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Women and Work... Yesterday and Today
email this pageprint this pageemail usGuillermo Ramón Adames y Suari - PVNN
October 25, 2010

Women have always worked, we cannot know what was done in the caverns but it seems difficult to think that they were treated as today’s “princesses”. Which were the tasks? We can only think of the closest to survival, whatever: from chasing to killing, to fighting, to cooking, to protecting their offspring, and even the community.

Social structure was not what it is today and the key word was “survival”. We don’t know more about their social structure altogether. When the social scheme became clearer, as of the 19th century, women's work was usually centered on the home, but romanticizing this role as the Domestic Sphere came in the late 19th century. The previous word “survival” had completely another meaning and it was (depending on the countries) income was provided by the man of the household.

In the early Americas and Independent Latin America, the work of a wife was often alongside her husband, running a household, farm or plantation. Cooking for the household took a major part of a woman's time. There were no ways of storing food. The sewing and repair of garments, spinning yarn, weaving cloth, also took much time. After the Industrial Revolution and into the early 19th century, higher expectations for educating the children fell, often, to the mother. Widows and the wives of men off to war(s) or traveling on business often ran large farms, plantations and “haciendas” pretty much as the sole managers. Despite the importance and the results, women were still considered not equal to men.

Religion, in almost all of its forms, was a man’s affair. Convents were for some category of women and religion outside of the Catholicism or Protestantism in its various forms was all that existed. Other great religions were not heard of: They were known of like Judaism, Muslims, Buddhism and Hinduism. The only other “manifestations” that existed were Indian religions that were almost assimilated as “witchery”. That was how religion was handled and it was handled by men.

Women worked as servants or slaves. Unmarried women, or divorced women without property, might work in another household, helping out with household chores of the wife of the household or substituting for the wife if there was not one in the family, particularly if somehow there were children. (Widows and widowers tended to remarry very quickly.) Emancipation of women came out of pure need: many of them, especially but not only widows, owned businesses or land. Women worked as apothecaries, barbers, blacksmiths, printers, tavern keepers and also the oldest job in the world. In here the word “survival” had now another meaning different from the meaning in the first paragraph of this article, and everybody fought for herself.

As the Industrial Revolution and factory labor took hold in the United States, more and more women went to work outside the home. Wages were definitely higher. By 1840, ten percent of women held jobs outside the household. Factory owners hired women and children when they could, because they could pay lower wages to women and children than to men altogether. For some tasks, like sewing, women had training and experience, and the jobs were "women's work." The sewing machine was not introduced into the factory system until the 1830s; before that, sewing was done by hand.

And what about today?

Women have broken through most barriers and you can find them all over, in all sorts of professions and at all sorts of levels: When I was completing my first MS in 1970 in the US, in a group of 18 students only two were girls and I must state both were extremely bright and very hard working. When I was completing my Ph.D. in 1982 in France, girls were more than half.

Professional wise, we have seen them taking more and more responsibilities and more and more power. There are even the Nordic societies in which the male parent takes leave in order to take care of the offspring instead of the wife.

What else has interfered with woman’s evolving life?

A factor that has shown inconformity with established rules is divorce. In the past centuries, marriage was “for the good or for the bad”. Today, many women won’t take the “bad part” at all: they even divorce on the grounds of non sexual compatibility. Just imagine a complaint like that in the Middle Ages. In some Latin American and African countries, marriage was the only way to leave the parent’s home. So girls got married and then divorced simply to gain their own freedom. Some other marriages were arranged (particularly in the Arab countries) and it became much easier to leave the husband than to leave the parents and all the family.

A new dimension is homosexuality. This has presented a totally new context. Homosexuality was seen in the past as something bad or devious. The law has changed to allow and protect a fact that many practice. Alternatively, there are societies that punish this practice with death. A recent sentence to life imprisonment in Britain for a Saudi prince indicated that his stay in Britain is “better” for him. He could face death sentence at home. Some women in power have openly admitted their homosexuality.

Society has turned in such a way in which everybody can do anything and nobody can say anything. Strictly nothing. If a person is hired for a job, he or she gets evaluated solely on performance. Any two words misinterpreted can lead to a sexual harassment legal affair on either sex. No compliments on dress or “ink” codes, on beauty or body fitness, or even on the color of hair: almost an inhuman relation. No jokes are admitted in any context. Some people address only in writing to their subordinates and human rights are evoked left right and center. In some instances, job even in same gender has become impossible. Even parents have problems with their children in this context: As a parent you must only support your children and shut up. Admit whatever. You cannot have your own rules at your own home: you get sued if not. And guess what, law is on their side.

Guillermo Ramón Adames y Suari is a former electoral officer of the United Nations Organization. Contact him at

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