Bizarre Beliefs About Working Women From History
Despite the fact that women now account for nearly half of all employed people in the U.S., working women still don't get the respect they deserve— check out U.S. parental leave policy, the comments in any article about work-life balance, or the 2016 election for proof. Women own 10 million businesses across the nation, and it's estimated that by 2024, 77 million women will be working. However, that hasn't stopped nonsense about how women are ill-suited for work or other sexist claptrap from periodically bubbling up in the culture. Luckily (or unluckily), women have had centuries of practice dealing with people's absurd beliefs about their ability to go out into the working world.
Despite the fact that some people still continue to treat the idea of women having jobs as a novelty, working women have existed since the beginning of human civilization itself. Though many of us know that the Industrial Revolution brought thousands of women into factory workforces, women have been holding down jobs for much longer; women were able to rise to prominence as workers in various industries in both ancient Egypt and Persia (though it was expected that their domestic duties would still take precedence) and female laborers have been working in fields and elsewhere, with their babies strapped to their back if necessary, for centuries.
While today may not be the "golden age" of female work equality (there's still the wage gap to consider, among other issues), we're doing a bit better than women who had to deal with folks telling them working would render them insane or infertile. However, going through these myths, it's a bit shocking to realize how much they still share in common with modern beliefs used to isolate or devalue working women.
Cheating On Your Wife With A Working Woman Didn't Count
Ancient Rome was, at the time of Augustus, a highly prosperous empire with huge trading relationships all over the Middle East and Europe — but that doesn't mean life there was any easier for working women. Most women worked only within the family domestic sphere, which was definitely not an easy task: running a complex Roman household, complete with servants and households gods to appease, stretched many a Roman matron to her limits. But there were also women out laboring in the larger world, and they didn't appear to get much respect from anybody.
One of the main sources we have to support this theory is a bonkers law dating from Augustus's era, regarding the morals of adultery and how it was punished. The law was beyond troubling — it stipulated that men who caught their wives committing adultery weren't supposed to kill them, but if they did, they would be punished leniently. But there's one especially notable segment: "it has been decided that adultery cannot be committed with women who have charge of any business or shop." Why did the law state that adultery couldn't be committed with working women? Because they were considered so low-status that it didn't even count as cheating to do it.
Working Will Make Your Uterus "Dry Out"
Throughout medical history, lots of authors have been eager to weigh in with thoroughly unscientific ideas about women's bodies — and according to these quacks, nothing threatened the female body quite like hard work. Their founding belief was that female reproductive organs didn't stay in one place, but floated about the body in response to particular forces. This belief is why one of the Hippocratic texts from ancient Greece has some, er, fascinating conclusions about what happens to a woman's body if she does too much manual labor:
That's not the end of it, either. Hard work, according to this perspective, also "dried out" the womb, so it would head for the liver (which "as you know, is moist"), and produces suffocation and choking by blocking proper air flow. So to recap: too much manual labor means displaced uteruses and choking hazards. Good to know.
Your Spinning Wheel Could Ruin The Harvest
One of the most ancient types of female work is spinning. The distaff — the spindle of a spinning wheel (on which Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger, if you're into specifics) — has been a symbol of the working woman for centuries, even in language. We've been referring to the female side of families as "the distaff side" since roughly the 15th century, and the iconography of women with distaffs pops up regularly in medieval art, specifically women waving their distaffs angrily at foxes. (Don't ask me.)
However, the tie between women and spinning goes back much further, as do ridiculous suspicions about what happens when spinning women go rogue. Ancient Roman author Pliny the Elder, source of all things weird and wonderful, notes in his Natural Histories that:
The thinking behind this particular superstitious is obscure, but it sure wasn't flattering to women who just wanted to get to their spinning wheels and do their work.
The Presence Of Women Could Curse Ships, Breweries & Mines
There are several industries in which, for no apparent reason, beliefs long dictated that women couldn't participate — because their presence would curse the whole enterprise. (Or, more likely, because biased men didn't trust women to do the job properly, or themselves with the presence of women around them.) Both sailors and miners have long-standing cross-national beliefs about the "bad luck" of a woman stepping onto a ship or inside a mine, declaring that to do so calls up a storm or an accident.
The myths about females and brewing are a bit more complicated because, in many societies, women were allowed to be involved in the brewing process. Ancient Egyptian women were almost exclusively in charge of brewing, while the alewives of premodern Britain were a class unto themselves.
But that case doesn't hold for Japan's brewed sake. Despite the fact that sake itself was originally ritually brewed with the saliva of virgin women, and that women were sake-brewers in ancient times, beliefs about women's bodies being "polluting" and the spirit of sake being "jealous" helped keep women out of breweries in Japan from the 1600s until fairly recently. Of course, it's not clear how many people who pushed the "curse" beliefs actually believed them, and how many were simply using them as a convenient excuse to marginalize female workers.
Rich Women Are Too Physically Delicate To Work; But Poor Women Can Be Worked To The Bone With Impunity
The thing about women and work is that it's always been about class. Women from nobility and aristocratic backgrounds have long been raised with different expectations about exertion and labor than those who were lower-class, servants, or slaves. And no period put this into greater relief than Victorian England, where a vast workforce of women labored day and night for upper class families that told their own daughters that they should not exert themselves or they'd give themselves brain fever.
The notion of "hysteria" and the weakness of lady-brains, at least among the elite and well-bred, was a key part of Victorian perspective. Women were thought to have some strengths, but they were viewed as vulnerable to severe over-exertion that could unbalance their delicate sanity. This stretched to intellectual work too, so even the apparently untaxing practice of sitting reading or doing mathematics was threatening (Ada Lovelace, the brilliant mathematician, was told that "too much Mathematics" had contributed to her "derangements"). Meanwhile, lower-class women — particularly those who weren't white — were viewed as perfectly capable of working for long hours and manual labor without suffering any problems.
Rich women were considered in need of protection from the harshness of the world — and it was fine if poorer women worked around the clock to provide them with it. Unlike some of these other beliefs, this one is still present in many forms in our modern world — a sad form of proof that most critics of working women truly do mentally live in the ancient past.