CLIO TALKS BACK: More about the history of “women’s work”

Women’s history month offers us an opportunity to think about the history of “women’s work.” Clio has long been concerned about this topic, particularly with reference to the issue of money and value. Clio asks: who decides what “value” is, who gets paid for doing what, and why? And how much? Or how little?
We know from examining women’s history that “women’s work” encompasses many tasks (some agreeable and others onerous) for which women have never been paid. So how can some people today still treat paid employment as the sole form of “women’s work”? What planet are they living on?
Clio’s colleague Ellen Fleischmann, who studies the history of women in the Middle East, has signalled another aspect of “women’s work” – another form of unpaid work that women do and have done on behalf of the societies they live in or aspire to create. Let’s hear what she has to say about this question, with respect to the development of nation-states – long a topic in “men’s” political history.. This is “political” work for which women have rarely gotten the credit they deserve, much less any form of pay. This seems to be a universal phenomenon.

“Women’s work” – whether supporting the nationalist struggle or engaging in social welfare activities oriented toward “uplifting the nation” – has too often been considered auxiliary, conservative, and nonpolitical. Rethinking both feminism and nationalism requires eschewing gendered notions of politics and resistance. In the nationalist context, gendered notions of what was considered meaningful in the way of “active” or “passive” resistance have contributed to obscuring the nature of women’s participation. The kind of work women engaged in was crucial to the nationalist struggles; for one thing, the fact that women were involved at all contributed to legitimizing nationalism as a communal, collective, unifying ideology. For another, no movement can endure without the sustenance of daily, mundane “support” activities. The provision of necessities such as food, medicine, and funds; and, on another level, the dissemination and use of information for intelligence and propaganda purposes, are not secondary. History’s gendered focus on the “main” struggle – armed battles and rebellions, confrontations between nationalist leaders and colonial powers, diplomatic and political maneuverings – obscures the urgent necessity of the work that takes place in what is perceived as the margins. It is perhaps only because the “marginal” work is performed by women that it is considered the footnote to the nationalist narrative rather than constituting the “real” work in and of itself. A history that expands the central narrative to incorporate the margins and that recasts these limited concepts would allow us to more fully recognize the complete contours of the nationalist narrative in all its richness and complexity.”

Clio says: this is what women’s history is all about – rethinking and expanding the central narrative to the point where the activities can be taken into account, and the criteria for value of "women's work" rethought.

Clio asks you: what aspect of history’s central narratives have you questioned lately?

Source: Ellen Fleischmann, “The Other ‘Awakening’: The Emergence of Women’s Movements in the Modern Middle East, 1900-1940,” in A Social History of Women & Gender in the Modern Middle East, ed. Margaret L. Meriwether & Judith E. Tucker (Westview, 1999), pp. 89-139; quotation pp.114-115.