Women's Work

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Women's Work

In the mid-eighteenth century, the colonial economy was centered on the household. Although tasks were usually divided along gender lines, all members of the family contributed essential labor. Importantly, this labor did not typically generate income. In an agricultural society the home was a center of production for the family's needs, with both women and men performing nonwaged labor that sustained the family. Men had primary responsibility for agricultural labor. Among women's many responsibilities were spinning thread and sometimes weaving cloth, keeping gardens, taking care of poultry, milking cows, and producing butter. Excess produce might be bartered or sold. In addition, women prepared and preserved food, made soap, washed and repaired clothing, bore and raised numerous children, and kept their large households clean and running. These varied tasks filled the days of the overwhelming majority of colonial women. Such time-consuming and essential labor was the norm; the required, specialized skills defined a good wife. Although largely confined to a single household, some tasks involved communal labor, as when women gathered to sew quilts.

Women's labor in the farming household complemented that of their husbands. When their spouses were away, married women also acted as what the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has termed "deputy husbands," conducting family affairs to the best of their ability. During harvest times, women joined men in the fields, although such labor was not considered ideal for women of European descent. On a temporary basis or for indentured servants, fieldwork was more acceptable. Enslaved women performed both fieldwork and a range of domestic tasks. Throughout the colonies, they contributed essential labor, whether of an agricultural nature on plantations and farms or as domestic or household servants.

In nonfarming families, women often worked alongside their spouses in their trades and in their shops, assisting in the production of goods and attending customers, while remaining responsible for child care and other housewifery tasks. In his autobiography, for example, Benjamin Franklin noted the helpful labor that his wife, Deborah Read Franklin, provided in his print shop, where she folded and stitched pamphlets. Such labor has been rendered largely invisible in the historical record by the legal position of married women in the colonial period. Under the doctrine of coverture, which dictated that a woman's legal identity merged with her husband's upon marriage, married women had no right to enter into contracts, keep their own wages, make wills, or sue debtors. For this reason, many married women who worked in family enterprises did not show up in contemporary records, unless someone commented on their labor, as in Franklin's case, or they continued to run businesses as widows. Widowhood was a common means of a woman assuming control of a business in her own name. Also, in some colonies, femme sole trader statutes allowed married women to conduct trade in their own right.

Throughout the colonial period, while most women worked within the context of the farm household, there were other women who ran or engaged in a range of enterprises. They obtained licenses to dispense alcohol and became tavern keepers; many of these women were poor widows. Others taught school, took in boarders, or ran printing presses, like Mary Katherine Goddard (1738–1816). After taking over her brother's Baltimore press, Goddard became a notable printer, the first to print a copy of the Declaration of Independence with the names of the signers; she also served as the first postmistress of the colonies in 1775. Elizabeth Murray set up her own business in Boston in 1750, taking advantage of rising consumer demand for British goods to run her own shop and later setting up other women in business. Generous credit and the availability of inexpensive, high-quality cloth and ceramics prompted many women in colonial ports to pursue shopkeeping in the decades before the Revolution. Imported goods began to replace some domestically produced items, such as cloth. One of the most lucrative trades in the colonial period, as well as in the early Republic, was midwifery, a field in which women held a near monopoly.

the legacy of the revolution

Although the Revolutionary War years interrupted prewar patterns in some regards—with women like Abigail Adams assuming more responsibility for running family farms, for example, while their husbands were away and eventually asserting a sense of ownership—the Revolution itself did not signal a dramatic turning point in women's economic endeavors. Although, the disruptions that accompanied it led to the relocation of many single women, who became part of a new, cheap labor pool, most women continued to run households and raise children; the average birthrate remained high, at 7.04 in 1800. The Revolution challenged women to make political commitments and follow them up with economic actions, such as producing homespun cloth during boycotts of British imports in the 1760s and 1770s, but its effects were limited in the short term.

One important legacy of the Revolution, however, was an increased attention to the content of women's education. Reformers argued that women needed to be better schooled so as to raise their sons to be good citizens; women would exercise their political influence within the domestic sphere. This ideal, which the historian Linda Kerber has termed "republican motherhood," contributed to a shift in female education. Although much of the schooling girls received remained oriented toward the skills of housewifery and ornamental accomplishments, new subjects entered the curriculum. Ultimately, the combined domestic and political rationale for women's improved education lay the basis for the emergence of female academies in the early Republic. Subsequently, women began to apply their educational achievements outside of their own homes, entering the teaching profession in large numbers.

the market economy and the doctrine of separate spheres

Larger changes in industrial development and the market itself led to profound changes in work and the perception of it. In the late 1700s the putting-out system, a phase of industrial development that preceded the integrated factory, brought income-generating labor directly to the household. This process, which historian Jan de Vries characterizes as part of an "industrious revolution," signaled both an increase in the labor of women and children in the home and accompanying increases in overall productivity. In some industries, like shoemaking, women constituted a significant portion of the workforce, using their skill with the needle to stitch together shoe parts at home. Such work, also found in clothing production and hat making, was generally poorly paid.

Household production began to decline gradually as the market economy expanded. As waged labor grew increasingly time-oriented and separated from household production, men's nonagricultural work became distinguished by taking place outside the home and generating wages. In contrast, for the majority of women, work remained within the domestic sphere and was task-oriented rather than delimited by time. Crucially, such female labor was unwaged, and paid labor was increasingly privileged over unpaid. With the emergence of an ideology of separate spheres, where women were confined to a domestic sphere supposedly untouched by the market and where men left the sanctuary of the home to gain income for their families in a competitive, cutthroat public work space, women's contributions to sustaining their families and households were minimized. The historian Jeanne Boydston describes the "pastoralization" of housework that occurred in the early Republic; a rhetoric emerged that idealized women's domestic endeavors and characterized them as duties lovingly performed in an idyllic sphere, rather than as labor. As contemporaries drew increasingly sharp distinctions between "home" and "work," this dichotomy discounted the economic value and necessity of housework.

The doctrine of separate spheres ignored important facets of women's work experience in the early Republic. First, this pervasive ideology was most applicable to middle-class women; working-class women of necessity went outside of their homes to work for their families' subsistence. Second, women's household labor constituted an essential, if unpaid, contribution to their families. Third, the birth of industrialization in the United States witnessed the intentional incorporation of large numbers of women into the market economy. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, widespread efforts were made to develop the industrial base of the United States, with the interruption of trade during the War of 1812 adding fuel to the drive to industrialize.

In Lowell, Massachusetts, mill owners in the 1810s and 1820s hired a largely female workforce in an effort to balance agrarian and economic aims; men could stay on the farm while women toiled in factories. Lowell itself became a leader in the textile industry in terms of numbers of workers and volume of cloth produced. By 1828, 90 percent of textile workers in New England were female. The "mill girls," who lived in company boardinghouses, earned wages much lower than those of male mill workers, yet they earned enough to supplement their wardrobes, save money, and send funds home, sometimes paying for the professional education of brothers. The growth of professional school and accreditation negatively affected some female trades. As states began to license medical practitioners, for example, midwives found their position challenged by the institutionalized training that came to define medicine, schooling from which they were excluded.

The period was one of flux, with new possibilities for some women's employment and deteriorating circumstances for others. The rationale for paying women less than men in the mills, and in other trades as well, lay in the notion that men's labor and income supported their families. The laws of coverture remained intact, and women's labor, wherever they performed it, was seen as either nonessential to their families' livelihoods, as in the case of mills, or as non-work, as in the household.

See alsoChildbirth and Childbearing; Divorce and Desertion; Domestic Life; Education: Education of Girls and Women; Home; Industrial Revolution; Market Revolution; Marriage; Widowhood; Women: Female Reform Societies and Reformers; Women: Professions .


Boydston, Jeanne. Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Cott, Nancy F. The Bonds of Womanhood: Women's Sphere in New England, 1780–1835. 2nd ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.

Dublin, Thomas. Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1826–1860. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Gundersen, Joan R. To Be Useful to the World: Women in Revolutionary America, 1740–1790. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Stansell, Christine. City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812. New York: Knopf, 1990.

Patricia Cleary

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Women's Work

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