Undervalued and Unseen: The History of Women’s Work

A popular reel trend on Instagram and TikTok shows women dressed in pastel cottage core dresses, baking bread and kneading dough, endorsing the notion of being a stay-at-home wife or “tradwife.” It is undeniably a matter of personal preference that warrants respect for individual autonomy. However, when we detach it from its engaging aesthetics, it is inherently problematic when this trend advocates “reclaiming femininity to serve their husbands” that has been “effaced by feminism” in current times. It is to note that such advocacy compromises a woman’s economic autonomy. Women have endured an arduous history, replete with numerous challenges, in their struggle for the right to work outside the confines of their homes. Disengaging women from the workforce risks undermining the remarkable progress achieved in attaining gender equality and perpetuates stereotypes that confine women to conventional roles. 


In order to comprehensively examine the unjust devaluation and gendered bias in housework, it is imperative to delve into the origins of gendered division of household labor and its consequential impact on undervaluing women’s care work. Silvia Federici, a feminist activist, author and  educator who founded International Feminist Collective, in her book “The Caliban and The Witch” gives an elaborate timeline for the origin of devaluation of care work. It starts with mass deaths because of the outbreak of various epidemics in different parts of medieval Europe. The most ghastly one of them being the “Black Plague” that perished a third of the population between 1348 and 1350. The deaths were so tragic that corpses lined the streets. Other epidemics followed in different parts of Europe such as the Spain typhus epidemic (1489), London plague (1592–15930, bubonic plague outbreak in Italy (1629) and  Spain (1596). Such epidemics directly disheveled the demography of Europe. Yet, low natality rates and the disinclination of the poor to procreate themselves were held responsible for the population drop. 

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Figure 1. (A) Demographics in pre-industrial Europe (800–1800 AD). Western Europe (excluding Russia, solid black line); British Isles (blue solid line); Scandinavian region (blue dotted line); France (solid red line); Belgium and the Netherlands (solid green line); Germany (dotted orange line); Spain (solid light blue line) and Italy (solid yellow line). 

Such population collapse from time to time in different parts of Europe led markets to shrink, gradually ceasing the trade. “General Crisis” of the 17th century is one such example. Likewise, the correlation between labour, population and wealth accumulation came to the fore in political debates and strategies to strengthen population policy were being formulated, similar to the concept of ‘biopower’ given by Michael Foucault in his work History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New regulatory methods were being adopted by the state in this epoch to increase procreation and break women’s autonomy over reproduction. Moving towards the middle ages, the Church’s opposition to abortion was converted into secular legislation leading to the development of the legal concept of criminalization of abortion and conception (The way of death, Laura Pott). 

In this manner, the female body was used as a tool for the extension of the labour force and treated as a natural breeding machine that ran on cycles beyond women’s control. Women were being barred from performing other jobs and were solely expected to procreate and nurture the future labour force. Merry Wiesner in her exemplary research work pointed out how during the 1500s, women in Germany occupied well paying work in a wide variety of occupations but in late 16th century, economic pressures invited prejudices gradually sweeping women off from gainful work and limiting them to only demeaning low paid jobs, care work and house chores. This effectively created the distinct gendered roles, where women were asked to be the sole procreators and nurturers while men were expected to be producers. 

Their work in small cottage industries along with their craftsmen husbands was seen as “housekeeping” or merely a helping hand to their husbands, they were dispossessed of any kind of validation, whether cash or in kind. In upper class households, the husband’s control over his wife and children was derived from land possession while working-class men’s control over women was derived from dispossession from her wage. Marriage was seen as the only true career as displacement from well paid jobs inevitably led to the idea that women are incapable of sustaining themselves. Hence, they must be dependent on a man who’d do the productive work outside and feed her. 

The devaluation of women’s work was tied to the notion that “what men do creates value in economic terms” hence the indirect relation of women’s work to production (birthing children and caring for their homes so that men can go off to work) had a menial significance. As a result, house chores i.e. unpaid  and devalued labour of women at home was seen as a demeaning and underrated job as it failed to contribute to the economy as well as bear the expenses of the household. If we talk about the condition of women in India, in the context of the value of their caregiving activities, it was comparatively better recognised and validated in ancient India than during medieval times. Many historians have noted as Indians progressed towards Medieval times, the status of women gradually declined. 


According to the UN, women around the world perform an unbalanced amount of unpaid labour, whether it be caring for children and the elderly, collecting water and firewood, or cleaning and cooking. According to the Report of the Secretary-General (December, 2016), unpaid domestic and care work is estimated to make up 10% and 39% of the GDP. According to a survey by the National Statistics Office conducted between January and December 2019, more Indian women (almost 90%) than men engaged in unpaid domestic work at home in 2019. Oxfam reported that Indian women spend 577% more minutes than men in doing unpaid work.

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Figure 2: Women in the changing world of work. Source: UN Women


Figure 3: How unpaid work is keeping India’s women away from increasing inequality. Source: Business Standard


The road to value housework and care work done starts by acknowledging this as a compulsory work and an indispensable necessity. According to Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs’ (first cited in Hook’s Feminist theory) “Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century,” work is how we create and express our humanity. The system under which we live is built on the notion to exchange labour power for money. Under this condition, our value is tied to our productivity, making it an ideological barrier in acknowledging the care work done by women. Bell Hooks in her book “Feminist theory: From Margin to Center” says that women frequently have unfavorable opinions about the work they undertake in particular because they have been trained to only evaluate something’s significance in terms of its economic value, thus they tend to undervalue the labour they accomplish. Getting little or no pay is equated with personal failure, lack of achievement, and inferiority.

Women internalize this definition of themselves. Upon realizing the inherent and essential nature of work, along with its profound impact on the development of humanity, we come to acknowledge that housework holds indubitable importance for individuals of all genders. This recognition challenges the conventional belief that these duties are exclusively assigned to women. Instead, it propels us towards advocating for a more equitable distribution of household labor, motivating individuals to actively partake in the tasks essential for upholding a household. Embracing such an outlook cultivates an environment characterized by fairness, reciprocal assistance, and collaborative efforts within domestic settings, thus fostering healthier connections and enhancing the overall well-being of all parties involved.

When it comes to the care work done by women outside their homes as caregivers, nurses, maids, the important measure is to compensate their work with higher wages. What women receive for their care work narrowly saves them from starving. Such compensation is not enough for such a tiring and exhausting job that requires not only physical labour but also a great amount of emotional labour. In fact, the term “emotional labour” was first coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild to describe the emotional work that women and workers in low-wage jobs particularly perform as part of their jobs, in service and care industries. 
In the context of household work, the first and foremost step is redistribution of housework. Historically, women have been expected to bear the primary responsibility for unpaid domestic work, such as cooking, cleaning, and childcare, regardless of their employment status or other responsibilities.

This unequal distribution of labour created significant time and energy constraints for women, limiting their ability to pursue other opportunities. By redistributing housework, both within households and at a societal level, women can have more time and energy to pursue education, employment, and other opportunities. This can help  reduce gender inequalities in income and employment, as well as increasing women’s independence and autonomy. Redistributing housework can also help to challenge traditional gender roles and expectations, as men become more involved in domestic work and childcare. This can help to create more egalitarian relationships between men and women and reduce the burden of gendered expectations on both genders. To redistribute housework, households and societies can adopt policies such as paid parental leave, flexible work hours, and public investments in childcare and elderly care facilities. Additionally, individuals can challenge traditional gender roles and expectations within their own households, by discussing and negotiating domestic responsibilities and encouraging men to take on a more equal share of the work.


Boggs, G. L., & Boggs, J. (1974). Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century.

Chavas, J.-P. and Bromley, D.W. (2005), Modelling Population and Resource Scarcity in Fourteenth-century England. Journal of Agricultural Economics, 56: 217-237. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1477-9552.2005.00001.x

Federici, S. (2004). Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation.

Foucault, M. (1976). The History of Sexuality.

Hooks, B. (1984). Feminist theory: From Margin to Center

Pott, L. (n.d.). The way of death: Abortion’s path to criminalization during the Middle Ages.

Strauss, G. (1987). Merry E. Wiesner. Working Women in Renaissance Germany. (The Douglass Series of Women’s Lives and the Meaning of Gender.) New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986. xiii 263 pp. Renaissance Quarterly, 40(1), 100-103. doi:10.2307/2861839

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Zufishan Rahman

Zufishan is a 24 year old student. Her poems have been previously published in Nether Quarterly, Aainanagar Magazine, Maktoob Media, and LiveWire. Her most recent essay “Art and Propaganda: Reclaiming Narratives” was published in Maktoob.


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