Introduction to Work and Gender Roles

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Introduction to Work and Gender Roles

A family is a functioning economic unit. Throughout history, families have operated farms or businesses, pooling financial resources and dividing labor among family members. Similarly, resources and labor are divided for tasks within the family. One person may look after children; another may prepare meals or clean the home. Some members may work outside of the home to provide the family with income. For generations, many of these tasks have been divided according to gender. In Western society, women looked after children and tended the home, while men worked outside of the home to provide income. While this arrangement is often described as traditional, many traditional families had wives that produced goods and garnered income in addition to raising children. Farming families often divided hard labor among all of the family members.

While children have long provided labor in the household or on family farms, urban working-class families often sent children to work in the same factories as their parents. Some industries, such as textile, depended on semi-skilled child laborers to operate complex machinery or do rapid, fine needlework. Child labor helped support families, but it came at a heavy cost. Children in factories could not attend school. They worked long hours, at dangerous jobs, and were often exploited. Children were typically paid less than adults for the same day's work. "Testimony of Ann and Elizabeth Eggley, Child Mine Workers," and "Homework Destroys Family Life" discuss the effects of child labor on the family and society, and also discuss the impacts of child labor reform on families.

Women working outside the home is also not a new phenomenon, but for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, female industrial workers were predominantly young, poor, and single or married without children. Many were recent immigrants. Many women worked as governesses or domestic servants, with a greater variation in their ages, ethnicities, marital status, and socio-economic class. "A Young Lady, of Good Family and Education, Desires an Engagement as Governess" features classified advertisements for employment within a family home.

For middle- and upper-class women who predominantly stayed in the home, the end of the era of abundant and affordable servant labor meant an increasing amount of time spent doing menial household chores. "Twenty-six Hours a Day" provided the housewife with helpful hints on time and household management. Advertisements for home appliances, like "Washing Day Reform," promised greater leisure time for housewives and domestic servants, but mounting duties and expectations created the infamous "housewives paradox" where some assert that technology has not freed the in-home worker as promised.

With the rise of feminism, the family structure again changed. Many women chose to leave the home and enter college or the workforce. "For the Benefit of the Girl About to Graduate," "With Puck's Apologies to the Coming Woman," and "Election Day!" all warn of the perils of women leaving the domestic sphere. Women participating in college, the workforce, or civil life were portrayed as masculine, uncaring, poor mothers, and usually unattractive. For generations, many women have sought to separate their professional and family identities, desiring equity to men in marriage, partnership, parenting, the workforce, and society.


Introduction to Work and Gender Roles