What work should women do? - or NOT do? - and who gets to decide these questions?
Women navigated contested work spaces where race, class, and gender combined with perceptions and fears about ability, morality, and female autonomy to shape the definitions of “women’s work.” Entrenched prejudices and systems informed workplace rules, pay, hiring and promotion, and even excluded women from some occupations.
Race and gender defined the work of enslaved women field and domestic workers, while the professional nurse supervisor in a segregated clinic demonstrates how many Black women continued to face racially defined work after Emancipation.
Some documents displayed here show women doing work that reflected beliefs about traditional female domestic roles and proficiency at detailed and repetitive tasks. Assumptions that men were always the primary breadwinners justified lower salaries for women. Women who challenged traditional notions of female behavior and morality included actresses, sex workers, and even pirates. Perceptions about transgressive work relied on many of the same fears that informed reactions to women’s work in general.