Women’s work

A few months ago I read a fascinating book, Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (that’s right, it’s rigorous enough to need two subtitles!). She traces the history of textile production — perhaps the quintessential women’s work — from the Paleolithic through to the end of the Iron Age, drawing on archaeological evidence as well as written records and even artwork. It’s well worth a read if you have any interest in spinning, sewing, weaving, or their related arts and crafts… or in how to tease out historical accounts from activities like these that are often very marginal to official records, for that matter. It’s a dense read, but an excellent one.

Something that really jumped out at me, however, comes from the introductory chapter, where Wayland Barber asks what it is about these activities that makes them traditionally “women’s work”? She quotes from Judith Brown’s 1969 article, “A Note on the Division of Labor by Sex” in her explanation:

Twenty years ago Judith Brown wrote a little five-page “Note on the Division of Labor by Sex” that holds a simple key to these questions. She was interested in how much women contributed to obtaining the food for a preindustrial community. But in answering that question, she came upon a model of much wider applicability. She found that the issue of whether or not the community relies upon women as the chief providers of a given type of labor depends upon “the compatibility of this pursuit with the demands of child care.” If only because of the exigencies of breast feeding (which until recently was typically continued for two or three years per child), “nowhere in the world is the rearing of children primarily the responsibility of men….” Thus, if the productive labor of women is not to be lost to the society during the childbearing years, the jobs regularly assigned to women must be carefully chosen to be “compatible with simultaneous child watching.” From empirical observation Brown gleans that “such activities have the following characteristics: they do not require rapt concentration and are relatively dull and repetitive; they are easily interruptable and easily resumed once interrupted; they do not place the child in potential danger; and they do not require the participant to range very far from home.

Just such are the crafts of spinning, weaving, and sewing: repetitive, easy to pick up at any point, reasonably child-safe, and easily done at home. (Contrast the idea of swinging a pick in a dark, cramped, and dusty mine shaft with a baby on one’s back or being interrupted by a child’s crisis while trying to pour molten metal into a set of molds.) The only other occupation that fits the criteria even half so well is that of preparing the daily food. Food and clothing: These are what societies worldwide have come to see as the core of women’s work (although other tasks may be added to the load, depending on the circumstances of the particular society).

Readers of this book live in a different world. The Industrial Revolution has moved basic textile work out of the home and into large (inherently dangerous) factories; we buy our clothing ready-made. It is a rare person in our cities who has ever spun thread or woven cloth, although a quick look into a fabric store will show that many women still sew. As a result, most of us are unaware of how time-consuming the task of making the cloth for a family used to be.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, pp. 29-30

This jumped out at me because it makes an intuitive sense, and accurately reflects my own stage of life. Women bear and birth children; until very recently on the scale of human existence, only women could feed the youngest members of the species. Women have not traditionally been the cooks and gardeners and sewists and spinners because of an inherent aptitude for that work or an inability to perform other tasks, but because of the biological realities and demands of mothering.

Everything I do at home is mediated by those same concerns and responsibilities. I have three children under seven, one of whom is still nursing; all of my daily tasks have to be fit into the day around breastfeeding, diaper changes, naps, home schooling, squabble mediating, disciplining, reading and playing, and of course the constant, unending cycle of making food, serving food, and cleaning up after having food. I spend 14-18 hours a week putting children to bed. My cumulative breastfeeding time is now up to 4.5 years (and counting!). And so it makes sense that my hobbies are things that fit around these things: reading, writing, sewing, embroidery, crochet. They’re the kind of thing that I can pick up and put down as needed, that can be left on top of the piano for a week before being picked up again, that don’t take more thought or attention than I can easily spare.

And they’re slow. Handiwork takes time: even a small baby blanket can easily take a dozen hours or more to crochet, depending on the yarn weight and pattern. It takes many evenings of work to finish a piece. I don’t mind, really. The time it takes to make something sends its own message to the recipient: that I value them enough to spend my time in order that they would be warm, or that their clothes would be mended, or that their house would be beautiful. And while I’m very glad that I don’t have to make all of our family’s clothes by hand, or spin my own thread and yarn before I can use them, I love being able to feel myself a part of this great historical chain of women working with our hands to make, mend, and care. Women’s work is good work; here’s to twenty thousand more years.