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Women, Work and Family

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Louise Tilly and Joan ScottEdit

Louise Tilly is Michael E. Gellert Professor of History and Sociology at the New School for Social Research. She carries a bachelor's degree in history from Rutgers University (1952), an MA from Boston University in 1955, and a Ph.D at the University of Toronto in 1974.

Women, Work and Family [1978]Edit

At the time when this text was written, it was landmark, and has become considered a classic piece of women's social and labor history. Scott and Tilly divide the book into 3 sections, organized around chronological phases of labor in France and England: small scale economic production on farms or craftshops, called family economy (18th century production, often in trade, wage and coin common in urban areas; this was a time when the home was the primary sight of economic production); industrialization, when production moved away from primary production and outside the home to the factory and manufactoring, called family wage economy (19th century), and the family consumer economy of the 20th century.

Of concern is to Tilly and Scott is the labor of women (they are rather exclusively interested in labor that had economic benefits, not domestic or upkeep labor) in relation to their families (as relations with parents, husbands, and children seem to constitute the range of possibilities for a working female). Matters such as courtship and marriage are dealt with, as well as general demographics. The work sketched in Women, Work and Family acknowledges itself as just the beginning--many cultural phenomenon are detailed without efforts at explanation (why certain tasks fell to women, the role of sexuality in the work-family diad).

Tilly and Scott note that they wrote their book, in part, in response to feminist activism that argued women must be able to gain wages in order to gain social standing. In this argument, family becomes an impediment to female self-determination, whereas the free market promises all. For the authors, such distinctions are overwrought, as it ignores the complexity of social and economic histories, and the strong way in which family relations have constructed work for women for centuries. The authors had two goals: 1. to know whether work improved women's positions or change family roles, and 2. the effect of the industrial revolution on women. What Tilly and Scott discover is that wages alone do not produce liberation, nor do they necessarily change a woman's relationship to her family. Taking labor out of the home does not seperate work from family life because families still exert a strong force over productive activities. Often, families send women to work as part of a family strategy that privileges the family above the individual. The maintainence of sex typed work has also prevented systemic change of the female role. Even though women entered the workforce and the office in the early 20th century, their social position did not alter. Additionally, they reject the image of the female factory worker as the model of female employment in the industrial period. Rather, most women were still employed in domestic service. Just because a few towns almost unanimously employed women in textile work does not mean these circumstances were the rule.

The text is both comparative and interdisciplinary, relying on the social science research of economists,
anthropologists, and demographers. To know the significance of women's work in any historical period, one must understand modes of production, family structures, and demography.

Sometimes missing in the text is the avoidance of a forthright discussion of patriarchy, as the responsibilities of their domestic duties rendered ideologically biological what is, in essence, an economic shift in the place of production. Domestic labor is not overly analyzed, and there is not much focus on how this labor freed the time for industrial laborers to leave the home. Issues of "wife as property" (the legal reality of many women) never becomes part of the conversation in a discussion of labor and family (even if they authors wanted to refute the notion). The history essentially reducts female employment to their positions in their families; thus, they are wives and mothers first, and workers second. They vagueness of the book (due to both breadth and method) might be read against the amazingly rich images of female activity offer in later texts in the 1980s and 1990s (for example, Cheap Amusements). For example, can women's roles in work be reduced to questions of family priorities (they seem to place the economics as a more distributive factor than gender)? Is their a way in which women understood themselves as workers? One reviewer doubted the historical accuracy of the book, writing:

"Nor do the authors document their claim that the early twentieth century growth in women's white collar work did not increase total female employment: "It simply represented a shift of women workers from one type of job to another" (151). Ultimately, the reviewer concludes, "But certainly it fails "to set straight the historical record on women's work. . . ." (8). That would require that Professors Tilly and Scott study precisely what they chose not to consider: the experiences of working women outside the family setting and the connections among women's work, status, and consciousness." <Review written by Sheila Lichtman, UC-Davis, written in Labor History, January 1, 1982.

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