Clio Talks Back

I.M.O.W.'s debut blog, Clio Talks Back, will change the way you think about women throughout history! Be informed and transformed by Clio Talks Back, written by the museum's resident historian Karen Offen.

Inspired by Clio, the Greek muse of History, and the museum's global online exhibitions Economica and Women, Power and Politics, Karen takes readers on a journey through time and place where women have shaped and changed our world. You will build your repertoire of rare trivia and conversation starters and occasionally hear from guest bloggers including everyone from leading historians in the field to the historical women themselves.

Read the entries, post a comment, and be inspired to create your own legacies to transform our world.

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More about the history of “women’s work”

Women’s history month offers us an opportunity to think about the history of “women’s work.” Clio has long been concerned about this topic, particularly with reference to the issue of money and value. Clio asks: who decides what “value” is, who gets paid for doing what, and why? And how much? Or how little?
We know from examining women’s history that “women’s work” encompasses many tasks (some agreeable and others onerous) for which women have never been paid. So how can some people today still treat paid employment as the sole form of “women’s work”? What planet are they living on?
Clio’s colleague Ellen Fleischmann, who studies the history of women in the Middle East, has signalled another aspect of “women’s work” – another form of unpaid work that women do and have done on behalf of the societies they live in or aspire to create. Let’s hear what she has to say about this question, with respect to the development of nation-states – long a topic in “men’s” political history.. This is “political” work for which women have rarely gotten the credit they deserve, much less any form of pay. This seems to be a universal phenomenon.

“Women’s work” – whether supporting the nationalist struggle or engaging in social welfare activities oriented toward “uplifting the nation” – has too often been considered auxiliary, conservative, and nonpolitical. Rethinking both feminism and nationalism requires eschewing gendered notions of politics and resistance. In the nationalist context, gendered notions of what was considered meaningful in the way of “active” or “passive” resistance have contributed to obscuring the nature of women’s participation. The kind of work women engaged in was crucial to the nationalist struggles; for one thing, the fact that women were involved at all contributed to legitimizing nationalism as a communal, collective, unifying ideology. For another, no movement can endure without the sustenance of daily, mundane “support” activities. The provision of necessities such as food, medicine, and funds; and, on another level, the dissemination and use of information for intelligence and propaganda purposes, are not secondary. History’s gendered focus on the “main” struggle – armed battles and rebellions, confrontations between nationalist leaders and colonial powers, diplomatic and political maneuverings – obscures the urgent necessity of the work that takes place in what is perceived as the margins. It is perhaps only because the “marginal” work is performed by women that it is considered the footnote to the nationalist narrative rather than constituting the “real” work in and of itself. A history that expands the central narrative to incorporate the margins and that recasts these limited concepts would allow us to more fully recognize the complete contours of the nationalist narrative in all its richness and complexity.”

Clio says: this is what women’s history is all about – rethinking and expanding the central narrative to the point where the activities can be taken into account, and the criteria for value of "women's work" rethought.

Clio asks you: what aspect of history’s central narratives have you questioned lately?

Source: Ellen Fleischmann, “The Other ‘Awakening’: The Emergence of Women’s Movements in the Modern Middle East, 1900-1940,” in A Social History of Women & Gender in the Modern Middle East, ed. Margaret L. Meriwether & Judith E. Tucker (Westview, 1999), pp. 89-139; quotation pp.114-115.


Pernille Arenfeldt
Pernille Arenfeldt
Emiratos Árabes Unidos

Thanks Karen, for this post! It came at the perfect time of the semester. We (i.e. "my" little "Women-in-History group" here in Sharjah) just read Merry Wiesner's analysis of gender-specific consequences of the rise of capitalism and the resulting re-definition of work. In a couple of weeks will be reading Ellen Fleischmann's work in a couple of weeks. Your reflections are most helpful in bridging the arguments/analyses of the two. Thank you! Pernille

cass r

Valuing women's work is still a novel concept hereabouts. Our city marked 100 years in 2008. The city council set about to publish a book to reveal its history. When asked how many women might be represented in this book, the answer was "a couple". Actually, many more were depicted : all the annual Princesses and other "royalty" young ladies. So, I wrote two books to celebrate the women who, over the 100 years, had served as the strength which held it all together. No local agency or business was willing to underwrite such a history. The patronizing attitude was annoying but expected. Finally, I did publish the books at my own expense. Now at least 124 women and 15 women's organizations have been placed on history's list and both books have been included in a time capsule to be opened in 50 years. Can we expect that recognition of women's contributions to their communities will, at that time, be any stronger? Cass

Karen Offen
Karen Offen
Estados Unidos

Dear Pernille and Cass R,
Yes, thinking about "women's work" as part of history is not obvious to some. I'm eager to hear how the students in the UAE respond to these discussions.
Cass -- I hope you will post the titles of the two books you mention that actually discuss the "real" work women do in your Canadian communities. Tell us more!
All best, Clio

Arwa Alhoribi
Arwa Alhoribi
Emiratos Árabes Unidos

Hello, I'm a student in professor Pernille's "Women in History" course. I just wanted to say that reading Wiesner-and other texts in our course-really changed my entire perspective on history. I obviously knew women have worked, but I could have NEVER guessed that they were half-if not more-of the work force, and that they have ALWAYS worked. I don't know why but it made me think about women altogether differently. Also, I'm ashamed to admit that I had never considered women's work at home or in others homes- i.e. taking care of children, cleaning, cooking-to be REAL work. It just seemed something that was a part of their job description; an extension of who they were. But now that I'm thinking about it, it clearly is "real" work. You asked, "What planet are they living on?" and it's a shame that MOST people are living on that "planet". I think that even today, women taking care of the house and children, etc. is not considered "real" work by the vast majority of people. But WHY isn’t it? It can be very frustrating trying to understand why the work women do is always (or usually) considered of lesser value.

In any case, I love learning things that undo solid beliefs I have (or had) about gender. It makes me think about life differently.

Rashi D
Emiratos Árabes Unidos

Your comment about women often doing the “marginal” work as opposed to "real" work hits home. (This must be where the saying comes from : "Behind every successful man...) I guess many of us, in many parts of our lives, we often don't recognise the value of the, "support" activities that allow our lives to continue.

And I'm with you on your last comment Farah - it makes it so much easier to recognise our own biases/preconceptions (and those of people around us!) when we scrutinise them like this!

Karen Offen
Karen Offen
Estados Unidos

Did you know that already in the nineteenth century, women (and some men) actually campaigned for pay for housework? Clio will blog about that very soon. Please continue your comments -- Clio enjoys reading them. And she challenges you to look into these issues in your own countries and find the hidden histories of women there...

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