The History of Women and Work Part Two

The History of Women and Work Part Two - Visionary Womanhood

In Women and Work Part One we talked about women in ancient times, including the Proverbs 31 woman, as well as women in New Testament times. Today we will look at women and work from the time of the Reformation forward. Quotes are all take from The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective of Women, Work, and the Home, by Carolyn McCulley. I recommend that you get her book to read about this history in greater detail. I also recommend her book in Is Your Role “Full-Time-Playmate-for-Little-Kids” as well as my post on Mommy Guilt.

Reformation of Vocation

Martin Luther and his wife, Kate, came out of the monastery, married, and set up a home economy that encompassed vocation, ministry, and family in one beautiful package that ultimately became known as “the Protestant work ethic.”

This was revolutionary at the time because it was believed that to truly be spiritual one had to renounce the world, go into isolation and deprivation, and just focus on spiritual things. Luther set out to change that way of thinking:

“Luther understood vocation to mean multiple realms of service. The work of family, in Luther’s view, not only included marriage and children, but also the labor by which households make their livings.”

“By affirming the daily labors of men and women outside of the church, Luther inspired men and women alike to engage in trade, develop their own enterprises, and work hard for the benefit of strangers. This idea inspired the rise of capitalism and the economic gains that would follow in subsequent eras.”

His wife, Kate, lived out this thinking in a remarkable way:

“A careful and resourceful administrator, Kate used all her talents to make the Luther home self-supporting. Soon the Black Cloister became known as Lutherhaus. Kate became gardener, fisher, brewer, fruit grower, cattle and horse breeder, cook, beekeeper, provisioner, nurse, and vintner. She kept on hand an ample supply of the vegetables and flowers that Luther loved. Trout, perch, and pike graced their table, and brews appeared for her thirsty husband and their guests. Pears, apples, peaches, grapes, and nuts were cultivated, and Kate carefully tended chickens, geese, pigs, cows, and work and riding horses. She gathered a ready supply of food to be salted for the winter months when fresh food would not be readily available. Impetus for Kate’s determination to get Lutherhaus in shape and make it self-sustaining was the arrival of guests from all over the world. Displaced scholars, students, refugees, escaped nuns and monks, and several members of Luther’s family found their way to Wittenberg. Thus the Luther residence became a hotel.”

Another woman who lived this out by managing a large property and household was Sarah Edwards.

“The land had to provide for their own consumption, as well as for the numerous guests who always turned up for Sarah’s legendary hospitality. Like the Lutherhaus before them, the Edwards’ home attracted many young men who wanted to learn from Jonathan in person. Their guests were part of the family business , so to speak, but their presence required more than extra food. Sarah also had to make the household soap, candles, and homegrown wool for clothing and bedding. All this she did with a preoccupied husband who often skipped meals because he was too deep in his studies. Sarah’s household administration enabled her husband to spend thirteen hours a day in his study 12 —creating a rich legacy of ideas for the culture of the time and the believers who came after him.”

Several years ago I read a life changing, paradigm-shifting book by Nancy Pearcey called Total Truth. McCulley includes a quote from that book here:

“…fathers and mothers alike merged their work and childrearing responsibilities into the daily activities of that time. Fathers trained their children to work alongside them and they were quite involved as parents: Being a father was not a separate activity to come home to after a day at work; rather, it was an integral part of a man’s daily routine. Historical records reveal that colonial literature on parenting— like sermons and child-rearing manuals—were not addressed to mothers, as the majority are today. Instead, they were typically addressed to fathers. Fathers were considered the primary parent, and were held to be particularly important in their children’s religious and intellectual training.

There was also no thought at this time that the home was a separate sphere from “real” life. The home was the economic base of the local community, and the local community flowed in and out of the home: Work was not done by lone individuals but by families or households. A household was a relatively autonomous economic unit often including members of the extended family, apprentices, servants, and hired hands. Stores, offices, and workshops were located in a front room, with living quarters either upstairs or in the rear. This meant that the boundary between home and world was highly permeable: The “world” entered continually in the form of clients, business colleagues, customers, and apprentices.”

The Industrial Revolution

In the late 1700’s the first industrial mill opened and started a revolution that would change the world and the way we view family and work.

“For the first time in history, work was being done on a mass scale outside of the home or family business. As more men were hired to work in factories and offices and encouraged to be competitive in the world of manufacturing and business, women promoted the “haven of home” as a counter-balance. This is when the idea of “separate spheres” arose, appointing women to the domestic sphere and the cultivation of virtues private and public and men to the public sphere as wage-earners. Thus, as the workplace became increasingly mechanized and impersonal, the home became the focus for the intangible qualities that improved society. This time period, spanning roughly 1830 to 1850, became known as the Golden Age of Domesticity.

During this time many women rose to the surface to play influential roles in history:

  • Missions:  Ann Judson, Ellen Stetson, Betsey Stockton
  • Writing: Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin)
  • Health: Dorothea Dix, Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, Elizabeth Blackwell
  • Music: Fanny Crosby

Because the ideal standard for women at the time was that they showcase their homes and their wealth, a British minister wrote this to encourage those women who could not afford this type of lifestyle:

“You should never allow yourselves for a moment to imagine that there is anything dishonorable or degrading in your being compelled to leave home and to support yourself, either as a governess, shopwoman, or servant. Those who have been in better circumstances are, of course, most apt to feel this. . . . Industry is far more honorable than wealthy indolence; and she who willingly, honestly, and cheerfully earns her own support, when Providence has deprived her of her patrimony, is far more to be admired than she would have been had she throughout life rolled in her father’s affluence, and been surrounded by every luxury.”

Social Darwinism

In 1859 Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution which also impacted women in major ways. Here’s another quote from Total Truth:

“Beginning with the assumption that men are superior to women, Social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer sought to explain why men had evolved faster. They proposed that, from their brute beginnings, males fought for survival out in the world and were thus subject to natural selection, a process that weeds out the weak and inferior. Women, at home nurturing the young, were out of reach of natural selection and hence evolved more slowly. What is significant is the contempt Social Darwinists expressed for both women’s character and women’s environment (i.e., the home). Home life was denounced as a drag on  evolutionary development.”

Twenty years into the 20th century a new family structure emerged where the dad went to work, the mom stayed home, and the kids all went to school.

One reason for this was that families could afford this structure— men’s wages rose dramatically in the unprecedented prosperity of the 1920s. Another reason was that job segregation and pay discrimination against women had actually increased during the first four decades of the twentieth century.

Then came the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression of the 1930s. The economic fallout was staggering across North America and Europe. In desperation, married women took any job they could find. Though less than six percent of American  wives worked outside the home in 1900, by the mid-1930s that figure had more than doubled.

But married or single, women faced great hostility if they held jobs during the Depression. So many people were struggling financially that a working woman was seen as stealing a job from a man and undermining his ability to provide for his family. That attitude was so prevalent that by 1932, the U.S. Economy Act prohibited the federal government from employing two people from the same family and 26 states had passed legislation prohibiting married women from holding any jobs at all, including teaching.

After two World Wars, things picked up where the roaring 20s left off, and the home became a place for consumption rather than productivity that resulted in income. This created new challenges for women.

Though it was good that new occupations had opened for women outside of the home, now they had to figure out how to rear a family and provide for themselves while working in different locations. Second, in the process of demeaning domesticity, the culture neglects to validate the significance of the work done in the home to care for others.

Women and Work Today

The private sphere remains a place where unpaid work has eternal merit. In accepting the culture of consumerism, homes become a monument to personal style and taste, rather than places of service to others. These days the “new domesticity ” popularized on blogs and social media sites is wildly popular; and it brings with it the same aspirations about productivity idealized in those glossy ads of the 1950s. It sells a lifestyle. Now Nora and I confess a certain weakness ourselves for being domestic divas— aprons and all— but we don’t believe it ends with a fabulous meal. It’s about feeding souls, providing a refuge for the weary, and living generously. Women like Sarah Edwards and Kate Luther understood this. They knew that work has a bigger scope. It wasn’t just about their efficiency or effectiveness on the job; sometimes it was about making others a success too.

Isn’t that beautiful? I hope to talk more about this and how it relates to our working, homemaking, and parenting next time.

Natalie Klejwa is a Wemmick, loved by the Woodcarver, wife of 22 years to Joe, and mother to 9 Wemmicks ages 2-20. She is a business owner (Apple Valley Natural Soap), founder and administrator of the Visionary Womanhood blog, publisher and contributing author of Three Decades of Fertility, You Can Do it Too! 25 Families Share Their Stories, and The Heart of Simplicity: Foundations for Christian Homemaking.

You can hear her being interviewed on Kevin Swanson's Generations with Vision radio program.

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9 thoughts on “The History of Women and Work Part Two

  1. While I don’t think it harms the main point any, the whole “social darwinism” thing that people keep hanging around Herbert Spencer’s neck seems not to be true. He never used the term, nor advocated anything like it. It doesn’t even seem to exist as a right-wing (or any other) ideology. It’s just too good-sounding to not use if it seems to back up a point, I guess. Certainly never would have expected to find it in this context, though, since it’s pretty much always used as a smear against capitalism. Interesting to find it in this context. Normally, I wouldn’t say anything, since everything surrounding it is still quite right, but I just happened to be reading Jonah Goldberg’s Tyranny of Cliches last night and was on the chapter about Social Darwinism. Funny old world.

  2. I loved the history lesson! Many thoughts come to mind, but one in particular is this: It seems that many women of history had a bit more help that today’s moms. They did more, but they also had help. Children spent more time working alongside their fathers- WOW… Extended family? A servant maybe? All of these things change family life significantly!

    Our family is currently ( seriously) considering a move on to some property right next to my parents. I have struggled with wondering if this is too much family togetherness, and yet a part of me also feels like this is more typical of the way life used to be…. Everyone sharing the load a bit more. The older helping the younger, and vice versa…. Modern moms are burned out partially for a lack of help.

    • Yes – very good points. And you’ll have to let us know what you end up deciding. Would your parents be excited about helping and being close? Some parents would welcome that – others, not so much. What a tremendous blessing if you had parents who wanted to work together with you.

  3. We must be careful, however, not to think that Mrs. Luther and Mrs. Edwards were superwomen who did it ALL. On the contrary, they had a lot of HELP. I’ve known too many families, especially with many small children, who tried to do the homesteader thing and failed miserably, wasting a lot of time and money on something which was, frankly, impossible.

    We have to live in the time and economy we are born in. Finding creative ways to contribute to the family income may have to come in more creative forms today than raising animals and nurturing orchards. It may be simply in working hard at SAVING money instead of MAKING money. Making do and doing without are still worthwhile endeavors for the modern SAHM just as it was for our foremothers of the Great Depression.

    Great articles. Pleeeeeaaaase, write more! :)