It is a feminist truism that women have always worked. By work is not meant so much the routine tasks of the household—the storage and preparation of food, the making and cleaning of clothing, and the household chores of sweeping, cleaning, and tending children—but the degraded and degrading concept of work as a job for which one is paid or even something one would not do except for money. Without accepting all the baggage that the modern use of the word “work” carries with it, we can certainly agree that in most societies some women have worked for money, sometimes outside the home. A few obvious distinctions, however, have to be made.
The first distinction is between ordinary and extraordinary practices. The fact that Mary and Elizabeth Tudor became Queens of England, for example, should not be used to suggest that 16th century English women routinely held political power, any more than the occasional woman artist in the Italian Renaissance would indicate that an average woman could expect to enter the technical professions. The human race is a strange and varied species. The mere existence of mathematical geniuses and psychopathic killers says little about the expectations of ordinary people.
A second distinction, one that overlaps the first, is between work that is done willingly and that which is done out of necessity. Impoverished women (and children) in 19th century England and New England worked long hours in factories, but it would be a bit much to expect such women to continue with such jobs if they married a husband who was capable of supporting them.
We are then left with ordinary work that women expected to undertake without resentment, and even here, a distinction can be made between work done by wives and mothers who had to work a full day, six days a week at least, taking care of the house and their children and work done by women who had not yet married or would never marry. While some women might choose the single state, others were forced into celibacy by economic circumstances or family pressures. Customs varied from place to place, time to time, and class to class. In some parts of rural Italy, early marriage was facilitated by the custom of co-residence with the husband’s family. In cities where a significant dowry was demanded, parents with many daughters might not be able to marry off all of them. In late Medieval/early Renaissance Florence, girls from well-to-do families entered convents, while poorer girls entered domestic service. Mutatis mutandis, poverty, dowries, and custom have in many societies resulted in delayed marriages, working spinsters, and celibacy.
There were more than a few servant girls in Florence, who did eventually get married, with or without assistance from their employers, and some of them, in doing their work, were able to pick up enough pin money to make their future marital state more comfortable. But while such work may have been done with a willing heart, there is little evidence to indicate that unmarried women did not prefer to stay home where they were protected by their menfolk. Necessity and necessity alone drove women into the workforce, and this is true even in the gentile class of England that did not attach too much disgrace to a young woman getting a post as governor. In the best circumstances, the governess was treated like a poor relation. When convenient she dined with the family and was treated with respect by everyone. They were not servants and may even have enjoyed the job. However, I know of no case of a rich young girl who voluntarily went out to work as a governess.
Married women never worked outside the home except under dire necessity. If the husband had a trade or shop, his wife might be expected to assist him, and if he died she might, if it was practicable, carry on the business either by herself or with a new husband. Among the poorer classes, she might take in piece-work or laundry or rent rooms in her house, but, if she had to work, she wanted to do it at home.
By the 18th century at least, some middle class women were pursuing professional interests as musicians, painters, or, especially as writers like Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Joanna Bailey, Jane Austen, and then the Brontes. The lady writer became one of the plagues of the 19th century–Poe had lots of fun tearing the works of Mrs. Sigourney and other female frauds to pieces. This aversion is permanently enshrined by the Mikado: “that singular anomaly, the lady novelist, I’m sure she won’t be missed.” Nonetheless, well-read and well-bred women of talent contributed greatly to English literature either out of the desire to do something good or, in many cases, because (like the Brontes or Trollope’s mother) they needed the money. But, and here is the point, they did not leave their families and enter the workforce.
In sum, the feminist truism is basically as false as most aspects of feminism. When women did hard work outside the home, it was because they had to. They were the victims either of some terrible economic decline or of liberal capitalism’s destruction of the social networks of Christendom. Many women who do servile and menial work today are in even worse condition, because they have internalized their servitude and are proud of clerking in a store or teaching violent hooligans in a public school. Yes, it has become much harder for a middle-class man to take care of his wife and children, and I do not at all dismiss the claims of economic hardship, but the first step toward sanity is to recognize that for a woman to do all but the highest work–as physician, scientist, scholar, poet–outside the context of the family is outside the norms of human history and to be permitted only in case of necessity. I am not talking about “turning back the clock” but of acknowledging the claims of reality–biological, historical, and moral.