Why do women work? And why do men work? For money? For companionship? Because they feel they should? Because they enjoy it? Because they have no choice?
The strong tie between being a breadwinner and masculine identity, throughout modern British history, explains in part why men work. Being a breadwinner for a wife and children has been throughout nineteenth- and twentieth-century British history one of the most important markers of masculinity, tied to men’s status as workers and as adult heads of families. This has been an important dynamic affecting why women work too, and importantly, how they and others value that work.
Numerous historians have investigated the Second World War, its aftermath and its impact – on women’s lives and ideas about femininity. Historians like Penny Summerfield, Dolly Smith-Wilson and Elizabeth Roberts have debated whether the war and the period following it was good for women, as mothers and as workers. During the war, women worked and served in the armed forces in huge numbers, and their participation in the workforce reached record numbers in the post-war world, as an economic boom created new opportunities and seemingly a new valuing of female workers, particularly married women, who had been barred from working in many industries and professions until this point. By 1961, 45.4% of married women were working outside the home, compared to 21.7% in 1951 and 10.0% in 1931. Furthermore, the government and the media played up women’s importance as mothers, reiterating the value of their work in the home; the government passed legislation for the payment of family allowances in 1945, which was said to be in recognition of women’s vital role as housewives.
Yet women’s work – in and outside the home – remained trivial and undervalued despite – and indeed sometimes because of – these changes. Women’s paid employment was frequently trivialised as an ‘extra’, superfluous to men’s core breadwinner wage, even if it meant the difference between surviving or not, affording a bigger house, a car, or in general the more affluent lifestyle that was becoming increasingly accessible for many working-class families in the 1950s and 1960s. At the same time, the hard work many women put into cleaning, cooking, childcare and other chores was not seen as ‘real’ work. As one woman, interviewed in the 1980s, put it, domestic labour did not constitute work, ‘not as far as the men were concerned’.
Within family life, whether men were happy about their wives and other female relatives working outside the home could make a big difference. For some women, this dictated whether they worked at all, and men’s attitude to their wife’s work was often the deciding factor in whether they helped their wives with domestic chores and childcare. Yet, strong gendered stereotypes around men as workers and women as homemakers continued to dictate behaviour. Some men valued women not working. Previously, this had been about proving one’s masculinity as the sole provider for family life. In the 1940s and 1950s, an emphasis on their role in the home became important, to care for husbands and children. There was a tension here – many men expected women to complete domestic labour (whether they were in paid employment or not) and valued this more than paid work. Yet even though men spoke in warm terms of their wives’ skills and abilities in domestic labour, it also remained inferior to (male) paid work in its status and value. The account of one male interviewee, born in 1944, highlighted how men’s work and role was valued much more highly. He suggested that women ‘had it easier’ because ‘I know that married women have to run a house, but we were saying that when it all comes down to it. Us [men] we have to go out and we are responsible for paying the mortgage, the rates, paying the bills in general […] if a woman wants to stop work she can, but I just can’t say I’m packing up work.’
As such, although women experienced new opportunities in the workplace and their importance as mothers was continually stated in post-war Britain, these ideas combined meant that the difference between men’s and women’s labour remained stuck in a hierarchy. Some couples managed a more equal balance of labour, but for many women at least, the secondary nature of their status as workers and their contribution as domestic labourers ensured the continuation of the undervaluing of their work.
Dr L. King
Arts Engaged Research Fellow, University of Leeds