Household Work

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Household Work

Book excerpt

By: Dimitri Ivanovich Rostislavov

Date: c. 1820

Source: Rostislavov, Dimitri Ivanovich. "Household Work." In Provincial Russia in the Age of Enlightenment, edited by Alexander M. Martin. Chicago: Northern Illinois University Press, 2002.

About the Author: Alexander M. Martin is Professor of Russian and European History at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia.


The selection of a career is among the most challenging decisions foisted upon modern young people. College freshmen are often asked to select a major field of study, a choice that will determine how they spend their college years and may well define their career options, all at the age of eighteen. While occupations today are largely a matter of personal or family choice, vocational choices were once made at the moment of birth and were often based largely on the person's gender.

Throughout history, certain occupations have been considered appropriate for men, while other work was reserved primarily for women. Although women have frequently distinguished themselves in combat situations, the armed forces have traditionally been a male domain. Conversely, while many men have excelled as primary school educators, these teaching positions continue to be held largely by women. The terms "nurse" and "flight attendant" typically produce images of a woman, while the terms "doctor" and "mayor" generally conjure up male imagery.

These gender-occupational stereotypes have deep roots; for many centuries, male and female work roles were largely prescribed by society. Even in farm settings where both husband and wife worked at home, specific tasks were automatically under the oversight of the man, while others belonged to the woman. In some cases certain roles are better suited to one gender: the heavy work of plowing or baling hay tends to be accomplished more easily by men, due to their larger muscle mass. In contrast, the work of knitting and sewing may be better suited to women, who generally exhibit better fine motor skills. These are of course generalizations and in many families do not apply, yet for generations these expectations remained the norm.

Other aspects of home life were also determined by tradition. With several generations of a family often sharing the same dwelling, decision-making and financial choices had the potential to become convoluted. The role of elderly parents in particular offered the potential for conflict, as families wrestled with whether senior family members should be treated as equals, subordinates, or superiors. Once again, cultural norms generally dictated this decision, with elders perceived quite differently depending on which culture they lived in.

Russia at the dawn of the twentieth century was an enormous country, larger than the United States, India, and China combined. The country had been ruled for three centuries by a single family, the Romanovs, and the nation remained deeply traditional, with elderly parents heading households even if the home was owned by grandchildren, and men and women filling distinctly defined work roles. In these ways, nineteenth-century Russia was quite similar to numerous other nations around the globe.


[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


In the spring of 1917, with citizens rioting in the streets, the Romanovs abdicated the Russian throne, leaving a provisional government in charge of the financially struggling nation. In November the Communist Party, led by Vladimir Lenin, took control of St. Petersburg and arrested the members of the provisional government and the Czar's family. The quiet, relatively bloodless revolution produced the first communist government in the world, and led to a reevaluation of centuries-old customs in Russia.

The communists advocated land ownership by the people, as well as broad rights for the working class. Because the revolution to reach its full potential required equality for all individuals, the new government declared women and men constitutionally equal. Women were encouraged to work outside their homes and to pursue advanced education. Working women were also given government-funded maternity leave, a practice uncommon in the West until decades later. On paper, the new regime's gender policy was among the most progressive on earth.

As the Soviet Union expanded its territory and its influence, it appeared to offer women much broader rights than many other nations. During World War II, the United States eventually began recruiting women to fill defense plant jobs, while the Soviet workforce had been integrated for many years. And as the space age dawned, the Soviet space program scored two firsts, sending both the first man and the first woman into space. Not until two decades later, in 1983, did an American woman reach outer space.

Despite women's equal legal status in the Soviet empire, the passage of time revealed discrepancies between policy and practice. While the Soviets sent one woman into orbit early in their space program, the cosmonaut corps was overwhelmingly male, and only a handful of women number among the hundreds of space travelers from the Soviet Union. In the terrestrial workplace, women were encouraged to work but few were able to climb the ranks of management, while most held lower level posts. The leadership and upper ranks of the Communist Party remained almost entirely male in makeup, a situation largely identical to that in modern communist China. In 1987, Soviet leader Gorbachev wrote that women in the nation had the same rights, pay, and opportunities as men. Gorbachev's policy of openness would soon reveal that this claim was somewhat exaggerated.

While the Soviet Union's leaders clearly stated the case for women's equality in the workplace, their numerous declarations of women's rights in the early years of the U.S.S.R. apparently failed to undo centuries of tradition and cultural expectations. Ironically, women in the West ultimately made much greater economic gains under capitalism than those made under the far more rigid system of communism.

As of 2003, female workers in the United States earned approximately 77 cents for each dollar earned by men. The cause of this difference remains the subject of ongoing debate and research.



Delafield, E. M. The Provincial Lady in Russia: I Visit the Soviets. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1985.

Goldman, Wendy Z. Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917–1936. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Politics and Society in Provincial Russia: Saratov, 1590–1917, edited by Rex Wade and Scott Seregny. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1989.


Evtuhov, Catherine. "Voices from the Provinces: Living and Writing in Nizhnii Novgorod, 1870–1905." Journal of Popular Culture 31 (1998):33-48.

White, Anne. "Social Change in Provincial Russia: The Intelligentsia in a Raion Centre." Europe Asia Studies. 44 (2002): 677-694.

Web sites

The Jamestown Foundation. "Russian National Unity: A Political Challenge for Provincial Russia." March 26, 1999. 〈〉 (accessed July 19, 2006).

Public Broadcasting Service. "A Romanov Album." 〈〉 (accessed July 19, 2006).