Why ‘Women Used To Stay at Home’ Is Such a Popular Lie Nowadays
Or: the forgotten history of women’s contributions to our world
Back in the good old days, women didn’t have to leave the cosy confines of their homes and put on their Big Girl shoes to hustle and grind.
Or at least that’s what we have long believed.
And some still do.
The myth that women used to stay home and didn’t have to work ‘back then’ is particularly popular among the red-pilled, conservative and ultra-religious communities today and is sometimes even used as a counter-argument against the liberation of women since the 60s.
If it wasn’t for all that ‘women and men are equal’ nonsense, the logic goes, we’d still be able to spend our days twirling hair, eating pastries, swooning on a sofa, and just enjoying domestic bliss. (And no rights.)
But calling it a ‘myth’ might be a tad too generous.
It’s more of a lie, really.
And a big part of why it persists is that women’s contributions to our world, from ancient times up until the 20th century, are largely forgotten, ignored or considered less important than those of men. Because it’s men who built the world. And it’s men who were always the providers and workers and innovators and thinkers.
And yet, if it weren’t for centuries of women’s hard work and specialisation in certain fields, we would have never… gone to the moon.
But before we get to that, let’s go a bit further back in time.
‘A woman’s work is never done’
Although throughout most of the last 12,000 years — following the start of the Agricultural Revolution — farming was the chief human occupation among both men and women, labour was, to some extent, gendered.
Textiles, apparel, tapestry, dairy, brewing, baking, food preparation and distribution are some of the industries that historically have been dominated by women, some of them since ancient times.
In the feudal period, men more frequently worked in the fields, while women, especially married women with children, tended livestock, their children, their farms, their homes, and their family businesses. They also often worked in vital cottage industries: they manufactured textiles, milled grain, brewed beer, baked bread, churned milk and made cheese, many of which are quite physically demanding activities.
On top of balancing all these tasks, during harvest, women worked in the fields, too. And generally, any respite would occur only when a woman gave birth.
As one old English poem made this point plain, ‘Man may work from sun to sun, but woman’s work is never done.’
Some women also engaged in various urban professions, including those we think of as more typically ‘male.’ Estimates vary depending on location, but between one-third and almost half of merchants in European urban areas were female. (Usually widowed). Several sources also record women employed on construction sites, dating back as early as the 13th century.
Still, women’s work was often under-compensated, with some records showing them earning around three-quarters of what men made. Thanks to the cross-cultural ideas of female inferiority, women were also limited to what they could do, largely excluded from schools and withheld from many positions available to their male counterparts, especially those of power.
Some (lucky) women managed to bypass that raging misogyny by skipping marriage and opting for life in a nunnery, once described by historian Joshua J. Mark as ‘a refuge of female intellectuals.’
One such woman, a 12th-century German abbess Hildegard de Bingen, is responsible for the earliest surviving writings on the use of preservative properties of hops in beer. She also wrote books identifying hundreds of herbs and listing remedies for dozens of illnesses, some still considered valid by physicians today.
All around the world, and often despite the constraints imposed by societies they lived in, women championed educational and cultural efforts and helped lay the groundwork for the Industrial Era.
It was an Arab woman who started the first university — the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco. And a Japanese woman who wrote the first-ever novel, The Tale of Genji. And there were likely many others just like them who sadly sunk into obscurity since, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, ‘for most of history, Anonymous was a woman.’
But then, men fell in love with the machines, and things temporarily seemed to have taken a different turn.
The illusion of the ‘angel in the house’
Not long after industrialisation began in the mid-to-late 18th century, English poet Coventry Patmore published his immensely popular — on both sides of the Atlantic — poem The Angel in the House.
Inspired by his wife, Emily, it essentially dictated all that a man should expect from his wife — docility, devotion, and complete submission. It also advocated for ‘separate spheres’ for men and women. One gets the ‘real world’, and the other the ‘domestic bliss,’ which came to form the Victorian ideal of marriage.
But while some middle- and upper-class women entered the era trapped as domestic angels, men entered it with a renewed interest in… cheese. And textiles. And gradually, the production of foodstuffs, textiles and other goods moved off of the farms and into inner-city factories.
As that huge shift was happening, women’s guilds were disintegrating, and regulations were put in place that outlawed women’s participation in lucrative fields. Still, women continued to work in many of the domains that were historically female-dominated, but factories, patents for manufacturing processes and equipment were all owned by men. (Women had no legal existence back then, after all.)
Katherine Marçal talks about this unfavourable change in her latest book, The Mother of Invention:
While the men got to learn about the technology, the women got to make cheese. Who came out better economically from this division isn’t too hard to guess.
But even though there was indeed this idea of the ‘angel in the house,’ hardly any working class, immigrant or otherwise marginalised women could afford the privilege of cosplaying as some middle class Victorian man’s idea of a wife. They had to work, or their families would starve.
According to researcher Amanda Wilkinson’s analysis of census data in England and Wales in the 19th century, many married women worked during that period. And they worked hard — on average 12–15 hours a day, every day, and not just in what we might consider ‘normal’ women’s jobs such as domestic service, charwoman, laundress or shirt-maker. Sometimes, they were also the main breadwinners in their household.
This is something that American researcher Claudia Golbin, the third female winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, uncovered in her work as well. Although in the US at the time married women’s occupation was frequently listed in the census as just ‘wife’, they still often worked in agriculture and other family businesses, albeit less than they did before the industrialisation took place.
But as we entered the 20th century, women’s participation in the workforce started to pick up and go back to pre-industrial times. And even at the peak of the 1950s ‘happy housewife’ propaganda following the end of the Second World War, plenty of women worked.
In 1953, 30% of American housewives worked part or full-time, and by 1957, 22 million women had full-time employment — most of them while being married at the same time.
A similar situation took place in the UK as well.
If it weren’t for women’s work, we wouldn’t be where we are today
There was never a time when women didn’t work.
The ‘traditional’ role of woman as the housewife, whose chief pursuits are motherhood and domesticity, and man as the ‘good provider’ who brings home the bacon at the end of the day was only ever an illusion created by the Victorian middle classes and then pushed by the strange world of 1950s Western advertising complex.
Besides, the period where some women — mostly wealthy, mostly white, mostly just in the West — indeed dropped out of the workforce, starting around the industrial era up until the mid-20th century, is ridiculously short compared to all the centuries where women worked alongside men. That can hardly count as the norm. It’s just an exception.
The idea that women used to stay home while men worked is just another patriarchal fantasy. And so is the belief that we only have men to thank for the world around us.
You don’t get to claim you won the race after you shot the other contestant in the feet before it started, and then even when they managed to crawl to the finish line, you pretend it never happened.
Because despite being historically excluded from several professions and most systems of education, women managed to contribute their share to the world we live in today, largely thanks to relying on the so-called ‘traditional knowledge’ — passing down valuable information and skills from mother to daughter and then again and again.
That’s why when NASA needed a lunar spacesuit for the Apollo astronauts, they turned to female seamstresses who sewed girdles and bras for Playtex. And it’s their expertise and centuries of perfecting the technology of the needle and thread that made reaching the moon possible. (Not to mention all the other women who made it possible, too.)
That’s also why so many male chefs and restaurateurs and fashion designers say their work is ‘inspired’ by their mothers, aunts or grandmothers.
But we don’t ever truly acknowledge how much women really contributed to this world.
And it’s not just the fault of history books and studies that were, and to some extent still are, written by men, about men, and for men.
It’s also because we tend to think of all those ‘womanly’ fields, which are often ruled by men today, as something that doesn’t require much expertise and that comes ‘naturally’ to women. Something that we’re practically born knowing. And, by extension, something that isn’t labour at all. Just like all the domestic duties.
But it is. All of it is labour.
And it’s about time it was recognised as such and valued accordingly.
A ‘working woman’ is hardly a modern invention.
Women’s labour was always, and still is, central to the family and the economy as a whole, and women have contributed a great amount of knowledge, discovery, and talent in so many fields throughout history.
Unfortunately, these contributions were erased, forgotten or appropriated, which, together with the belief that a woman’s place is in the home, gave rise to the misconception that women just used to gallivant around their homes and bake cookies all day.
But we really didn’t.