It's college graduation season, and you may well be wondering about what to do with your life now that you've earned your degree. (Gong back into academia to avoid the "real world" is not a solution. I have a PhD; trust me, I know.) While you're pondering your professional future, you may want to take encouragement from the past — or, more specifically, a few awesome professions for women from the past that no longer exist. Jobs like fighting in the ancient Japanese army, ruling the roost in ancient Roman religious life, or swearing like sailors on the Stockholm river.
So if these jobs are so cool, why do they no longer exist? Some professions for women that have died out are a result of advancing technologies, or higher health and safety standards; there's not a high demand these days for being the girl shot out of a cannon by a circus, perhaps. Others, however, have merely disappeared with the civilizations that created them, and would no longer make sense in the modern world.
But while "wise woman" or "female samurai" aren't exactly careers you can find on LinkedIn right now, they're jobs that, at one point, smart, adventurous, ambitious, or otherwise unusual women sought out — women who can provide some inspiration as you embark (and embark, and embark) on your own search for a great job.
When it comes to devoting yourself to the religious life and forsaking marriage, nobody did it with more flair than the Roman vestal virgins. Women of excellent birth devoted to tending the sacred flame of Vesta, goddess of the home, at her temple in Rome, they weren't exactly denied a lot; in fact, they were among the most respected and powerful women in Roman society.
They also often had the best seats in the house, literally. Roman writers record vestal virgins as occupying the most prominent seats at lavish entertainments like gladiatorial contests and theatrical performances, not only because they were high-status women, but because they were seen as performing divine, ritual duties to bless the entire proceedings. The general perspective on their freedom as women was that they played for incredibly high stakes; the virgins represented the security of Rome and the sacrament of marriage, and the punishments for violating their vows were intense and often fatal. Still, if you couldn't be bothered with romantic love, it was hardly the most worrisome of occupations.
If you thought the samurai class of Japanese warrior was exclusively male, you'd be wrong. Samurai women did indeed exist — and kicked ass, whether they were fighting to protect their houses while their husbands were away, or as part of dedicated samurai fighting forces. Female warriors have a strong history in Japanese military annals, reportedly carrying both a naginata, a blade on the end of a long stick, and a kai-ken, or long dagger. An author writing about bushido, the way of life of the samurai, in 1900 noted:
"Young girls, therefore, were trained to repress their feelings, to indurate their nerves, to manipulate weapons — especially the long-handled sword called nagi-nata, so as to be able to hold their own against unexpected odds. Yet the primary motive for exercise of this martial character was not for use in the field; it was twofold-personal and domestic. Woman owning no suzerain of her own, formed her own body-guard. With her weapon she guarded her personal sanctity with as much zeal as her husband did his master's."
Witch-Women With Powerful Spit
The idea of the "wise woman" — the elderly, often solitary woman who possessed folk medical knowledge (particularly about women's bodies) — has been around for a very long time; the ancient Greeks mention them, and they were vulnerable to persecution during medieval witch-hunts. In many societies, they were powerful outsiders: women who lay outside the conventional medical paths, whose knowledge was secret or threatening and who could be called on when other methods failed.
If you wanted to be a wise woman, most of them operated with apprentices: medieval records show that a lot of their information was hand-me-down, and Theocritus, in ancient Greece, notes that one wise woman advertised herself as able to teach young willing women how to protect people from the evil eye by spitting on them. That's a talent.
This is one of the professions that has by and large died out (if you'll excuse the pun), but still shows up every so often in very traditional societies — or on Craigslist, where every occupation ever invented shows up at least once. Across several ancient societies, women were hired to do professional mourning: for prominent figures, or those whose social standing wasn't major enough to have legitimate hordes of miserable attendees at funerals, professional mourners would turn up, tear their hair, cover themselves in dirt, and generally act as if the passing of the person in question was the worst thing in history.
Women were often seen as arbiters of the dead, and their cries of anguish were believed to help souls reach peace in the underworld, though beliefs differed between societies. It continues as a tradition in places like modern Sardinia, but sadly, nobody can really earn a quick buck on a Saturday by turning up with their mates at a funeral and howling.
If you were a woman in want of work in Stockholm from the early 1400s through the early 20th century, you had an option that was unique to the city: "rower woman," or taxiing courier of people and goods across the city's main river. They worked with distinctive hoods to keep themselves protected from the weather, and formed a guild in the 1600s to fight for their rights. Historians believe that they were a prominent part of the traffic on the Stockholm river up until about 1875, though they probably operated in reduced numbers beyond that point; women could inherit the trade (and the distinctive boat, which was long and thin) from their mothers.
It may well have been lucrative work, and many visitors to the city remarked on the spectacle — though a lot of them talked about the exceptionally foul language used by the women themselves, despite laws specifically designed to keep them polite. When the Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda visited the city in 1787, he described themas "good women rowing like hell." Now, if that's not cover letter inspiration, what is?