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Working mum, the modern phenomenon that started in earnest in the 1970s – wrong! For the vast majority of human existence, working mothers have been the norm. Especially as up until recent times, the work that women do/ did in the home was not segregated from the concept of ‘work’. For most of human history, work was about survival and women’s contribution to that survival was of equal significance to that of men, and was nearly always done with children in tow!
Our egalitarian ancient ancestors
A recent study of contemporary hunter gatherer tribes, the ones that scientists have identified who still follow (fairly closely) our prehistoric ancestors’ way of living, indicates that men and women have equal influence on the important decisions impacting the group. As these tribes emulate what life would have been like for us all in our prehistoric past, then the findings challenge the idea that the notion of sexual equality is modern – rather it has been the norm for most of human evolutionary history. In fact, early human existence was probably more egalitarian than we have managed to achieve today.
If we look at human art, the oldest (so far) discovered carved figurine is of a female. It is the earliest ever representation of a human, and the oldest known example of figurative art. It was found in Germany and has been radio-carbon dated at between 35,000 and 40,000 years old. Also in a scientific analysis of the hands depicted in cave paintings, the indication is that 75% of them are of women’s hands. If art reflects culture, then in prehistoric culture, women appear to have a significant footprint – or should that be handprint.
Why did it change?
The current evidence suggests that the inequality between the sexes that still persists emerged when we moved from hunter gathering to farming – when people started to accumulate possessions – including specifically owned tribal land. This sowed the seeds of the inequality that continues for the majority of women in the world today.
For most of recorded history, agriculture was the chief human occupation and heavy physical labour was not confined to men. Women in today’s agrarian societies that have changed little since ancient times, still perform physically demanding jobs such as grinding grain by hand, drawing and carrying water and gathered wood (often over considerable distances), as well as churning milk to make butter. Toiling in the fields with primitive equipment is back breaking work, undertaken by both men and women, the women inevitably at some time in their lives, with babies strapped to their backs. In fact, a recent study conducted at Cambridge University on the bones of early Neolithic women (up to 7000 years old), strongly indicate that they were stronger than today’s elite women athletes and up to 30% stronger than the current average Cambridge student (which includes circa 52% men), this was as a result of their consistent, heavy manual work.
Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org 75% of these hands are women’s
Women’s roles in ancient civilizations
As more and more people left their nomadic life and became settled, we know from evolving archaeological information and the study of historical writings that across the globe, women in these emerging cultures played a variety of roles: artist, agriculturalist, nurse, healer, midwife, judge, priestess, weaver, queen, leader, merchant, labourer, warrior, holy woman, and more.
In the earliest civilisations (e.g. Sumer and Egypt), whilst women were not as equal as their hunter gatherer forebears, there were no legal restrictions on their economic activity, they could own property, run businesses, become priestesses, scribes, physicians and act as judges and witnesses in courts. However, as these and other cultures grew in wealth and power and as it became increasingly necessary to defend what they had – as they could no longer move on when challenged by a stronger tribe – strong warrior/ patriarchal societies formed, which over time, eroded the rights of women. By the time of classical Greece and Rome in Western history, women had become second class citizens and the chattels of the men in their lives. However, women from the lower orders still needed to work hard, both inside and outside the home, also; at least half of the slaves that worked in the better off households were women, often mothers.
Women in Europe in the Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages in Europe, women spun wool, cooked and cleaned, washed clothes, baked bread, milked cows, fed animals, brewed beer and collected firewood. At that time many women were spinners, brewers, jewellers, parchment makers and glovers. In rural communities, women worked alongside their men in the fields, and in towns they helped their husbands in their businesses. Often if a man died, his widow would carry on his trade and noble women managed their husband’s estates during their absences, including defending their castles, manors and landholdings when under threat.
The Industrial Revolution and beyond
It was the Industrial Revolution that changed work in the UK and ultimately the rest of the world, forever. The home had been the centre of work, production and family life; industrialisation meant that work moved from home to factory. The role of women did not change overnight however, records suggest that women’s employment in the 1850s, 60s and 70s was higher than any recorded again until after World War II. Evidence suggests that 30 to 40 per cent of women from working class families, made a significant financial contribution to household income, at that time. This was before State and Trade Union rules were brought in to regulate female labour, ultimately creating the ideal of the male ‘breadwinner’; a concept that persisted well into the 20th century.
It was social and economic developments that precipitated the change in women’s work that we see today. The growth of education increased the demand for more teachers and the need for more office workers and salespeople (particularly in retail) was growing, providing more opportunities for women, especially as they could legally be hired on lower salaries than men. However, for married women many of these roles were unavailable, as numerous employers maintained a legal marriage bar (a ban on working after marriage), especially in ‘white collar’ work. Even after national emergencies such as the World Wars, when women took on manufacturing and agricultural jobs to replace men on military service, women were ultimately forced back to housekeeping or what were considered traditionally female roles.
Significant change did not happen again until the 1970s when a surge in married women entering the workforce occurred and is still on going. Today, the equality landscape is so different to what our mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers experienced; however, we clearly have a long way to go before we get back to what scientists believe, was the equality experienced by our prehistoric ancestors.