Tradeswomen in Early America - Essay Example

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Although many people imagine that women in early America were confined primarily to the role of homemaker and were prevented from participating in skilled trades both because of their lack of access to training and because of traditional notions of gender, in reality this was not always the case…
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May 12, 2009 Female Shoe-Makers in Early America Although many people imagine that women in early America were confined primarily to the role of homemaker and were prevented from participating in skilled trades both because of their lack of access to training and because of traditional notions of gender, in reality this was not always the case. And while upper-class women were largely exempt from this "profession," it was not exclusively the province of lower-class women or African-American slaves. During an era when the majority of Americans lived on farms, labor of one sort or another was an inescapable fact of daily life. Women of all races were expected to do their share of work, and it would have been considered odd or even unthinkable for them to refuse. Interestingly enough, many women actually became shoemakers during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but societal attitudes toward this work were unsurprising given the period. Men who made shoes for a living did precisely that - they were skilled artisans and expected to be compensated for their work. Women, however, often worked at home rather than in a shop and performed exactly the same work for little or no wages.
For example, in her book Men, Women, and Work, Blewett (1990) recounts the story of Sarah Smith Emery, who lived in Essex County, Massachusetts in the late eighteenth century, and whose uncles Joe and Ben ran a shoe-making store. One time, the men received an order for "one hundred pairs of sealskin boots that had to be finished in five days" (p. 4). She recounts how, after Sarah had stitched for five days, her fianc found her "exhausted and covered with dirty sealskin oilHer account of the incident mentions no wages paid to her for the work" (p. 4). In a case such as this, a woman became a virtual slave to her family. Bound by familial duty, she had a obligation to help, but on the other hand, conventional notions about women and domesticity prevented her from being adequately or fairly compensated for what often amounted to exhausting labor. While it is reasonable to assume that many women took pride in their skills, it would be entirely understandable if they also resented their families for exploiting them in a way that they never would have exploited a male relative.
In this sense, the role of women shoe-makers both supports and challenges stereotypical notions of gender in the eighteenth century. On one hand, it is surprising to think of women as performing a job typically associated with men (when one thinks of a cobbler, the image of woman rarely comes to mind), but on the other hand, it is entirely in keeping with the kind of labor flexibility that was required in early America. Women in rural settings performed back-breaking labor from sunrise until sunset virtually every day of their lives, so I find it largely unsurprising that they should have performed practical tasks such as shoe-making as well.
The effects of industrialization both worsened and improved women's positions - worsened because it moved them from the relative peace of their homes into crowded, dirty, and noisy factories, and because the supervisors they worked for there had far less of an incentive to be kind to the women. On the flipside, however, industrialization provided women with the means of seeing themselves as actual skilled artisans for the first time, and allowed them to organize accordingly. For example, female shoe-binders in the industrial town of Lynn, Massachusetts formed a society to demand fair pay, using their role as wives, daughters, and widowsto insist on a wage level that would confer dignity and independence upon them" (Blewett, 1990, p. 37). For all its negative effects, industrialization also helped women see themselves as modern wage earners with rights equal to those of men, rather than simply keepers of the domestic hearth who had no choice but to accept the work that they were given.
Blewett, M. (1990). Men, Women, and Work. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
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