Women and Work in Early America

Before the Domestic Sphere

Women Spinning Linen Yarn
Women Spinning Linen Yarn, About 1783. Hulton Archives / Getty Images

From the late colonial period through the American Revolution, women's work usually centered on the home, but romanticizing this role as the Domestic Sphere came in the early 19th century. During much of the colonial period, the birth rate was high; after the time of the American Revolution it was still about 7 children per mother.

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.

Other women worked as servants or were enslaved.  Some European women came as indentured servants, required so serve for 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 that the 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 were also sometimes enslaved.

In the typical white home in 18th century America, most of which were engaged in agriculture, the men were responsible for agricultural labor and the women for "domestic" chores, including cooking, cleaning, spinning yarn, weaving and sewing cloth, care of the animals that lived near the house, care of the gardens, in addition to their work caring for the children.

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.

At harvest time, 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.

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, and 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 just don't exist.

Many women, especially but not only widows, owned businesses. Women worked as apothecaries, barbers, blacksmiths, sextons, printers, tavern keepers and midwives.

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

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.

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, ten percent of women held jobs outside the household; ten years later, this had risen to fifteen percent.

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).

Text © Jone Johnson Lewis .