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Wmen's Work


ejano
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When I was a junior in high school, way back in the dark ages, we had “Advanced English” instead of AP, or whatever they call it today. The teacher was inspired to arrange a field trip to the nearest university library where she had arranged for the class to each check out one book for our research papers. While following a group of my classmates intent on sneaking out of the library to check out more interesting highlights of the campus, I found myself sidetracked far afield from my topic and a book caught my eye - Women’s Work: the First 20,000 Years, Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.

 

I tucked the book under my arm, abandoned my giggling friends, and found a spot to begin reading. This was the book I took home with me and, sad to say, I got dinged on my grade because I did not have a book from the university library to cite in my paper. It didn't matter --I'd found something more important. I’ve always loved fabric, wool, crochet, embroidery and sewing threads, and buttons but never dreamed they were important enough to write about except as a pattern in a woman’s magazine, or that “women’s work” could be a subject for academic research because up until that point, the phrase “women’s work” had meant something that was belittled, not quite as valued as “Man’s Work.”

 

My great grandmother had done “women’s work”. When I was a child and my mother was busy with whatever mothers do, she would give me something from Great-Grandmother Lowe’s cedar chest and leave me happily sorting quilt pieces cut by someone for whom I was named but never met, or buttons thriftily snipped from worn out garments to be recycled onto new ones for her granddaughters, never suspecting that one day a small child would sort through them for entertainment while her mother worked, potting tomato plants, peppers, and petunias for sale. My grandmother expanded the definition of “women’s work” as presented in this book -- though she knew how to sew, knit, crochet, and embroider, but she worked in the dairy and in the fields, especially during WW II, when able young men were away at war. My mother, as much as she could, escaped women’s work,for the greenhouse, the garden, in the fields…anywhere but in the house. Her favorite chore was to go get the cows for evening milking because it afford her a walk in the near field and I got to toddle after her with Ring circling around us, doing his job. She rebels against “women’s work” because she is a child of nature, and even though she appreciates the soft wool scarf I just knitted for her, suggests that time is best spent outdoors whenever possible and when it's raining, go to the library. In all fairness, she was widowed early and her “women’s work” became work in a professional setting by necessity, though she longed for the greenhouse, her gardens and the fields, and so that is how she trained me – so “women’s work” for me has been in a variety of professional settings, most recently in a classroom. I played at the old kind of “women’s work”, knitting with wool I bought in a store, putting up a bushel of tomatoes I bought at a market, my blessed companion, a dog who’d never seen sheep. Tea’s poem "she dreams" seems a very real description of those years. Thank you Tea, for helping me to discover more about the wheel, and about wool, and for your beautiful thoughts.

 

Now by mischance, I have found myself living in reverse, with the opportunity to combine my great-grandmother and my grandmother and my mother’s definition of “women’s work” – preserving food, working with various textiles, spending time in the garden, the fields, and the woods, and running my dogs across the near field, thinking about sheep, not cows; and today, washing wool. I’m still playing, as my income, my ability to keep warm this winter, do not depend on my skill at washing, carding and spinning this wool – and that’s probably a good thing, because this is my first attempt, but I am finding something very satisfying in this variety of “women’s work”. Like sorting out the fabric and the buttons years ago as a child, brings a sense of order to my mind…making sense out of the chaos that is the fleece once it is separated from the sheep. Making it into a new, useful thing. Spinning it on a wheel that was used by the same woman whose hands cut the quilt blocks and saved the buttons that I played with as a child. Adorning it with dye and pattern. Sharing in the heritage of Woman’s Work.

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I really enjoyed that.

I'm a big fan of "women's work" I make quilts, by hand. I was just talking with someone today about how the vast majority of people seem to have forgotten that quilts were originally a way to recycle used garments, flour sacks, etc. I hate the idea of buying new fabric for use in a quilt! And I sew them by hand. People keep trying to give me sewing machines. I don't want 'em! I can make a single-size quilt in 13 days. (Long days, and I don't quilt them - I tuft them) But people pay $900.00 apiece for them, sometimes more - if they're bigger.

 

I use thermal blankets bought at the 2nd hand store for batting. My quilts are machine washable because I live with animals, and they get dirty! Here's one:

 

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Liz, what a beautiful essay!

 

I grew up in the era of "women's lib". I was monumentally irritated that the boys in junior high got to do "shop", whereas the girls had to do "home economics". To this day I still refuse to sew. At the same time, I also grew up feeling sorry for the mothers of friends who "had to work". That latter attitude didn't last long; I ended up determined to pursue a career, not realizing how isolating it can be to end up as a woman in a male-dominated discipline.

 

Fast forward many years. My younger son found himself at a Waldorf school. For those of you who don't know anything about Waldorf schools, they stress creativity - including handwork. In first grade all children, boys and girls alike, make their own knitting needles and learn to knit. In second grade they learn to crochet, third grade returns to knitting, fourth grade is cross-stitching, and so forth - including (in seventh grade) dyeing their own fabric (with natural dyes) and sewing their own shirts, by hand, each and every seam.

 

After a year or two as an observer, watching the beautiful things that even kids this young could create, I was determined to learn to do handwork myself. I started crocheting, then (after few years) taught myself to knit. Despite having been someone who had once disdained "women's work", I found it remarkably fulfilling. I now have a reputation for being the kooky woman who knits through seminars and conferences, but who still manages to ask the key questions.

 

Someday I aspire to learning how to spin and dye my own yarn. For now I'm grateful to have been able to acquire some of what, in my brash youth, I'd eschewed.

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I'm not very talented in the textile department. I certainly appreciate the craftmanship. Geonni, your quilts are beautiful.

Ejano, your post made me think about my own mom. She passed away a few years back and I miss her every day. She shared her love of nature, being outdoors, being near water and dogs with my sister and me. Every time I take a walk through the woods or through the fields with my dogs, I think about the times my mother, my sister and I spent exploring, always one of our dogs nearby. My sister and I wish we could do that again with my mom. My sister and I still take long walks through the woods together with our dogs. :rolleyes:

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It seems we all "came of age" in the seventies....a crazy, mixed up time for sure... I went to a rural high school but we were quite radical in our own way...I actually didn't mind home ec, because I wanted to learn how to sew and my mother didn't have time to teach me :rolleyes: but a few of the girls in my class lobbied for the right to take shop and some did march across the breezeway to invade the male sanctum...not me...I already knew how to use a hammer and saw from making flats in the greenhouse and as for metal work, I knew how to shoe a horse. I did want one of those silver spoon rings, but the best way to acquire one seemed to be to acquire a boyfriend....not exactly the feminist perspective:).

 

But the issue of women's lib itself created so much confusion...we had to have a "career" -- many of my female classmates went on to very interesting careers...you can see the shift in the alumni lists a few years before I graduated. I was very interested in the traditional arts, but it was almost a dirty secret. In art class I was making a mobile, carefully sewing felt strips together as I was quite good at handwork (certainly better than at drawing)and the art teacher came by and exclaimed, "YOU SEW!!!!" loud enough that people could hear him down the hall....nobody told me it was okay to sew, to weave, to knit, to write....so I rebelled, gave up a scholarship, avoided college for ten years, then realized my mother was right....the only way a woman can get ahead economically is with an education.

 

So Geonni's quilts take on special importance because a generation of girls were perhaps unintentionally taught to avoid skills 20,000 years in the making. (And, Geonni, my mother rolls her eyes when I go to the store to buy fiber fill -- she snorts, "We just used an old wool blanket.).

 

Tea, the most sacred possessions from our mothers and grandmothers are the memories we carry in our hearts...Today, I was washing the wool in big plastic tubs, transferring it from one to the other and as I was pouring out the dirty water from the first washing, I could hear my grandmother's voice, ordering me, "Put that on the blueberry bushes!"

 

Liz

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'sigh'

 

You are so right.

 

I remember my Granny slaughtering- telling us in her soft drawl- you must look them in the eye to make it quick

And her working with wool.

 

My High school had a sheep shearing class put on by FFA

 

There were two girls in it.

 

I was one of them.

 

In school a girl could not wear pants back then.

 

On that day, we were allowed.......:rolleyes:

 

I never in a million years thought I would use this stuff.

 

Let alone teach others.....

 

It is a strange life....:D

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  • 2 weeks later...

Thread's a little old, but I'm just seeing it now and thought I'd add my two cents...

 

I think that "women's work" is indeed coming back into style now. Young women still want their careers, but many are choosing to spend their free time doing activities mentioned here. I'm 25 and am pursuing a PhD in Zoology. Most of my free time is spent with Kit, but once she's tuckered out, I enjoy knitting (see attached pic), dyeing wool, gardening, and buying food at the local farmer's market. I also cook and bake a lot: I try to make something new and interesting every week using only vegan ingredients.

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Wow, I missed this thread because I was gone. What a treat to read it!

 

I remember Home Ec from junior high, while the boys were in shop. My mother didn't much like cooking, certainly didn't sew (okay, she'd put back on a button but that was a necessity), and wasn't at all crafty. My step-grandmother was a whiz with knitting needles. She made beautiful clothing, and tried to make a knitter out of me, but I didn't have the patience to learn. I loved all animals, the outdoors, and nothing much domestic.

 

My Mom was not the typical mom in our neighborhood - while virtually everyone else's mom was a full-time at-home mom, my mother worked once I was in school all day. I never felt I missed anything from that because her work schedule allowed her to be home with me almost all the time that I was home. We were close.

 

Home Ec was an eye-opener, as my Mom was not into teaching me much about the kitchen or the needle - and I had not been interested in learning, either. Shop? I didn't need that as my Dad was an equal-opportunity dad - I was at his side in his shop for hours, and he'd show me how to use and care for his tools. One of his big pains in life was when I hit the teenage years, and it was no longer cool to spend time with my Dad, and he lost his shadow in the shop and doing "man's work" around the house. I dispise myself for that betrayal.

 

I graduated high school in 1966, and so was in college during the heyday of the hippie and all sorts of rebellion. I took a distinctly non-traditional major (for which I was really ill-suited by background) and was only the second woman to receive a graduate degree in Wildlife Science at Va Tech (and, in the early days of equal opportunity, the recipient of interested calls from potential hires in DC and other parts of the country). But my DH had a military commitment to fulfill and, by the time that was done, I was pregnant with our first.

 

And so my life became one of very traditional "women's work". Cooking, cleaning, sewing, child care, milking the goats, making cheese, canning, freezing. You know what? It was a full-time job, and every bit of it was essential. It is too bad that "women's work" has tended to be considered second-class compared to "men's work" because it has always been just as essential, just as vital, just as necessary.

 

I am glad to live in a day and age when there are not so many societal restrictions on what a woman (or a man) can do, but also one in which (I believe) "women's work" can now be realized as something equal to and as important as "man's work". You can't have one without the other if you want a healthy, vibrant family and society.

 

Once, I was little and looked up to my parents with awe and wonder and trust. Then I was a little older and thought, "Whatever do they know? They are so out-of-it." Then I grew up and again looked upon them with awe and wonder and trust. I hope I deserve the kind of respect from my children that my parents should have received from me, and do now.

 

Thanks, Karen, Tea, and all who have guided this trip down Memory Lane.

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Your sweater is beautiful!

 

It's a relief for me to see that my nieces who are about your age (I have only a son) have it a bit easier in the sense that they are free to follow their own inclinations and just be themselves in this new century. They don't have to answer to, or live up to anyone's expectations. One is in finance, the other in environmental science. Until she had a baby, the one wouldn't pick up a cookbook if you paid her...(well, maybe if you paid her, and she could invest and compound the interest); the other grows her own vegetables in big pots and dreams of coming back to the farm to live. These kinds of things - this "woman's work" keeps us grounded in some ways. I like to think of the 20,000 years of history behind the things I do. :rolleyes:

 

Liz

 

 

Thread's a little old, but I'm just seeing it now and thought I'd add my two cents...

 

I think that "women's work" is indeed coming back into style now. Young women still want their careers, but many are choosing to spend their free time doing activities mentioned here. I'm 25 and am pursuing a PhD in Zoology. Most of my free time is spent with Kit, but once she's tuckered out, I enjoy knitting (see attached pic), dyeing wool, gardening, and buying food at the local farmer's market. I also cook and bake a lot: I try to make something new and interesting every week using only vegan ingredients.

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What beautiful thoughts, Liz!

 

I think there is something very satisfying and fulfilling when you work with your hands. Yes, woman's work was often looked down upon. Very sad really as it is a very beautiful and necessary part of life.

 

My mom taught me many aspects of "woman's work" but taught them not as gender roles but something that needed to be done (one of the results of being the only girl for many years in a large family of boys was that everyone helped out with everything) When I was about 6 she sat my older brother and I down one afternoon and taught us how to knit. We all helped with cooking, canning, cleaning. We watched as my mom learned how to run electrical wiring and plumbing when my folks built a house. An upbringing like this taught us how to be very self-sufficient adults who are willing to try just about anything. We didn't see work as "his" or "hers" but as part of life. Today I have brothers that can cook, decorate wedding cakes and knit, then turn around and program computers or rebuild a car. Along with house keeping I learned how to shear sheep, use a chain saw and install roofing.

 

When they took home ec and shop class out of schools, they took away some of the tools for training young people to be self-sufficient. I always thought they should have kept it and sent everyone to both classes. And these days see how cooking and crafting has come back with a vengeance - whole television networks devoted to it. Because there is something very fulfilling about the ability to create something good. You could see it in my Grandma's eyes this every time she cooked a huge family meal!

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