Sylvie Schweitzer

Women Have Always Worked A History of Working Women in the 19th Century Publication date : February 1, 2002

Women have always worked. This fact is not often mentioned, because not everyone wants to hear it. As early as 1866, there were over 6 million working women in France — as many as in 1962. Nineteenth-century women were farmers, factory workers, domestic servants, trades people, teachers, nurses and child-minders. In 150 years the lives of working women has changed much less than is commonly believed. Women have always worked, though many remained in the shadow of official statistics that have always underestimated their contribution — because the powers that be have always preferred to view women as wives and mothers, and especially as house-bound mothers. However, the changes undergone by society since the 1970s cannot be denied. The figures speak for themselves: every ten years, the total population of working women in France increases by one million; there are now 12 million working women and 14 million working men. But the changes are also qualitative: women today have access to the same education as men, and all courses and professions are open to them. Social differences between the genders in the past can only be partially blamed on the absence of women’s suffrage and the lack of women’s political representation. The major cause of these differences lies in the inaccessibility to women of certain professions, based on educational inequalities and the inferior legal position of married women. French women voted for the first time in 1944, but it was only in 1965 that they were able to work without their husband’s permission, and it wasn’t until 1972 that all courses of study were open to them. For women, the real victory of recent years is one of empowerment in their professional lives: they now have the means to compete with men in every field. Yet society’s traditional image of what is a male or female profession remains very powerful. In 2001, French women had managed to enter professions that were previously practically closed to them — in some of them women are now in the process of becoming the majority — but French men are still reluctant to enter traditionally female professions: few men are caregivers, nursery-school teachers, or semiskilled machine-operators, whether in factories or offices. This book reviews two centuries of women’s work. It shows that women have always worked — but not everywhere. Women’s access to increasingly “prized” jobs goes hand in hand with economic and global development.