By Tim Lambert

Women's Jobs in the Ancient World

In Ancient Egypt women had a great deal of freedom. They could come and go as they pleased. They could own property and they could sign contracts. However most women worked in the home. There was a great deal of work to do as most homes were largely self-sufficient. The woman made the families clothes and prepared food such as grinding grain to flour to make bread. In a rich family the woman was kept busy organizing the slaves.

In the Bible The Book of Proverbs describes an ideal wife. The writer says: 'She considers a field and buys it'. As well as making clothes for her family the ideal woman sells clothes to merchants. Clearly the ideal woman was industrious.

In Ancient Greece in a rich family the wife was expected to run the home and, sometimes, to manage the finances. However rich women would normally stay indoors and send slaves to do the shopping. Poor women, of course, had no choice. They might also have to help their husbands with farm work. Women, even rich ones, were expected to spin and weave cloth and make clothes.

Roman women were allowed to own and inherit property and some ran businesses. (In the New Testament there is a woman named Lydia who sold purple cloth). In certain trades some women helped their husbands, especially in luxury trades like perfumery. Furthermore some women were priestesses or worked as midwives or hairdressers.

Women's Jobs in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages spun wool and they did cooking and cleaning. Women washed clothes, baked bread, milked cows, fed animals, brewed beer and collected firewood.

In the Middle Ages some middle class women ran their own businesses. In England the mystic Margery Kempe ran a brewery and later a horse mill, using horses to grind corn.

In the Middle Ages some women were spinners, brewers, jewelers, parchment makers and glovers. In Medieval towns women often helped their husbands with their work. Sometimes if a man died his widow would carry on his trade.

Famous women of the Middle Ages

Women's Jobs 1500-1800

In the 16th and 17th centuries the professions (teacher, lawyer, doctor) were closed to women. However some women had jobs. Some of them worked spinning cloth. Women were also tailoresses, milliners, dyers, shoemakers and embroiderers. There were also washerwomen. Some women worked in food preparation such as brewers, bakers or confectioners. Women also sold foodstuffs in the streets. A very common job for women was domestic servant. Other women were midwives.

In those days most households in the countryside were largely self-sufficient. A housewife (assisted by her servants if she had any) had to bake her family's bread and brew their beer (it was not safe to drink water). She was also responsible for curing bacon, salting meat and making pickles, jellies and preserves (all of which were essential in an age before fridges and freezers). Very often in the countryside the housewife also made the families candles and their soap. The Tudor housewife also spun wool and linen.

A farmer's wife often also milked cows, fed animals and grew herbs and vegetables. She often kept bees. She also often took goods to market to sell. On top of that she had to cook, wash the families clothes and clean the house.

The housewife was also supposed to have some knowledge of medicine and be able to treat her family's illnesses. If she could not they would go to a wise woman. Only the wealthy could afford a doctor.

Poor and middle class wives were kept busy but rich women were not idle either. In a big house they had to organize and supervise the servants. Also if her husband was away the woman usually ran the estate. Very often a merchant's wife did his accounts and if was travelling she looked after the business.

Famous women of the 16th century

Women's Jobs in the 19th Century

In the 19th century the Industrial Revolution transformed life in Britain. It changed from a country where most people lived in the countryside and worked in farming to one where most people lived in towns and worked in industry.

In early 19th century Britain working conditions were often appalling but parliament passed laws to protect women and children. In 1842 a law banned women and boys under 10 from working underground. Then in 1847 a Factory Act said that women and children could only work 10 hours a day in textile factories. In 1867 the law was extended to all factories. (A factory was defined as a place where more than 50 people were employed in a manufacturing process). An act of 1878 said women in any factories could not work more than 56 hours a week.

Meanwhile in the 19th century being a domestic servant was a common job for women.

In 1874 the first successful typewriter went on sale and the telephone was invented in 1876. These two new inventions meant more job opportunities for women. In the late 19th century new technology created more jobs for women. Ultimately technological and economic change transformed the lives of women.

In Britain the first woman to qualify as a dentist was Lilian Lindsay in 1895. The first woman to qualify as an architect in Britain was Ethel Charles in 1898.

Two famous women of the 19th century were Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole. They reformed nursing. In the early 19th century Elizabeth Fry did much to reform prisons.

There were also many famous women writers in the 19th century. Among them were Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans).

Famous Women of the 19th Century

Women's Jobs in the 20th Century

In 1919 Nancy Astor became the first female British MP and in 1929 Margaret Bondfield became the first female cabinet minister. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister of the UK. Meanwhile in 1917 Jeannette Rankin became the first woman to serve in Congress (in the House of Representatives). Then in 1922 Rebecca Latimer Felton became the first woman US senator. Then in 1925 Nellie Tyloe Ross became the first woman governor of a US state (Wyoming).

More occupations were opened to women in the 20th century. In 1910 the first policewoman was appointed in Los Angeles. In 1916 the first policewoman (with full powers) was appointed in Britain. The 1919 Sex Disqualification Removal Act allowed women to become lawyers, vets and civil servants. (The first woman solicitor in Britain was Carrie Morrison in 1922). Also in 1922 Irene Barclay became the first British woman chartered surveyor. In 1958 Hilda Harding became the first woman bank manager in Britain. In 1976 Mary Langdon became the first woman firefighter in Britain.

Nevertheless in the early 20th century it was unusual for married women to work (except in wartime). However in the 1950s and 1960s it became common for them to do so - at least part-time. New technology in the home made it easier for women to do paid work. Before the 20th century housework was so time consuming married women did not have time to work. At the same time the economy changed. Manufacturing became less important and service industries grew creating more opportunities for women.

Technological and economic changes made it inevitable that women would be given the same rights as men. In the USA in 1963 the Equal Pay Act was passed. It compelled employers to pay men and women equal pay for equal work. In the UK in 1970 a similar act was passed. In 1975 the Sex Discrimination Act was passed in Britain. It made it illegal to discriminate against women in employment, education and training. In 1984 a new law in Britain stated that equal pay must be given for work of equal value.

A brief history of women's rights

A brief history of women's clothes

Famous women in history

My Youtube video about the history of women's jobs

Women in Medieval Guilds


Last revised 2016