For generations, men’s public paid labor was the measure of what counted as work, while the private unpaid work of the household primarily fell upon women. Homemaking, childrearing, and general domestic tasks were unpaid and usually not considered “work” unless they were hired from outside the home. Yet cookbooks, household management manuals, and childcare books outlined the skilled efforts that this type of labor took, paid or not.
The so-called “Cult of Domesticity” was a value system placed upon upper and middle class women that emphasized women’s role within the home as their proper place. Even when these women began to venture outside the domestic sphere, paid labor was shunned in favor of charity work as more suitable to a woman’s temperament of sacrifice and care. Lower class women remained excluded from the ideals of both domesticity and volunteerism as they needed paid labor to support themselves and their families.
In the 19th and 20th century, a time when marriage and motherhood was upheld as a woman’s true calling, volunteering offered a liberating step out of the home and into the working community. Women’s auxiliary groups and volunteer organizations not only provided social services but also constituted a form of activism, tearing down notions of a woman’s place in society.