Women at Work I

  • Wendy Gibson


That a woman should earn her keep by homemaking, as had countless generations of her sex, seemed as natural in the seventeenth century as that she should wear skirts and bear children. Expertise in housewifery, ‘la plus utile et honorable science et occupation de la femme’,1 was the cornerstone of her education, and those with loftier aspirations were rapidly recalled to ‘leurs aiguilles et leurs laines’.2 However this Golden Age vision of the female, seated at the hearth tranquilly plying needle or distaff while her menfolk ventured into the outside world to procure the family’s sustenance, glossed over certain harsh realities. Not every woman had a man to help support her. A substantial number of the population were widowed in their prime and urged by public opinion to remain so. Economic necessity, unwillingness to relinquish a husband’s flourishing enterprise, concern to avoid an idleness propitious to the invasion of painful memories, might well induce a woman in this position to undertake some outside work or business. In the case of spinsters who had no private income starvation was the simple alternative to obtaining paid employment. Even married women, who seemed the best placed of the three groups, were often driven for reasons of finance or prestige to occupy themselves with other than strictly domestic chores, though these, when done conscientiously, were apt to provide more than sufficient occupation for both body and mind.


Seventeenth Century Domestic Chore Countless Generation Customary Journey Master Tailor 
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Copyright information

© Wendy Gibson 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Wendy Gibson
    • 1
  1. 1.University of ReadingUK

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