Haar werk : vrouwenarbeid en arbeidssociologie in historisch en emancipatorisch perspectief

J. de Bruijn

    Research output: Thesisexternal PhD, WU


    Her work

    Women's work and the sociology of work in historical and emancipative perspective

    This book describes the developments in research on women's work in the Netherlands from the end of the nineteenth century until 1988.
    In this historical review spanning more than a century, three main questions are considered: The first question concerns the historical incentives for the first studies on women's work. Which political and societal movements took the initiative for this research outside the academic sphere and what were their aims? The second question concerns the development in themes, research questions and assumptions during the identifiable period in which women's work has been a subject of study, related to societal developments and ideology about working women. In the third place the book analyses the attention paid to women's work questions in sociology in general before World War Two and in the sociology of work in particular since 1945. An explanation is sought for the fact that there has been a significant and long-standing gap in this area of study within the discipline of sociology. Why is it only now, in the nineteen-eighties, that this gap is finally starting to be closed?

    The historical roots of women's work research
    Three currents can be distinguished in Dutch society, which generated interest in the 'women's question' in general and which more or less led to the first research on women's work in particular, during the second half of the nineteenth century.
    The first current was the protestant-christian movement of Réveil which stressed the importance of practical social work instead of giving alms to the poor. At this point in time, when there was a total lack of decently paid work for women, charity work allowed middle and higher status women to be socially active, without undermining the ideology that women did not have to work. It also awoke their social responsibility in a certain sense. The absence of decently paid work harmed unmarried women in particular, many of whom lived out their days in genteel but very real poverty. They were completely dependent on their families or they had to earn their money in secret. During the last decades of the previous century, a growing number of these unmarried women were no longer willing to accept these conditions. They wanted to perform their work in the open and to get rid of the shame surrounding it. They strived for access to education, and with it, the professions. Stemming from this movement, a group of women took the initiative to organize a national exhibition on women's work in 1889. The aims of the exhibition were to inform the broader public on all the hidden work of middle and higher status women, to instill women with pride in their work, and to inform more women and girls about education and job possibilities.
    The second current which focused attention on the women's work question in particular, was the nascent labour movement. The aim of this movement was to improve the conditions of the working class, beginning with work protection, first for women and children, with the ultimate objective being its realization eventually for all workers. From the point of view of the socialist movement, women's work was an extraordinary form of exploitation of the working class, which could only be terminated by an overthrow of the capitalistic society. In this sense, working class women and men were equal and therefore had the same interests. From the beginning, the struggle for the cultural and material improvement of the working class led to contradictory views of the women's work question in the socialist movement (the labour movement and socialist parties). On the one hand the socialist leaders nearly always pleaded for equal rights for women in cases of paid work, education and political rights. On the other hand, with respect to the cultural improvement of the working class, the goal was seen as being a reasonable family lifestyle, resembling the model of the bourgeois family, in which the housewife has the time to run the household and to raise the children. This last aim could be realized by achieving breadwinners wages for men, thereby making it unnecessary for women to perform paid work and concurrently eliminating low-paid women's work. This contradiction between supporting equal rights for women in paid work and the struggle to free women from performing paid work created a gap between the theory and practice of the work movement until far into the twentieth century.
    Nevertheless, the labour movement (and some enlightened doctors) were during this period the first to begin gathering data concerning the working class and their living and working conditions. They also persuaded the government to commence similar studies. Children's and women's working conditions were one of the objects of this data gathering exercise.
    The male-dominated unions contributed very little to the National Exhibition of Women's Work (1898). The 'bourgeois' character of the exhibition made it incapable of contributing to the aims of working class women. Only the female seamstress union participated; the seamstresses did, however, add an important additional dimension to the exhibition. Not only the work of bourgeois women, but also that of the working class women was made visible, enhancing the scope of the exhibition and the amount of information provided, and introducing a new focus for future study. Although there was a large gap between women of different status levels and with different aims, the period in which the exhibition took place was characterized by an open mindedness and spirit of co-operation which terminated in the decade which followed. The diversification of the women's movement led to sharp contradictions, due to the growing differences of opinion on the questions of women's work protection and voting rights.
    The third current which made a major contribution to the rise of the 'women's question' at the turn of the century was that of the 'radical' feminists. This group of liberal and socialist women, ideologically based on the ideas of the Enlightenment and of the French Revolution, posed fundamental questions relating to autonomy and rights for women, including in their analysis the broadest possible approach to the problem (considering marriage, private property, work participation, civil rights and so forth). They had their own organization and periodical. The fundamental analyses of the 'women's question' evoked the opposition of a number of social groups to the ideas of the 'radical' feminists, including forces in the academic world.
    The first efforts at gathering data relating to women's work took place in a climate which was remarkably open, despite the diversification described above of women from divergent social status backgrounds, and with differing opinions about the 'women's question'. This open climate was due largely to the influence of the National Exhibition of Women's Work. The task of gathering data was continued by the National Bureau of Women's Work, which performed a great deal of small-scale research ( ' 1900-1920). Research on women's work stopped during the Interbellum, although the women's work question remained on the political agenda. The increasing power of the confessional political parties repeatedly resulted in new laws on the prohibition of paid work for married women.
    From the turn of the century, the ideas of the 'radical' feminists were more and more the object of criticism. The central theme of the proposed new regulation of the relations between the sexes at this time became the accentuation of the differences between the sexes. Man and woman are different, femaleness and maleness had to be severed from one another. Scientifically, legally, and practically this idea was worked out in social institutions such as the family, the labour market and the legal structure regulating working rights, for instance by creating different spheres of life (between home and work), unequal rights (labour protection laws especially for women, no equal pay, no legal capability for married women and so forth) and by cultivating the psychological differences between the sexes (skills based on femininity and motherhood). When women were taking part in the labour process, they had to be separated from men - spatially, in types of work (male and female work) and in access to skills. The unions, as mentioned already, had in theory accepted the principle of equal rights, but in practice they struggled for breadwinner wages and against female work because of the wage- cutting effect of low female wages on the pay of their male counterparts.
    Apart from these developments, opposition also came from within the women's movement itself. This was partly caused by the struggle for voting rights which increased the division between the women from socialist parties and the feminists. The socialist parties were fighting more for general voting rights for all men than for men and women. The feminists reacted by placing the emphasis on voting rights for women rather than on voting rights for all social status groups. The second issue which divided the women's movement concerned the special protection of women's work. The feminists were radically opposed to such protection, because it introduced new inequalities between the sexes. The socialists saw it as being necessary within the context of the circumstances prevailing at the time, and considered it as a stepping stone to general work protection for both sexes. The confessionalists saw it as a step toward general prohibition of work for married women.
    However, the women's movement was divided by more than these divergent political aims alone. After the turn of the century there was a growing movement of women which departed from the 'radical' feminists and reintroduced the issue of equal rights into the discussion. Instead of equality between the sexes, they wanted to stress the femininity of women to highlight how it differed from masculinity. Real women should be female women. In their eyes the 'radical' feminists were denying their own female nature. In the changing political context, this current within the women's movement gained in power. Even voting rights for women, which remained one of the central and clear issues of the women's movement as a whole, tended to be pushed into the background by this 'moderated' part of the women's movement. In 1919, the confessionals were willing to agree to the voting rights for women, more or less to counteract potential revolutionary influences from other countries in Europe and because they expected more conservative votes from women. They also agreed to a more or less general labour protection law (an eight-hour working day for men and women).

    Research on female workers and their work
    Thus the first research on women's work was set up in a complex political environment in which the aim of equal rights had not yet been realised, except on the point of voting rights. After 1920, the women's movement found itself on the defensive, subjected to continuous assaults from the confessional parties on women's paid work, which received increasing support from other groups due to the explosion of unemployment in the thirties.
    The second question considered in the book, which was what issues have been studied in the context of women's work during the different identified periods of the last century, yielded a rather diversified spectrum of answers.
    In the first two decades of the century, the National Bureau for Women's Work carried out a large number of empirical studies on several jobs and workplaces of women. The researchers of this bureau, women who had also been working on the national exhibition, considered women's work to be an economic necessity for working class women, to augment the income of the family. This was the case both for young working girls and for married women. The research was concentrated in three areas: carrying out statistical operations on changes in the employment patterns of women, doing empirical research on low-paid women's work, and compiling job guides and career advice for women and girls of all social status backgrounds. The empirical research was always related to the labour laws and their consequences for the employment possibilities for women.
    The number of married women working outside the home was already very small and it diminished continually from 1890 until the twenties, thereafter remaining stable until the Second World War (in the Interbellum only 2% of the Dutch labour force were married women). The attacks from confessionals against married women's paid work outside the home was therefore largely ideological in nature. During the Interbellum, almost no research on women's work was done for a period of twenty years. The National Bureau stopped doing empirical research on women's work, but continued work on job-advising and job-guidance for women and girls.
    In the thirties, moreover, special efforts were made on behalf of Catholic girls working in factories. The largest numbers of working girls were employed in the industries in the predominantly Catholic regions. Especially noteworthy is the accent which Catholics placed on the issue of sexuality in the case of factory girls. The suggestion of any type of sexual activity combined with a lack of religious zeal alarmed them more than poor working conditions and circumstances. Catholic youth workers began by gathering data, concentrating on the religious and sexual moral lifestyles of these factory girls; their aim was to organize practical youth work to help to prepare these girls to be good Catholic mothers in the future. In the post war period this group of young girls received increased attention from the elites of the other two 'pillars' of Dutch society (protestant-christians and socialists). All of these elites were becoming increasingly anxious about the possible development of a 'mass-youth' phenomenon. These fears led to a tremendous research effort, paid for by the government, and executed by the pillared academic social sciences. In this research the focus shifted from standards of sexual morality to pedagogical standards. The only problems of working girls deemed worthy of academic study were pedagogical ones. A sociology of youth failed to develop. The employment status of the working girls was likewise not incorporated into the field of sociology of work (in this case managerial sociology), which has become a new subdiscipline in sociology in the post war period. The work- related issues affecting girls were reduced to pedagogical issues.
    In the immediate post-war years, the government regarded working girls primarily as an economical issue, as testified by their research reports. More specifically young girls were seen as a source of labour to resolve existing manpower shortages. Later on pedagogical concerns were added to these economic ones. Only when the shortage of manpower seemed to be more structural, was the first governmental initiative taken in the sixties to carry out research aimed at evaluating the potential of manpower among married women (the fulltime housewives).
    The first sociological research on this issue commenced at the end of the fifties, It concerned itself solely with married women, whether working outside their homes or not. In sociology, the problem of married women working outside their homes became a research subject within the subdiscipline 'sociology of the family' and not within that of 'sociology of work'. Female workers and their work as research subjects were therefore considered to be a family problem and not a work problem. The research carried out within the framework of the sociology of family concerned itself virtually solely with the attitudes of married women toward working outside their homes, and related these attitudes to personal factors such as age, educational level and to family factors such as the number of children, income of their husbands, and so forth. It was by means of this type of supply-side factors that the work force participation of married women was described.
    Research on demand-side factors never took place, nor did research on the work aspects themselves (such as working conditions, level of work, required skill). Theoretically, the functionalist-structuralistic 'role-theory' of Parsons was applied. It was also the first time sociology developed explicitly a theory explaining the social relations between the sexes. From the point of view of role-theory, problems of combining a job and household duties were labelled as role conflicts within married women themselves. In the sociology of the family, work done at home was not considered to be work, but to be loving and cherishing, consuming and caring for husband and children.
    With the rise of the feminist movement at the end of the sixties, the social position of women began to be analyzed in completely new ways. The analyses of the relations between men and women in terms of power became the central issue (in the family, in sexuality. in paid work and in politics). It was maintained that the inequality between the sexes could be explained by pointing to the different roles which men and women occupied. The role of mother and housewife was considered as obligatory and unpaid homework and therefore as the central cause for the oppression of all women. The consciousness of this oppression could be the basis for a collective strategy of the women's movement. Feminists demanded that men should perform their fair share in the unpaid housework. It caused a crisis in the private lives of people on a broad scale. For the first time ever in history, women demanded that housework and child care should also be done by men. Even the 'radical' feminists in the first feminist movement never made such demands.
    The second feminist movement elevated a large number of issues previously considered as belonging purely to the private life, to political ones. These issues not only concerned housework and child care, but also the area of sexuality. This area was also analyzed in terms of power relations (sexual violence, child abuse, the male dominated heterosexuality).
    The feminist movement at the end of the sixties gave rise to a new field of studies at the academic level, which began to appear in the middle of the nineteen-seventies and which was called 'women's studies'. In the social and historical sciences at first, and gradually in all established academic disciplines, women (students and later on female researchers as well) posed new questions concerning the position of women, thereby criticising the gaps in knowledge about women and the traditional patterns of male views. In the field of women's work, a start was made with a marxist analysis of the subordinated position of women. Capitalism and patriarchy together were seen as the cause of this subordination inside the home and in the workplace. For the first time since the National Bureau on Women's Work carried out its investigations at the beginning of this century, research was done on women's work itself. The quantitative and qualitative marginality of women's work was studied within organizations and in women's jobs. In the eighties, the marxist theoretical context was discarded because it was to general in scope women in particular were the victims of the system. New theories came into being in an effort to find answers to the question of why the sexual division of labour had developed as it had. The continuous restating of the sexual division of labour as a principle of organizing paid and unpaid work became un object of study. Not only women's jobs were studied, but also the inequality between the labour positions of men and women and the mechanism by which this inequality has endured from one period to another.
    Compared to the sociological studies of the family which had concentrated almost solely on attitude-supply-side factors, research in the eighties placed more emphasis on demand-side factors: the employment available for women, the discrimination by management in selecting and interviewing female candidates, the discrimination in career development and in the acceptance of female workers for in-house education and so forth.
    For the first time since the start of academic sociology, women's work has become the specific object of work research. Also for the first, interfaces have been created with the sociology of work. This brings us to the last question of the book.

    Women's work in the sociology of work
    The third central question considered in this book, namely the extent of the interest taken by Dutch sociology in general and by the sociology of work in particularly since 1945 in female workers and in questions concerning women's work, can be answered succinctly. Until the middle of the nineteenseventies, this attention was minimal; sex might be used as one of the independent variables in a research study for example. Only in the last decade more consideration has been given to the position of female workers and to the sexual division of labour, with a special concentration on labour market developments and on segmentations in the labour processes as research topics. In the following section we will highlight some aspects of academic thought in different historical periods, in an attempt to explain these developments in Dutch sociology.
    At the turn of the century sociology as an academic discipline did not yet existed in the Netherlands. In the academical climate the liberal bourgeoisie dominated. Almost no attention was paid by these academics to the consequences of industrialization for the working lives of people, and there was therefore likewise no attention paid to women's work. In reflecting on the women's movement of that time, we see that ideas opposing the ideas of equal rights for women were, however, being developed. Steinmetz, who later became the doyen of Dutch sociology, developed a paradigm concerning the necessity of there being a difference between the sexes. In the context of his evolution theory, he saw a need to protect the monogamous family and to protect femininity by excluding women from paid work and by reserving them for household and childcare duties. For a good analysis of 'the women's question', Steinmetz considered it necessary to make a distinction between different sorts of women: 'real women' and 'traitors to her own sex'. Only women unsuitable for marriage could learn a profession, so their breed would become extinct. In his view, the cultivation of differences between the sexes had a socio- technical function in regulating the relations between the sexes in private life (it generated love and happiness) as well as in helping to maintain order of society (disciplining of men to monogamy and adapting them to be good workers and breadwinners).
    When academic sociology became more institutionalized during the Interbellum, this paradigm was incorporated without dispute into the basics of sociology. The women's movement was no longer strong, so there was no force to oppose or to revise this paradigm. No sociology of women came into existence ( , in contrast with psychology which developed a psychology of women) and interest in 'the women's question' seemed to have died out completely. It was only after the Second World War that a sociological foundation for this paradigm was formulated, resulting from the development of the role theory. Until the emergence of the new women's movement at the end of the sixties and the start of women's studies in the seventies, these roots of the discipline were unchallenged.
    Before World War Two, virtually no attention was paid to work in general as a topic of study within academic sociology. Contributing factors were the relatively late industrialization of the Netherlands, its specific cultural and social character and the religious-political division of Dutch society (pillarization), especially since the emancipation of the Catholics and their acceptance into the mainstream of Dutch society. Pillarization created vertical social structures rather than horizontal class -structures. More or less as a consequence of these factors, the socialist unions did not develop a powerful position on the shop floor of the major industries. In the Interbellum they opted for a central deliberation strategy and for co-operation with the socialist party to achieve government power ( , which became a reality on the eve of World War Two, in 1939). The socialist movement thus failed to become a significant social force on the basis of a grass- roots struggle, and was unable to exert any influence on the burgeoning social sciences to devoted attention to these kinds of work problems. Another factor was the large theoretical gap between the intellectuals of the socialist movement, with analyses based on marxism, and the bourgeois academic tradition. The marxist intellectuals were almost completely excluded from university positions. Their analyses and research remained a tradition separated from academic sociology.
    The first steps toward the institutionalization of sociology actually occurred in the field of geography. As a result, the first sociological studies were largely sociographical in character. They were highly descriptive with no propositions and with only a geographical tracing of the subjects researched. In these studies, workers, including female workers, were sometimes one of the phenomena described. One cultural study on seamstresses was in this respect more or less a coincidence. Questions about the topics of work and labour processes were never generated, however, in the pre-war sociographical studies.
    After the Second World War, Dutch sociology came into its own and became completely orientated toward American sociology (in the pre-war period it was orientated primarily toward German traditions in social sciences). A certain differentiation took place, out of which a managerial sociology developed. Neither this subdiscipline, nor other directions in sociology in the postwar period (the religious split-up of cultural sociology for example) devoted any significant attention to the female worker or to her work in studies on human relations at the company level (work motivation, work satisfaction and leadership). The same applied for the period after managerial sociology had become discredited (or matured) and more real sociological issues began to be examined in the field of the sociology of work (mobility and stratification, formation of professions, supply-side labour market issues for example). Most of the studies were conducted in the male sectors of industry or in male professions. If female workers were incorporated in the research, they were usually dealt with in one of three ways. One way was to exclude women from the samples, a second way was to describe how they differed from male workers (sex as an independent variable), but to forget about these differences in the analyses, which were typologies of male workers only. A third way, often used implicitly, was to interpret the data on male and female workers differently. For male workers the job-model was used, for female workers the gender-model. This means that data on female workers were analyzed in the context of (future) family responsibility or femininity and never in the context of the paid work they did, as was the case for data relating to male workers.
    Only since the middle of the seventies, with the commencement of the analysis of the distributive aspects of the labour market (dual labour market) and of the societal inequality which generated it, has the sexual division of labour came into the picture. The studies at the company level concerning the consequences for the quality of work of automation and of new forms of work division, also stirred up some interest in the employment consequences for women, for the quality of women's work and for aspects of the sexual division of work. Yet in the area of power relations in organizations, the power relation between the sexes is still not seen as a significant factor in the sociological analyses of the processes of decision-making which go on in organizations. The meaning of ideologies around masculinity and femininity (in job-tasks and skills) has likewise not been researched within the framework of the sociology of work in the last decade.
    There is still a gap on these points between studies in the sociology of work and the feminist studies. One of the main reasons for the lack of interest in the topic women's work in post-war sociology of work are the managerial character of the discipline, as well as the structural-functional character of 'modern sociology'. On the one hand, because of the managerial character of the discipline, a complete division was created between studies on the level of organizations and studies on the family. It meant that the arrangement (composition of groups) of men was studied within the organizational sphere, and the arrangements (composition of groups) of women within the family sphere. Therefore women's participation in the labour force was proposed as being solely a family problem, analyzed by role-theory. On the other hand, the structural- functional paradigm favored in 'modern sociology' failed both in the case of sociology of work as well as in sociology of family (role-theory) to initiate research from worker's perspectives. In the first case the function of the company was central, in the second the function of the family. Therefore, when the shortage of female workers was raised as a topic, it was handled within the framework of family sociology, as a family problem (the absence of the housewife in the family) and not as a work problem. Only after this functionalistic perspective lost its dominant position did the workers' perspectives begin to appear in research. In both research traditions, in the sociology of work as well as in the sociology of family this took place in the middle of the seventies. Feministic criticism of placing women's work within the confines of role theory bore fruit; for the first time in sociology women's work became an issue of work and no longer an issue of family. The worker's perspective in the sociology of work in the seventies also opened the way for more questions about the different positions of male and female workers and the sex segregation on the labour market.
    In spite of these developments, there still are a large number of topics which need revision in the sociology of work before there will be an integration of the two research traditions examined in this book. The two core topics are the full integration of the sexual division of labour in the sociological analysis on questions of work and organization and reorientation on the combination of work in public and private spheres. These could open new perspectives for the theoretical as well as empirical developments in the sociology of work.

    Original languageDutch
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Mok, A.L., Promotor, External person
    • Weeda, C.J., Promotor
    Award date28 Jun 1989
    Place of PublicationAmsterdam
    Print ISBNs9789062221851
    Publication statusPublished - 1989


    • female labour
    • women workers
    • women
    • work
    • employment
    • economic sociology
    • sociology of work
    • division of labour
    • industrial sociology

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