Women’s Work, Yesterday and Today, part one.

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed for the University of Warwick knowledge portal about the Women’s History Networks forthcoming conference, ‘Performing the Self: Women’s Lives in Historical Perspective’. You can read the outcome of the interview here, but I thought I would post the questions and answers I gave here in full. It’s a bit on the long-side, so this is part one!

We would be looking to explicate what is mean by the conference theme:  ‘The economics of selfhood: work and identity’.

Could you flesh out what this means and how the theme will be explored at the conference?  

Well, the trick to a good conference theme should be to stimulate ideas and to generate discussion, so I hope that our delegates interpret this theme broadly and in more ways that I personally can imagine. But, I would interpret this theme in a couple of overlapping ways. First, it is difficult to get away from the idea in the modern economy that the presentation or performance of self is closely implicated in consumption. Shopping is not (just) about necessity, but says something about you as an individual. Your purchases highlight your social class, income, ethnic background, religion, and more personal identifiers like taste in music, fashion, make-up, and other hobbies. Purchases identify certain people as part of particular sub-cultures, for example Goths, surfers, or environmentalists.

Similarly, your occupational status can be central to your sense of identity and to how you perform self. It can effect consumption. What people wear can be determined by formal rules and regulations set by employers, by informal dress cultures in the workplace, a need to assert authority or by a desire to resist both rule and tradition. What you purchase- whether you bring your own lunch to work or eat organic veg, whether you exercise every night or not at all, can be influenced by your work culture and your need to conform (or not).  An occupation can mean more than just fitting in to your work environment. It is often one of the central terms that people use in modern Britain to render themselves identifiable- after your name, ‘what do you do?’ is usually the first question asked on being introduced to a new person. And, this can be problematic when you feel that your occupational identity is misaligned with your sense of self- so that the degree-educated shelf-stacker in your local supermarket may feel a need to introduce herself as ‘I work in Sainsburys, but am really a historian’.

This has a historical dimension, from medieval sumptuary laws which made it illegal to dress above your social station, to the history of mass production and consumption from the eighteenth century onwards, where the ability to purchase certain goods created social status, self has always had an economic dimension. Women have been seen to be a central part of this story. In the 1930s, for example, the disposable income of young single working-women is seen to have had a rejuvenating and transformational effect on the British economy, creating a demand for new fashion, magazines, beauty products and more. At the same time, the relationship between women and economic identity has been problematic since at least the eighteenth century and the drive to push women into the (newly-imagined) ‘non-economic’ sphere of the home. These competing imaginaries mean that the history of female identity and work is full of tensions and interesting dimensions that continue to have resonance into the present day- and will hopefully be explored in productive ways at the conference.

Women are continually making progress gaining more ground in the world of work, moving towards the ideal of equal rights.  However in the UK there is still a discrepancy between men and women in terms of pay, promotion and being poorly represented in some professions.  

From a historical perspective do you think women’s relationship with work has been accurately portrayed?

I guess the question here is ‘by who’? Historians have spent the last forty years- perhaps almost 80 years if we go back to the early women’s historians like Alice Clark and Ivy Pinchbeck- highlighting the complexities and continuities of women’s work. We have shown that there is no simplistic story of ‘progress’ or women emerging from the home with the second wave feminist movement and into the workplace. We have highlighted that the economic contribution of women to the household economy has been vital at all social levels- whether that is the working class women who went out to work in factories, the domestic servants who freed up men and women from food production and menial labour to enable the industrial revolution, the middle-class women who acted as scribes, secretaries, financiers and business managers in their ‘husband’s’ business, or the rural women who worked on the farm. We have also pointed out that the imagining of the household as the non-economic sphere was a product of Enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith in the eighteenth century, and was reinforced by Karl Marx, who only classed work that produced goods as ‘economic’ and failed to think about who was producing the workers, rather than a ‘natural’ division of labour, or even a ‘natural’ way of envisioning the economy (and a model that becomes fabulously problematic in the modern ‘service-based’ economy- where we produce very similar services to those produced by women in the home- and no goods at all!) This vision of the economy wouldn’t have been possible a hundred years earlier, when the vast majority of work- by men and women- continued to be centred on the household. 

And, I think some of that has filtered through, in that documentaries or popular history often make a token nod to the fact that women’s work, and especially that of working-class women, has not been a simple story of women moving from the home to the workplace in the last few decades. Yet, it is amazing how we can nod our heads at history, but continue to fail to apply the implications of that history into our social commentary, our politics, our economic theory and our ways of thinking about gender. It’s especially tedious when people make calls for women to ‘stop working’, or moan about paying maternity leave as it discourages employers from employing women- which fails to both understand the history of women’s work in and outside of the home, and the nature of the modern economy, where almost 50% of the workforce is female (in Scotland, it is 50%) and where if women- or even mothers- ‘returned home’ our economy would collapse.   

Tune in on Wednesday for part two!

Katie Barclay is a historian of marriage at the University of Warwick. She is currently off researching in Irish archives and hopes to bring you more historical fare in the near future.

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