Blog post

Picturing women at work

What visual representations of women working tell us about women’s history

Giulia Verdini (opens in new window) (EuroClio)

Women’s roles as workers have evolved over time. Despite some believing that women are not workers, they have in fact been contributing heavily through the centuries. How has the role of women changed over time? How have patriarchal societies chosen to portray women’s contribution?

Let’s explore the role of women at different historical moments through visual arts which can tell us about that time’s dominant perspectives. The history of women is often a form of re-interpretation, as visual representations may merely reflect what their creators or their patrons chose to convey.

Women in the fields

The early Middle Ages are often imagined as the time when people sustained themselves through agriculture, but it is also the time when trade in goods led to large markets across Europe and beyond.

Some activities, such as spinning for cloth manufacturing centres, were carried out by both women and men. Furthermore, even though boys were more likely than girls to attend schools, it was not unusual for nuns in convents to teach small numbers of girls.

colour illustration from a manuscript showing a woman teaching a number of children

Women as sex-workers

Women have worked as sex-workers for centuries. In some countries, prostitution was so common that sex-workers earnings were taxed and laws were passed to restrict their practices to particular areas.

This particular sex worker was drawn by Wenzel Hollar, who was commissioned for a series of etchings of London prostitutes. She charged her clients 5 shillings – while a skilled artisan could earn around 2 shillings per day.

black and white illustration, portrait of a woman wearing a dress and hat with feathers

Women in the factories

In the 19th century, female workers worked long hours in cramped and unhealthy conditions for low wage, which is why workshops were given the name 'sweatshops'.

This drawing depicts the Royal Tobacco Factory in Seville, where the original workforce was replaced by an all-female workforce. American inventor Hiram Maxim visited the factory and commented in his book My Life that: 'about a third of the young women seemed to have a baby to take care of while they were working'.

Whilst women were depicted without children in the drawing, they were actually juggling two jobs at the same time.

colour drawing showing a number of women working in a factory under stone arches

Women at war

Historical accounts of war often focus on men, but women have had a tremendous impact on war efforts. This is not limited to the 20th century - in fact, during the American Civil War, more than 500 women fought directly on the battleground, disguised as men.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, with agriculture one of the largest industries, the Women’s Land Army of America was introduced. By the end of the war over 20,000 young women - popularly known as 'farmerettes' - had been recruited to work on the land.

colour poster with a yellow background, a woman working on green grass with a soldier's silhouette behind her and the words 'Get behind the girl he left behind him join the land army'

In World War II, there was a similar pattern of female recruitment, with women taking over work previously carried out by men.

Industrialisation had brought an increased demand for clerical and administrative staff, but also for legal advice and banking facilities, roles which female workers undertook.

Women were also involved in the manufacture of weapons and ammunition, production of day-to-day necessities, agriculture, transport, nursing and policing. Having taken over most of the tasks carried out by men, women were promised a career after the war.

black and white poster with an illustration of a female nurse holding a thermometer with the headline 'Nurses and midwives are needed'
black and white photograph of several women in an office, three are standing by machines, one is sitting at a desk, a man is standing in the background

In the end, men returning from the front most often went back to their previous job. Some women found employment in light manufacturing or they worked as secretaries and clerks. If they had trained for a profession, it was usually to become teachers, nurses, or librarians.

black and white photograph, a full-length portrait of a woman who stands by a chair and is wearing a long dress

Women at university

In the 19th century, most universities were resistant to accepting female students, particularly in the sciences. Even when they did accept women as students they were often still not entitled to practice their professions.

From the late 1970s onwards, more and more women enrolled on university degree courses in medicine, law, dentistry, architecture, engineering, accountancy and business management.

Nevertheless, in their work, many experienced the glass ceiling effect: an invisible barrier within male-dominated professions that prevents women from achieving the same position as men.

Women now

Only in the 21st century can we see some signs of improvement.

In 2017, according to the most recent statistics available from the EU, the number of women studying at university outnumbered men by more than 1.5 million. A century ago female students in universities were a small minority.

Nowadays, there are still many gender disparities, but real change takes time. Raising awareness and supporting women’s rights are the first steps to a flourishing and equal society.

If you are a teacher or educator and would like to learn more about teaching with visual sources of women working, have a look at Historiana’s Source Collection on Visual Representations of Women at Work and its related e-learning activity.