CLIO TALKS BACK: What is women’s work?

What is “women’s work”? Is it primarily mothering and housework, as some would still have us think?

Let’s look at the impact of industrialization. How many of you out there are aware that the work of women is central to what we understand as the “industrial revolution”? How many people know that as textile production (spinning and weaving) was first mechanized in early 19th century Europe, that women were eagerly sought after as employees in textile mills and became the most visible, and the most criticized of industrial employees (because their labor was cheap and their presence in the workforce highly visible).

How many of you appreciate that the beginnings of the industrial production of foodstuffs, of industrial canning, for example, dramatically changed what women had to do in households. How many people realize that this process is still going on – as, for example, in rural Mexico and other parts of the countryside in Latin America, where the traditional grinding of corn by hand on the metate is being superceded by the advent of the electrical grinder or mill? How many other forms of “women’s work” around the world – hauling water, hauling wood or brush for fires, etc., tending poultry, growing fruits and vegetables – are being altered irrevocably by electric power and mechanical devices, not to mention running water? What forms of work replace these customary, age-old women’s chores?

What difference did it make in these chores if a woman were born poor or rich? What if a woman was a servant – or a slave? Or a queen? What if she had children? Or, what if she had none? What have women gained from this process of economic transformation? What have women lost?

Women have always “worked”; the question is what value has been placed on their contributions, and who decides what that value is. And how does it change over time?