Oh, how I loathe the phrase. It is so patronizing. As if it were somehow not “real work.” Women have always “worked,” otherwise why is it called “labor?” From the dawn of time women worked alongside of their men. It was not until the class system fractured things. As the schism between the wealthy and poor widen with each succeeding year, it became the norm for the upper class to distinguish themselves in every possible way from the plebeians. Their speech was deliberate, their clothes more refined, and by no means did they deign to toil the earth for monetary gain, least their complexion be ruined by sun exposure. With the class system came the division of sexes, due the patriarchal societies of the time. Hence, we have the Victorians; a well-bred woman did not work. Although by societal decree, it seems anyways, any wealthy person did not exert physical effort to increase their financial earnings. It became a stigma to work, if one “had” earn their living and keep food on the table, never mind the fact in England many extravagant heirs ran their family inheritance into the ground and they too, needed to find a way to maintain their lifestyle.
By the 1800s, the prevailing ideology of women as the fairer sex had been around for millennia. It was a woman’s duty to marry and have children. Ideally, supporting the husband and managing “trivial” household affairs. A married woman had no business earning wages; that is her husband’s duty. However, if the woman in question was unmarried or widowed, then it was social acceptable for her to have a “little job, again, this refers to the middle to upper echelons of society. There are only a few acceptable careers for the delicate creatures, none of which cause great exertion of the body. Heaven forbid! Professions such as a governess, a school marm, an author (of mild reads, mind you. Nothing bawdy, scandalous, or worse yet, thought provoking.), and in some cases keeping a small boutique shop to sell tea or buttons and ribbons, was deemed permissible. Later decades saw changes in service or assisting professions becoming predominantly female, such as secretaries, nurses, and librarians. The later not joining the trend until well after the Victorian era. Decorative skills pertaining to females grew in popularity during the Victorian times, seamstresses, dressmakers, and interior decorators, to name a few. Any occupation that called for complex dexterity, brawn, or exposure to elements was clearly a man’s job.
Of course, the beauty of this philosophy was it was merely an idea or a goal. It did not truly reflect the reality of the time. Women, just as men, are very stubborn creatures and get bored with their lot. Some also have wonderful men in their lives that threw convention to the wind and indulged them in their masculine pursuits, although often times it was hushed up or went without merit. “Do not let anyone, least your new husband know, you can understand Greek and Latin.” “Be careful never to let others see you draft perspectives for inventions.” “And for goodness sake, never let your brother know you carved all the wooden furniture for the nursery!” Surely, secret intelligence is an entire subgenre of women’s history.