Women and Work in Early America

Before the Domestic Sphere

Women Spinning Linen Yarn
Women Spinning Linen Yarn, About 1783.

Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Women in early America typically worked in the home.

This was true from the Colonial period through the American Revolution, though the romanticizing this role as the Domestic Sphere didn't come until the early 19th century.

In early America among the colonists, the work of a wife was often alongside her husband, running a household, farm or plantation. Cooking for the household took a major part of a woman's time. Making garments—spinning yarn, weaving cloth, sewing and mending clothes—also took much time.

During much of the Colonial period, the birth rate was high: soon after the time of the American Revolution, it was still about seven children per mother.

Slaves and Servants

Other women worked as servants or were enslaved. Some European women came as indentured servants, required to serve a certain amount of time before having independence.

Women who were enslaved, captured from Africa or born to slave mothers, often did the same work men did, in the home or in the field. Some work was skilled labor, but much was unskilled field labor or in the household. Early in Colonial history, Native Americans sometimes were enslaved.

Division of Labor by Gender

The typical white home in 18th century America was engaged in agriculture. The men were responsible for agricultural labor and the women for "domestic" chores:

  • Cooking
  • Cleaning
  • Spinning yarn
  • Weaving and sewing cloth
  • Care of the animals that lived near the house
  • Care of the gardens
  • Caring for the children

Women participated in "men's work" at times. At harvest, it was not unusual for women to also work in the fields. When husbands were away on long journeys, the wives usually took over the farm management.

Women Outside Marriage

Unmarried women, or divorced women without property, might work in another household, helping out with household chores of the wife or substituting for the wife if there was not one in the family. (Widows and widowers tended to remarry very quickly, though.)

Some unmarried or widowed women ran schools or taught in them, or worked as governesses for other families.

Women in Cities

In cities, where families owned shops or worked in trades, the women often took care of domestic chores including:

  • Raising children
  • Preparing food
  • Cleaning
  • Taking care of small animals and house gardens
  • Preparing clothing

They also often worked alongside their husbands, assisting with some tasks in the shop or business, or taking care of customers. Women could not keep their own wages, so many of the records that might tell us more about women's work don't exist.

Many women, especially, but not only widows, owned businesses. Women worked as:

  • Apothecaries
  • Barbers
  • Blacksmiths
  • Sextons
  • Printers
  • Tavern keepers
  • Midwives

During the Revolution

During the American Revolution, many women in Colonial families participated in boycotting British goods, which meant more home manufacture to replace those items.

When men were at war, the women and children had to do the chores that would usually have been done by the men.

After the Revolution

After the Revolution and into the early 19th century, higher expectations for educating the children fell, often, to the mother.

Widows and the wives of men off to war or traveling on business often ran large farms and plantations pretty much as the sole managers.

Beginnings of Industrialization

In the 1840s and 1850s, as the Industrial Revolution and factory labor took hold in the United States, more women went to work outside the home. By 1840, 10% of women held jobs outside the household. Ten years later, this had risen to 15%.

Factory owners hired women and children when they could because they could pay lower wages to women and children than to men. For some tasks, like sewing, women were preferred because they had training and experience, and the jobs were "women's work." The sewing machine was not introduced into the factory system until the 1830s; before that, sewing was done by hand.

Factory work by women led to some of the first labor union organizing involving women workers, including when the Lowell girls organized (workers in the Lowell mills.)