Gender and Work

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Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks

All cultures from prehistoric times to the present have drawn distinctions between men's work and women's work. In some societies these distinctions are so strong that individuals who are morphologically male but who do tasks normally assigned to females are regarded as members of a third gender. The link between gender and work has not been this strong in European culture, but economic institutions, technological developments, cultural norms, religious and intellectual currents, and popular beliefs have all played a part in shaping clear distinctions between men's and women's work. These distinctions have, in turn, determined how tasks would be valued, with tasks normally done by men valued more highly than those done by women, even if they took the same amount of time, skill, and effort. In fact, the very definition of "work" has often been gender-biased, with men's tasks defined as "work" while women's have been defined as "assisting," "helping out," or "housework." Some tasks done by women, such as the care and nurturing of family members, have generally not been regarded as "work" at all.

In the same way that gender history in general grew out of women's history, the study of gender and work developed primarily out of studies on women's work. Economic and labor historians whose primary focus was work were often more attentive to class differences than to those of gender; their focus was the male work experience, but its gendered nature was not analyzed or explored. This is beginning to change, but there are still many more studies that focus explicitly on women's work than on men's work defined as such. Historians themselves have thus contributed to the notion that men's work is simply "work," whereas women's is "women's work," but this is slowly changing as more scholars recognize and highlight the gendered nature of their subjects.

Gender hierarchies in the division of labor have survived massive economic changes in Europe over the last five hundred years, with new occupations valued—and paid—according to whether they were done primarily by men or women. This resiliency has led social historians into several different lines of investigation. One of these has been to search for the reasons why women's labor has been undervalued, a question historians began investigating as early as the 1920s. A second line of inquiry, which began in the 1970s, explores how economic changes, such as the development of commercial capitalism, industrial production, or the global labor market, were experienced differently by men and women. A third and more recent line of inquiry reverses the second, and investigates how gender hierarchies (or sometimes more pointedly stated, how patriarchy) shaped economic developments. In all of these areas, historians are increasingly cognizant not only of work itself but also of the meaning of work for individuals and for society at large. Thus they use as their sources economic data such as employment statistics, census records, business reports, union records, and account books, and also more subjective records such as letters, diaries, newspaper editorials, advertisements, and personal memoirs.

Of these three lines of inquiry, the second has received the most attention, with many studies tracing how men's and women's work changed as the result of new production methods, labor structures, kinds of technology, or market organization. Many of these studies focus on a single village, city, or region, and it is clear that any generalizations across all of Europe must be made very carefully. Innovations were often made in one area decades or even centuries after they were made in another, during which time other things that shaped gender structures, such as religious ideas, public schooling, political structures, or the availability of contraceptives, had also changed. The impact of a similar change in work patterns might therefore be very different in one region from another, depending on when it was introduced. Local studies have made clear that along with this chronological difference, other axes of difference such as social class, race, marital status, and age must be taken into account when exploring changes and continuities in the gender division of labor or the meaning of work.


The period from the fifteenth through the eighteenth century in Europe is often described economically as "the rise of capitalism," during which larger and more complex forms of economic organization developed in some parts of Europe, leading them to become economically dominant. These new forms changed the relationship between gender and work somewhat, but capitalism did not generally alter the existing form of economic organization, which was based on the household.

The household economy and wage labor in rural areas. During the Middle Ages, the household became the basic unit of production in most parts of Europe, a process some social historians label the "familialization of labor." The central work unit was the marital couple, joined by their children when they became old enough to work. Though in some parts of southern and eastern Europe extended families lived together, in central and northern Europe couples generally set up independent households upon marrying, making the production unit also a residential unit.

Until at least the eighteenth century, and even later in many parts of Europe, the vast majority of people lived in the countryside, producing agricultural products for their own use or that of their landlords, or for local and international markets. Serf households on the vast estates of eastern Europe produced almost completely for an export market. Agricultural tasks were highly, but not completely, gender specific, though exactly which tasks were regarded as female and which as male varied widely throughout Europe. These gender divisions were partly the result of physical differences, with men generally doing tasks that required a great deal of upper-body strength, such as cutting grain with a scythe; they were partly the result of women's greater responsibility for child care, so that women stayed closer to the house and carried out tasks that could be more easily interrupted for nursing or tending children; and they were partly the result of cultural beliefs, so that women in parts of Norway, for example, sowed all grain because people felt this would ensure a bigger harvest. Whatever their source, gender divisions meant that the proper functioning of a rural household required at least one adult male and one adult female. Remarriage after the death of a spouse was very fast, and few people remained permanently unmarried, although widows faced far more barriers than widowers. These households sometimes hired young people as live-in servants or occasional laborers during harvest, and by the early seventeenth century some rural households lived by their labor alone.

Technological changes and new types of crops introduced during the early modern period altered the tasks that people did, but did not end the gender division of labor or the basic household unit of production. During the seventeenth century, for example, turnips and other root crops were increasingly grown in many parts of Europe and then fed to animals in stalls. Both tasks were very labor-intensive and generally done by women, who had traditionally taken care of the animals housed with the family. Women also tended and harvested crops that provided raw materials for manufactured products, such as flax, hemp, silk, and plants for dye. As animal products and these more specialized crops became more significant parts of the rural economy in some areas of Europe, agricultural labor became feminized. This increased the demand for female wage laborers in the countryside, although most women (and men) continued to work as part of a household economy and did not receive separate wages for their work.

In some rural areas, commodities other than agricultural ones were a significant part of the economy, and their extraction or production shaped the gender division of labor. In Portugal, Norway, and Galicia (the northwest part of Spain), adult men were away fishing during the summer months, leaving women and children responsible for all crop and stock raising. Visitors from other parts of Europe often commented that women in these areas were more independent and forceful than was appropriate, that they boasted how little they needed men to survive. Men from these areas sometimes agreed with their critical visitors, but sometimes praised the strength and self-reliance of their women. Strength was also an important quality for women who lived in mining areas, where they carried ore, wood, and salt; sorted and washed ore; and prepared charcoal briquets for use in smelting. Most of the work underground was carried out by adult men in the preindustrial period, though the mining companies that hired them assumed they would be assisted by their families. Men were paid per basket for ore, but it was expected that this ore would be broken apart and washed, jobs that their wives, sisters, and children did, though they did not receive separate wages for their work.

Mining provides one example of how the familial organization of production carried over into the world of wage labor in rural areas, and in some parts of Europe cloth production followed a similar path. Beginning in the fifteenth century, urban investors hired rural households or individuals to produce wool, linen, and later cotton thread or cloth (or cloth that was a mixture of these), paying the household or individual only for the labor and retaining ownership of the raw materials and in some cases the tools and machinery used. Historians use several different terms to describe this development—domestic or cottage industry, the "putting-out" system, or protoindustrialization—and stress that it continued as a significant form of economic organization in more isolated rural areas such as Switzerland or Slovakia well into the nineteenth century or even the twentieth. In parts of Europe where whole households were hired, protoindustrialization strengthened the familial organization of production but broke down gender divisions, as men, women, and children who were old enough all worked at the same tasks. In other parts of Europe, individuals were hired separately during slack times in the agricultural cycle; because such periods often differed for men and women, this hiring was gender specific, and wages were paid directly to the individual rather than to the family as a whole. Thus in these areas the familial organization of production was disrupted, but gender divisions were maintained.

Individual wages did not mean equal wages; women's wages for agricultural or manufacturing tasks were generally about one-half to two-thirds those of men for the same or similar tasks. Women's wages appear to have been determined more by custom than the market, for they fluctuated much less than men's both over the life cycle and with shifts in the economy. Even during periods of rising wages, women's wages rose more slowly. Married women's wages were also less than those of widows for the same task, a wage structure based on the idea that married women needed less because they had a husband to support them, not on an evaluation of the quality of their work. The difference between male and female wages meant that in areas where wage labor was available for both sexes, men generally worked for wages while women concentrated on subsistence farming and maintaining the household.

Historians disagree about the effects of wage labor and protoindustrialization on gender structures. Some analysts find that as more young people, especially women, received wages, they gained power within the family and were more able to make independent decisions about such issues as their marital partner or place of residence. A few even see wage labor as the reason European illegitimacy rates rose in the eighteenth century as young women felt more free to search for sexual satisfaction and love. Others note that women often turned over their wages to male family members, or had no right to them at all, as was the case for married women in some parts of Europe, whose wages legally belonged to their husbands; thus a woman's income was rarely her own to spend as she pleased. There has been much less discussion of the effects of gender structures on protoindustrialization, but some studies are emerging which suggest that investors often chose areas in which there was significant female seasonal unemployment when they were developing cotton or linen production.

Households, guilds, and capitalism in urban areas. The familialization of labor was not simply a rural phenomenon in medieval Europe, but also occurred in urban areas. Most goods were produced in household workshops, with all stages of production, from the purchase of raw materials and tools to selling the finished product, carried out by members of the household, and the goods produced traded either within that particular city or regionally. Urban households often included individuals who were not family members—servants, apprentices, journeymen—but at their core in most parts of Europe was a single marital couple and its children.

During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, urban producers of certain products began to form craft guilds in many cities to organize and regulate production. There were a few all-female guilds in cities such as Cologne, Paris, and Rouen, with highly specialized economies, but in general the guilds were male organizations and followed the male life cycle. One became an apprentice at puberty, became a journeyman four to ten years later, traveled around learning from a number of masters, then settled down, married, opened one's own shop, and worked at the same craft full-time until one died or got too old to work any longer. This process presupposed that one would be free to travel (something that was more difficult for women than men), that on marriage one would acquire a wife as an assistant, and that pregnancy, childbirth, or child rearing would never interfere with one's labor. Transitions between these stages were marked by ceremonies, and master craftsmen were formally inscribed in guild registers and took part in governing the guild. By the late fifteenth century, journeymen in some parts of Europe began to define their interests as distinct from and often antithetical to those of the masters, and to form their own guilds; these, too, had elaborate rituals reinforcing group identity and loyalty.

Women fit into guilds much more informally. Masters' wives, daughters, and domestic servants worked in guild shops or sold the goods produced in them, and masters' widows ran them briefly after their husbands' deaths, but women's ability to work was never officially recognized and usually depended not on their own training but on their relationship with a guild master. Even this informal participation was challenged in the early modern period, and the only women allowed to continue working were those who could convince political authorities that they would otherwise need public welfare. Both craft and journeymen's guilds supported prohibitions on female labor, as maintaining an all-male shop became a matter of honor and status as well as a way to limit competition for jobs. Women were also excluded from certain occupations because they were barred from attending universities or professional academies. Occupations seeking to improve their status regularly banned women as a mark of growing professionalism. The decline of women in the crafts was a major development on the eve of industrialization.

The masculine nature of high-status work played an important role in determining class distinctions. Whereas in the Middle Ages middle-class women worked alongside their husbands, by the seventeenth century changing notions of bourgeois respectability meant that such women concentrated on domestic tasks, on purchasing and caring for the increased number of consumer goods that were a mark of class status. Shopping and housework could be very labor-intensive and physically demanding, but they were not defined as "work." Increasingly anything a woman did within her home, including work for which she was paid or which supported the family, such as taking in boarders or doing laundry, was regarded as reproductive rather than productive, as housekeeping or helping out rather than work. No matter how much of her day she spent on tasks to support the household, a bourgeois woman did not "work."

The gendered meaning of work affected not only middle-class urban residents but lower-class ones as well. Domestic industry—particularly in cloth production—expanded in many cities as well as the countryside in the early modern period, with households and individuals hired to do one specific stage of production. Those stages regarded as "women's work," such as spinning and carding, were paid less than those regarded as "men's work," such as weaving. Spinners' wages were kept low by employers seeking to reduce the costs of their products and by the number of women seeking employment in spinning as other occupations were closed to them. Employers and government officials seeking to increase production and exports also justified low wages by asserting that spinning was simply a substitute for poor relief or a stopgap employment until women found a man to support them. They also argued that keeping wages low would prevent unmarried spinners from being able to live on their own, and would force them to live in proper, male-headed households where their activities could be more easily controlled.

As the growth of domestic industry created more opportunities for wage labor, and economic changes such as enclosure (the fencing of land previously available for common use) drove more people to migrate in search of work, political authorities became increasingly concerned with what they termed "masterless persons," those without a fixed place of residence and under no one's control. They regarded the household as the smallest unit of social control, and aimed to have everyone under the authority of a responsible household head, preferably male. These efforts were sometimes directed specifically against women, for whom wandering was a mark of sexual looseness rather than an occupational stage as it was for journeymen. In Germany and France, laws were passed that forbade unmarried women to move into cities, required widows to move in with one of their male children, and obliged unmarried women to move in with a male relative or employer; in England city officials could force any unmarried woman between the ages of twelve and forty to become a servant. Such laws, combined with the fact that men had a broader range of occupations open to them, led to a gradual feminization of domestic service. In the seventeenth century, about 60 percent of the servants identified in some urban censuses were female; by the nineteenth century, 90 percent of the domestic servants in England were female.

Along with production and domestic service, early modern cities offered a range of other occupations for men and women, most of which had their own gender hierarchies. Health care was undertaken by male physicians, barber-surgeons, and apothecaries, along with female midwives, hospital workers, and informally trained medical practitioners. Urban commercial life comprised long-distance merchants who brought in luxuries such as spices and precious metals or necessities such as grain from far away; regional merchants who handled commodities such as wool and cloth; local wholesale traders; and market vendors who sold food, alcoholic beverages, clothing, and household items. The top of this range was almost all male, for women controlled less wealth and were barred by social constraints or law from traveling or conducting business independently. Women did invest in commercial ventures and later in joint-stock companies, however, and they predominated at the bottom of the range as local retail vendors. Although economic historians discussing the rise of capitalism and the market economy in this period have primarily focused on male capitalist investors, bankers, and wholesale merchants, female retail traders, pawnbrokers, and moneylenders shared their capitalist values. Such women developed a strong work identity, and often played a significant role in urban disturbances, from bread riots to the French Revolution.


No occupation has been gendered female in Europe as clearly as spinning. When English peasants in the fourteenth century wished to describe the lack of social classes at the beginning of human history, they sang: "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" Women of all social classes were expected to spin, from those in city jails or municipal brothels (between customers) to the highly educated elite. King James I of England's reaction to a young woman presented at court who could speak and write Greek, Hebrew, and Latin was "But can she spin?" The female branch of a family was often termed the "distaff" side, after the staff used to hold flax or wool in spinning before the invention of the spinning wheel, and commentators wishing to describe the ultimate breakdown in the expected gender division of labor in areas of protoindustrialization noted that men were spinning.

Spinning was the bottleneck in cloth production, for preindustrial techniques of production necessitated at least twenty carders and spinners per weaver, so authorities developed a number of schemes to encourage more spinning. They attached spinning rooms to orphanages, awarded prizes to women who spun the most, made loans easier for those who agreed to spin, set up spinning schools for poor children. They did not use what would probably have been the most effective method—paying higher wages—as they worried this would promote greater independence in young women and allow them to live on their own rather than in a male-headed household. Declining opportunities for women in other occupations did lead more of them into spinning, however, and by the seventeenth century unmarried women in England all came to be called "spinsters." The equivalent male term, "bachelor," did not come from the world of work, but from feudalism: a "knight bachelor" was a member of the lowest order of knights, who served a higher noble.

For the very poorest city dwellers, gender was a less significant shaper of occupational life than was poverty. Some historians ruefully term this an "equality of misery," and note that it was true for very poor rural residents as well. People with no property, skills, or family connections did any type of small job they could; hired by the day or the job, they put together an "economy of makeshifts," in which survival was very dependent on the price of bread. They traveled to rural areas during harvest time, repaired city walls and fortifications, and carried messages and packages from place to place. Women (and in some cities, men) might combine such work with occasional prostitution, and a few of these made selling sex a full-time occupation. Until the sixteenth century, most cities had an official municipal brothel in which prostitution was fully legitimate; these were closed in some cities of Europe with the moral fervor of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, though in others prostitution was simply regulated rather than criminalized.

MODERN EUROPE (1750–2000)

Historians have traditionally regarded the development of industrial capitalism in Europe as one of the world's most significant events, one of the very few economic developments to warrant the term "revolution." The impact of industrialism on men and women was not uniform, however, but varied, particularly for women, according to such factors as age and marital status. Developments of the twentieth century, such as the growth of information technology and policies of state welfare, were similarly complex in their effects.

Change and continuity in the industrial economy. The earliest studies of women's work saw the growth of industrial capitalism as a dramatic break, transforming the household organization of production, in which the home and workplace were united, into a factory organization, in which they were separate. This narrative was modified somewhat during the 1990s, as historians paid more attention both to earlier changes, such as agricultural wage labor and domestic production, and to continuities in industrial economies, such as women's continued responsibility for housework, which has given them a "second shift" of work until today in most of Europe.

Some of the gendered processes first identified by historians of industrialism are now recognized as having occurred earlier as well. Historians of the industrial period have pointed to the de-skilling of certain occupations, in which jobs that had traditionally been done by men were made more monotonous with the addition of machinery and so were redefined and given to women, with a dramatic drop in status and pay; secretarial work, weaving, and shoemaking are prominent examples of this. They have noted that notions of "skilled" and "unskilled" work are often, in fact, gender divisions, with women excluded from certain jobs, such as glass cutting, because they were judged clumsy or "unskilled," yet those same women made lace, a job that required an even higher level of dexterity and concentration than glass cutting. This link between gender and "skill" had actually begun in the preindustrial period, though in these cases the addition of machinery often made jobs "male" instead of "female." Both brewing and stocking knitting, for example, were transformed into male-dominated occupations in some parts of Europe. When knitting frames and new brewing methods were introduced, men began to argue that they were so complicated women could never use them; in reality they made brewing and knitting faster and increased the opportunities for profit. Women were limited to small-scale brewing and knitting primarily for their own family's use.

Links between gender and "skill" have continued in the postindustrial economy. Using a typewriter was gendered female in the early twentieth century, but working with computers has been gendered male and accompanied by an increase in pay and status. This regendering of work on a keyboard has been accomplished by associating computers with mathematics and machinery, fields viewed as masculine, which girls have been discouraged from studying. Advertisements in computer magazines often portray women at the keyboard only if they are emphasizing how easy a computer system is to use.

There are thus significant continuities from the preindustrial to the industrial (and postindustrial) period in the links between gender and work, but industrialism also brought change. Factories brought new forms of work discipline in which overseers replaced parents as supervisors of production, machines concentrated in large numbers determined the pace of work, production was split into many small stages, and work was not easily combined with domestic or agricultural tasks. All of these changes made it difficult for adult women to combine factory work with their family responsibilities, so that factory work was the province of men, younger unmarried women, and children. Existing wage scales and notions of the value of women's work as compared to men's meant that young women were often the first to be hired as factories opened, particularly in cloth production, because they could be hired more cheaply. Tasks that were regarded as more highly skilled or supervisory were reserved for men. Certain industries that developed slightly later, such as steel, also came to be regarded as "men's work," so that the industrial labor market was segmented by gender both within factories and across industries.

Though the work women did in factories was often very similar to that done in household workshops, it was also more visible, and became a topic of public discussion in the nineteenth century. Politicians and social commentators debated the propriety of young women working alongside or being supervised by men who were not their relatives, a debate fueled by instances of rape and sexual exploitation in the factories. Intermixing of the sexes at the workplace was described as leading to "immorality," hasty marriages, and increased illegitimacy, and female factory workers were often charged with having dubious sexual morals. Such fears led to further segmentation of the labor market by gender, as women—or their families—chose sex-segregated workplaces, which were viewed as more "respectable." Concerns about morality shaped the work opportunities even for those needing public support. City and parish authorities often set up small endowments for poor children to learn a trade; while boys were apprenticed widely, girls were increasingly limited to such things as the making of hats or mantuas (ladies' loose robes, usually worn over other clothing), trades generally regarded as "genteel."

Sex-segregated workplaces could only go so far in controlling morality, however, and an even better solution, in the minds of many commentators, was for women to avoid paid employment entirely. Middle-class authors, male and female, extolled the virtues of women remaining home to care for their husbands and children, arguing that motherhood and not wage labor was women's "natural" calling and a full-time occupation. Economic as well as moral concerns played a role in these debates, for male workers also opposed women in the factories because their lower wages drove all wages down. The labor organizations that developed in the nineteenth century often argued in favor of a "family wage," that is, wages high enough to allow married male workers to support their families so that their wives could concentrate on domestic tasks and not work outside the home. Laws were passed, as in England in 1847, limiting the hours of work for women in the factories, but not those of men, a differentiation that would limit women's desirability as workers.

Both full-time motherhood and a "family wage" were only an ideal, of course, because in actuality most working-class families survived only by the labor of both spouses and the older children. Older daughters—and less often, sons—often gave part of their wages to their parents even when they lived apart from them, and married women took in boarders or did laundry and piecework at home in order to make ends meet. However, these domestic activities rarely showed up in the new statistical measures such as gross national product, which governments devised in the nineteenth century, because they were defined as "housekeeping" and thus not really work. According to the German industrial code of 1869, women who spun, washed, ironed, or knitted in their own homes were not considered workers (and thus not eligible for pensions), even though they worked for wages, while male shoemakers and tailors who worked in their own homes were. The invention of the sewing machine in the late nineteenth century probably increased the number of women and children who supported their families with such home work, though statistics are hard to obtain, as such work was not counted as a full-time occupation even if it was undertaken ten hours a day, as it often was.

The labor organizations that developed in Europe during the nineteenth century varied in their gender politics. In Great Britain, labor unions organized primarily along craft lines and, like the earlier craft guilds, often opposed women's labor as dishonoring or cheapening their craft. Many British unions specifically limited membership to men, which led to the formation of a few all-women's unions. On the Continent, labor unions generally organized along industrial lines and had closer connections with socialist and other left-wing political parties. This made them slightly more open to including women members, particularly as some socialist parties, such as those in Germany, began to advocate greater political and legal rights for women. Still, socialist party policies were often ambivalent, supporting women's right to work while recruiting women as wives and mothers, not workers, into the parties. In general, however, women made up a much smaller share of union membership than they did of the work force, though they often participated with men in strikes, demonstrations, and protests for better conditions, even if they were not members.

Industrialization was an uneven process; many areas remained primarily agricultural until well into the twentieth century, with mechanized farming methods adopted only slowly. Particularly after the advent of large-scale steel production, the opportunities for men in industry pulled male workers out of agriculture. Women made up a larger percentage of the agricultural work force of both France and Germany in 1910 than they had fifty years earlier. As they had in the preindustrial period, both men and women in rural areas often engaged in domestic production alongside farming, processing raw materials such as flax for linen or finishing goods such as cloth, which had been made in a factory.

Notions of propriety and appropriate gender roles shaped the work lives of middle-class Europeans perhaps even more than working-class ones. Universities were open only to male students until the last half of the nineteenth century (or later in some countries), when pressure from social reformers led to the slow admission of a few female students; thus women could not enter occupations that required university training, including medicine and law. Positions within growing government bureaucracies were similarly limited to men, though middle-class women did involve themselves on a volunteer basis with causes of social reform such as child labor laws or the improvement of conditions in hospitals. Such activities were acceptable because they were seen as an extension of women's caring activities in the home, though they also led women to call for better access to professional training and ultimately led to paid labor in occupations such as social work and teaching. The expansion of primary and secondary schools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries created new jobs for women; judgments about the relative value of female and male labor shaped wages in teaching, making young women the cheapest option. In teaching as well as factory work, supervisory positions were reserved for men, a situation that continues in many parts of Europe today.

At the same time that teaching expanded, changes in communications technology and the distribution of goods also created new types of jobs for women as secretaries, postal clerks, telegraph and telephone operators, and department store clerks. Because such occupations required serving customers or assisting supervisors, they came to be viewed as especially appropriate for young women, who were hired for their appearance and pleasing demeanor as well as their abilities. In some areas women who held these positions were fired if they married or planned to marry—men in similar positions were not—or if they became too old. Open discrimination by age or marital status continued in some "female" service occupations until the 1970s, with flight attendants being the best-known example.

War and state welfare in the twentieth century. The links between gender and work in the twentieth century were shaped to a greater extent than earlier by military developments and state policies. The advent of "total war" introduced the phenomenon of full economic mobilization in the two world wars. The state's role in economic organization grew dramatically in the twentieth century, partly as a result of total warfare and partly in response to economic crises like the Great Depression. During World War I, government propaganda campaigns combined with improved wages encouraged women to enter the paid labor force to replace men who were fighting. The granting of female suffrage in many countries right after the war was in part thanks for women's work as nurses and munitions workers. Though the demobilization of men once the war was over led to women being fired or encouraged to quit, the enormous losses among soldiers in the war also made it impossible to return completely to prewar patterns. The lack of men in some countries, especially Germany, meant that more women would remain single and thus in the labor force their whole lives. Throughout Europe, between one-fourth and one-third of the total paid labor force was female after the war.

Trends in work patterns during the 1920s and 1930s continued those that had begun in the nineteenth century, with a few new twists. Both men and women left agriculture for industry, though women fled farms faster than men, as they could earn relatively more in the city. (Female agricultural laborers earned about 50 percent of the male wage in the interwar period, while female industrial workers earned 60 to 70 percent of the male wage; rural workers were rarely covered by policies such as maternity leave, which were guaranteed to women in industry in many European countries by the 1920s.) As industries changed, the gender segmentation within them did as well. Growing chemical and electrical industries often produced standardized parts on assembly lines, with female workers supervised by male foremen. Many of the women in these industries came from declining textile and clothing factories, but there was often a perception that women were "taking men's jobs." This sentiment was heightened during the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s, and women who married routinely lost their jobs. Vast numbers of men also became unemployed during the period, of course, though it is difficult to make comparisons based on gender because women's work had often not been measured in the first place, and married women were excluded from unemployment benefits in many countries, so they never applied and thus were not counted among the unemployed. Labor organizations continued to be ambivalent toward women, at times encouraging their inclusion or separate women's unions, but more often opposing women's work and trivializing women's issues. Women were harder to organize than men, as their wages were often too low to pay union dues, their family responsibilities prevented their attending union meetings, and they had been socialized to view their work as temporary and not to challenge male authorities.

In many countries of Europe, the 1920s and 1930s saw the development of authoritarian dictatorships, which transformed ideas about women's "natural" role as wives and mothers into government policies promoting maternity and reproduction. In the Soviet Union, this exaltation of motherhood was accompanied by measures that encouraged women's labor, as married women—except for the wives of high-level Communist Party and business leaders—were also expected to engage in productive work outside the home. Women's literacy rose from 43 to 82 percent between 1926 and 1939, and women formed a significant share of the technical, scientific, and industrial labor force. In Fascist Italy, working women were denounced as taking jobs away from men, and work was celebrated in vigorous propaganda campaigns as inherently masculine. Despite this rhetoric, women continued to make up an increasing part of the paid labor force in industry and government bureaucracy. Only in Nazi Germany was mobilization for war accomplished without increasing women's participation in the labor force, a situation made possible only by the Nazi regime's drafting of nearly 8 million forced and slave laborers—most of them male—from occupied countries.

World War II brought a feminization of the industrial and agricultural labor force in England and France similar to that of World War I, and in all of Europe there were attempts after the war to return to what was perceived as "normalcy," with male breadwinners responsible for supporting women and children. These attempts no longer included outright bans on women's work, however, and they were less successful in Europe than in the United States. Women's labor force participation rose during the 1950s and 1960s, though educational and training programs leading to higher-paying jobs were often still limited to men. Gradually during the 1970s through the 1990s access to education and jobs previously limited to men was opened to women, though most employed women continued to be concentrated in lower-paying service jobs such as office work, child care, hairdressing, and cleaning (dubbed the "pink collar ghetto"), so that women's average full-time earnings remained about two-thirds those of men. (Sweden was the most egalitarian country in Europe, with female wages about 90 percent of male in 1985.)

Relying on statistics about the paid labor force for understanding gender divisions of labor in the twentieth century is misleading for a number of reasons, however. Women often predominated in the "underground" or "gray market" economy in many areas, selling commodities and services—including prostitution—on a small scale as they had for centuries. Most of these transactions were intentionally unrecorded to avoid taxes and do not form part of official statistical measures, but are the only way people survived. Such work "off the books" was an important part of many European economies; estimates from Italy judge that the unrecorded exchange of goods and services probably equaled that of the official economy after World War II.

Evaluating the gender division of labor must also take unpaid work within the household into account. Even in areas in which women made up more than half of the full-time labor force outside the household, such as the Soviet Union, women continued to do almost all of the household tasks. In the Soviet Union and communist Eastern Europe, shortages in foodstuffs and household goods such as soap meant that women had to spend hours each day (after their paid workday was done) standing in lines; because of this "second shift," women were not free to attend Communist Party meetings or do extra work on the job in order to be promoted. This situation did not change when communism ended in Eastern Europe in 1989, though more women had time to spend in lines because they were more likely than men to be unemployed, a result of economic restructuring and of the resurgence of a domestic ideology encouraging women to leave the workforce. The time needed to obtain basic consumer goods was much shorter in Western Europe so that the second shift was less onerous, but it was no less gender specific; even in relatively egalitarian Sweden, women who worked full-time spent at least twice as long on household tasks as men, and even longer if there were children in the house. (See figure 1.) This situation led some feminists in the 1970s to advocate "wages for housework," while others opposed this idea as reinforcing an unfair gender division of labor.

During the 1950s through the 1980s, most of the countries of Europe promoted social programs in which the burdens of poverty, unemployment, sickness, old age, and child rearing would be shared by the state. Such state welfare programs were initially geared toward a male breadwinner and female homemaker model, with women in some countries receiving family allowances if they had children and unemployment compensation and other benefits limited to full-time (and thus more likely male) workers. Under pressure from feminist groups and some political parties, these policies became more egalitarian in the 1970s, with benefits extended to part-time workers and paid parental leave or shortened hours available for both fathers and mothers. Such policies have not changed the actual work situation in most parts of Europe, however; men in the 1990s continued to be much less likely to take parental leave or a shortened workweek than women, and women far less likely than men to be found among labor or business leaders.

Economic dislocations and the rise of neoconservative political leadership in the 1980s led to cutbacks in social provisions and healthcare in many countries, in what has been described as an "assault on the welfare state." This trend has pushed much responsibility for care back onto the family, or, more accurately, onto the women in families, which further increases the likelihood that women work part-rather than full-time. Statistics bear this out: according to a study by Eurostat, women made up 41.4 percent of the paid labor force in the twelve countries of the European Union in 1995, but they made up 80 percent of the part-time labor force. Employers often favor part-time or temporary workers, as it allows them to be more flexible and pay little or no health insurance or other benefits. Many of these employees work from their own homes rather than in factories, as computer and communications technology allows a very decentralized workforce. Like the domestic production of much earlier centuries, such work is often paid by the piece rather than the hour, which allows for greater flexibility but also greater exploitation, as there is no limitation of the workday. Because it can be combined with minding children and cooking, home production is often favored by women; such work includes data processing and other forms of computerized office work, but also more traditional jobs such as making gloves or shoes, for the sewing machine continues to be an effective tool of decentralization.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the relationship between gender and work in Europe is far more affected by developments and events outside of Europe than ever before, as Europe becomes simply one player in a global economy. Workers from outside Europe, particularly from former colonial possessions, bring their own cultural values about proper gender relations with them when they migrate in, altering what is viewed as appropriate work for men or women. Companies from outside Europe, especially from Japan, structure the workforces in their European factories along gender and ethnic lines, with European women clustered at the lowest levels, European men in the middle, and Japanese men at the top. European companies choose to build factories and invest outside of Europe, where labor costs are much less, supporting what are often extremely exploitative situations involving the work of women and children. It is difficult to predict where these trends will lead, and also too early to discern what the effects of the movement within Europe toward economic and political unity will be. It is clear, however, that gender will continue to structure work in Europe, and that changing work patterns will also alter gender roles.

See alsoGender Theory (volume 1);Capitalism and Commercialization; Protoindustrialization; The Industrial Revolutions; The Welfare State (volume 2);Servants; Prostitution (volume 3);Preindustrial Manufacturing; Factory Work; Middle-Class Work (in this volume); and other articles in this section.


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