk of maternal death. Reliable, moderately safe contraception gave women - as a political force - the ability to tell society "We can be reliable workers. We will not be randomly pushed out of the workforce by unexpected pregnancy and the need to provide child care. We can be just as reliable, just as useful, as men."

Contraception disarmed the single greatest argument against equal pay, and equal rights in the workplace.

(Personal opinion: Now if only we can have society perceiving childcare as a parents' issue, rather than a women's issue, we can disarm that argument as well.)

Bibliographic data

  • A Wish of Distinction: Colonial Gentility and Femininity Penny Russell, Melbourne University Press, 1994

    A history of women in early (non-Aboriginal) Australia, with particular emphasis on the middle and upper classes.

  • The Shocking History of Phosphorus: A Biography of the Devil's Element John Emsley, Pan Books, 2000

    Notable, for our purposes, for its discussion of the conditions in match-making factories. Also a good book in general.

  • Pythagoras' Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars Margaret Wertheim, Crown, 1995

    A useful description of the intellectual life of women throughout European history.

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