See Highlights From a New Show on the History of Women’s Work—From Indigenous Crafts to Artifacts of Female Empowerment
"Women's Work" at the New-York Historical Society tells an expansive story about women's labor over the last 300 years.
A selection of 45 objects drawn from the museum’s collection showcase the various roles—both paid and unpaid—women have served in New York City society over the centuries, and how a wide range of different activities have been considered “women’s work” during different periods of time.
“We wanted to look at at our collections and find and tell the stories and histories of diverse women,” Anna Danziger Halperin, the exhibition’s co-curator and the associate director of the Center for Women’s History, told Artnet News. “But the show’s title, ‘Women’s Work,’ is kind of a provocative one.”
“On one hand, we are looking at these historical examples of women’s labor of women’s work,” she said. “But then we’re also playing with the idea of women’s work as a stereotype of what people imagine is appropriate within cultural norms for women to do. It’s about the public sphere versus the private sphere, or men’s work versus women’s work, and really blurring those distinctions and showing how women have always worked.”
We spoke with Danziger Halperin about five key objects in the show and what they can teach us about how women’s work has evolved in New York City over the last 300 years. Here is what she had to say.
This is one of the objects that make the biggest impact when you walk into the gallery, and it’s the biggest one physically in the exhibition. It’s a really gorgeous mahogany cradle from 1820 to 1830, with a wide arch over where the infant would have been rocked, draped with a prop veil—it’s very dramatic-looking.
It was really important for us to show examples of care work near the beginning of the exhibition, because that’s often what people think of when they hear the words “women’s work.” Yes, women are considered to be natural caregivers because female bodies can have babies, but caregiving is work whether it’s paid or unpaid, performed by mothers or other kinds of caregivers.
This cradle belonged to a family named the Gallatin who were wealthy and well-connected, very politically influential. [The donors were descendants of Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and founder of New York University.]
The infants who were cared for in this cradle were likely tended to by Black nurses in the 1820s. Because of the history of gradual emancipation in both New York and Pennsylvania, where the family lived, we believe that they were most likely indentured, rather than enslaved. And although that means that they were legally free, women laboring under indentures had to work for many years without wages or salaries. So, it’s a different kind of unfree labor.
This a pin back button from the National Welfare Rights Organization. This is 100 and 50 years later, and I think there’s some really interesting connections. The organization was active from the late 1960s to the early ’70s. It was a movement that was really coming together at the intersection of the civil rights movement and women’s liberation and antipoverty activism.
Most of the leaders of the movement were single women of color, and they were pushing against social policies that were forcing recipients of different benefits to work in the pay market place rather than taking care of their own families.
The leading activist of the organization, Johnnie Tillmon, wrote an amazing essay for the inaugural issue of Ms magazine [in 1972], “Welfare Is a Women’s Issue.” We included this great quote on the label that in some ways, speaks to the exhibition as a whole: “If I were president, I would solve this so-called welfare crisis… I’d just issue a proclamation that ‘women’s’ work is real work.”
In the ’60s and ’70s, there were different competing kinds of cultural messages about women in the workplace. There were ideas that if you were a middle class or elite white woman, you were expected to stay home, but Black women and women of color were often forced to work for elite, wealthy white families.
There was a movement of feminists starting to say, “we shouldn’t be forced to stay home,” but then you had activists who were Black women saying, “yes, but we also shouldn’t be forced to go out to work. We should be able to be seen as respectable mothers and have our care work recognized as work. And our work of caring for our own babies is just as valuable to society as our work caring for white babies.”
This kind of beadwork work was often associated with women’s work in Indigenous groups. In the later half of the 19th century, when white settlers were really pushing them out of their historic lands, a really sophisticated kind of business model began to spring up, adapting this traditional bead work for a new souvenir market place.
This pin cushion is an example of that, made for white tourists coming to visit Niagara Falls, for example. It has a bird holding two American flags in its wings, and beaded fringe and leaves. It’s this sort of Americana decoration, like something that you would get at a gift shop for a presidential library.
It really shows this traditionally feminine form of craft being used in an entrepreneurial and creative kind of way. They are adapting because they can’t survive off of hunting and fishing and trapping in their homelands, and they need income. Indigenous women would sort of set up an assembly line within their home, and different family members would contribute.
But these things were sold as trinkets, little souvenirs. They were not very valuable. One of the points that we wanted to make is that often when work is identified as something that women do, its wages become depressed, and the professions that women were thought to pursue were more and more lowly paid.
And there’s connections here too to the work women were doing for the garment industry at the same time. We also have on display a hat that has silk flowers. Flower-making was something that women would often do at home with their children, as a way to get around, various labor laws and child labor laws.
I love this photograph because we use it to tell both the story of two different professional women who were doing really interesting, creative work: Jessie Tarbox Beals, a photographer, and Ann Haviland, a professional perfumer. We might think of them as the new woman of the late-19th century, early-20th century, entering the professional world in new ways. And both of these women are artistic.
Ann is posed in the photograph surrounded by all the different tools of her profession. It really looks like she’s a chemist. So it’s really emphasizing the scientific expertise she had to have to create perfumes.
An early example of a professional perfumer, Ann ran a mainstream fragrance business at the early stages of the beauty industry—this new field where something that was seen as feminine was now being sold to a mass audience. She also marketed herself in really clever ways, by partnering with early film actresses and writing advice columns in fashion magazines. She was putting herself out there as the expert.
And Jessie Tarbox Beals was a professional photojournalist at the time that photography was really taking off. Beals bought her first camera from selling magazine subscriptions. She took a lot of photographs of different people at work, not just women, but men as well. We have a lot of those images in our collection, and several on display because they are so amazing.
In the exhibition labels, we quote from something that Beals wrote in 1904, that “all a woman needed to succeed as a photographer was her health and strength, a fair photographic outfit, and the ability to hustle.”
Mary Dickson’s Tavern license
This is a license that dates to 1784 that was held by a woman named Mary Dixon for a tavern on Moore Street in the South Ward. She was an innkeeper, and she was officially licensed to serve food and drink as well. Women are traditionally housekeepers. So, in some ways it’s an extension of work that would have fallen under women’s purview. It was seen as acceptable for women to be cooking.
Another one of the examples of women business owners that we have is a page of fabric swatches from an account book that was held by a woman merchant named Mary Alexander from the 1740s. Two women who had their own businesses in the 18th century!
We wanted to subvert what people would have expected from the time period about women in public-facing roles. Although under the British laws that would have governed the New York as a British colony, women were the property of either their fathers or their husbands, there was also a legacy of Dutch law that treated spouses as more equal economic partners. So there were women who worked within family businesses, as well as other women who supported themselves.
We included this license to show that women are not just making a clear, linear march towards progress and equality across the 300 years that we cover in the exhibition. It’s really much more complicated than that. But it shows that women’s work is everywhere, and underpins New York society and American society.
“Women’s Work” is on view at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West at Richard Gilder Way (West 77th Street), New York, New York, through August 18, 2024.
Follow Artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.