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Women's Work is Communal*
*(Historically). On weaving cloth and community.
This week, I’m taking a look at women’s work… in prehistory. On Thursday, I’ll share some of your book recommendations. And sometime soon, there will be a sudden, two-week hiatus while I have a baby.
On a friend’s recommendation, I recently read and enjoyed Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times. Barber is a professor of archeology and linguistics, and the book presents her research on prehistoric textiles for a lay audience.
I’m an ideal reader for this book (I had my own little inkle loom as a kid) and I love the way she puts together scraps of information to build up a tapestry of how women’s work changed. One of my favorite details is that Barber complements her archeology with attempts to replicate the fragments she finds. Hanging her own looms, reproducing weaves, etc. helps her have a clear sense of what the work was like to do and can correct misapprehensions.
But the reason the book feels particularly relevant to Other Feminisms is that Barber is interested in why thread and cloth were work that fell to women. She sees weaving and spinning as work that fit the lives of women as mothers.
Mothers have toddlers underfoot, and need a workspace that is relatively safe for marauding children (keeping the children safe from the work and vice versa). Mothers benefit from work that is somewhat interruptible, as a child demands attention or needs to nurse. And mothers have an easier time with shared work, when a group of women can watch children together or trade off baby- vs heddle-wrangling.
Farming was this kind of work, Barber believes, when it was mostly done by hand. But when it became more plow-and-livestock focused, it became less safe and less slow. Similarly, when weaving was mechanized, it became more productive, but a narrower subset of workers could take on the work. A two-year old can’t crawl through a factory floor.
I was struck by this thread in Barber’s ethnography, since much of “pink-collar” work today does not match the model of communal weaving. A woman who does care work or cleaning work is often travelling from house to house, working alone, in a professionalized context where her child is not welcome (and her employer’s house is not baby proofed).
Working mothers are not new, but working mothers who are cut off from their children and from other mothers are very new (if you take the long view of human history).
One thing I’m looking forward to in my upcoming maternity leave is the chance to simply walk twenty minutes, baby tied on with a wrap, and join the friend who recommended Women’s Work, spending an afternoon with both our babies. But I know this is unusual.
Reading Women’s Work, I thought more about the range of jobs I might be able to take on that would complement being a mother. (Emails are the most easily set-down-and-picked-up part of my job). Most of all, it made me wish for a duplex or houses around a courtyard, where there is a clear place to share work and mothering with friends.