Women’s/Gender Studies department panel discusses women’s work

To close-out Women’s History Month, the ELAC Women’s/Gender Studies sponsored a panel discussion last month about women’s work spanning from present-day to 10,000 years ago.

The event featured two speakers including Tia Koonse, Legal and Policy Research Manager at the UCLA Labor Center. One of Koonse’s duties at the labor center is to help protect day laborers. According to Koonse, it is assumed that day laborers are male construction workers, however, female construction workers and household workers are included.

Koonse listed worker centers that are organized by industry such as the garment, restaurant and car wash industries. Some worker centers are organized by ethnicity. “Every single executive director of all the workers centers that I just named is a woman, and prioritizes organizing in industries dominated by women,” Koonse said.

One example Koonse shared was the Service Employees International Union, United Service Workers West and the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund working together to combat sexual assault within the janitorial industry. “They started a campaign called ‘Ya Basta!’ … to educate the legislature about the risks these women experience in order to pass mandatory laws about sexual harassment and assault,” Koonse said.  

In fields such as sex work, Koonse said “there have been efforts to organize sex workers, even if not to unionize directly.” Organizations such as “Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics” have been fighting for the decriminalization of sex work for decades. “Many efforts have focused on decriminalization of sex work. Others have focused on improving wages and conditions in exotic dancing and porn industries,” Koonse said.

“The idea that womanhood use their bodies to make money — or to provide for shelter and safety — is something we see throughout society,” ELAC professor of History Dr. Barbara Dunsheath said. Dunsheath gave a presentation on the origins and history of women’s work throughout the past 10,000 years.

Dunsheath began her presentation by describing the Neolithic period when men and women’s work were equally valued. “The problem with that is that it didn’t last very long,” Dunsheath said.

As history moved from the Neolithic period to agricultural and industrial work, the concept of work itself changed. “Work is much more than something that is done for monetary compensation,” Dunsheat said.

The idea of uncompensated work in the home began after the Neolithic period, like house work and child care at home. Women’s work became increasingly domesticated and the focus changed to the husband and family.

This uncompensated work was much more difficult compared to today because of modern-day conveniences like indoor plumbing, electricity and heating. “It was extremely labor-intensive. It took an extraordinary amount of time,” Dunsheath said.  

Some of the every-day tasks of women during this period are listed in a poem by the English poet, Mary Collier. In the poem “The Woman’s Labour: an Epistle to Mr Stephen Duck,” she describes the man’s workday from sunrise to sunset, but for women, their work is never done.

All around the world, one of the earliest jobs done primarily by women was cloth making. Dunsheath shared photographs of early paintings from Pompeii to China where women are making, dying or sewing cloth.

Dunsheath also discussed doctoring, nursing and midwifery among women and how it later changed into a field dominated by men with the professionalization of the fields. Early women in the medical field include the first woman doctor Elizabeth Blackwell, founder of the American Red Cross Clara Barton, and the founder of the birth-control movement, Margaret Sanger.

Both Dunsheath and Koonse talked about the pay gap between men and women in the workplace– stating that white women make 77¢ to the dollar a white male makes, compared to 64¢ for African-American women and 56¢ for Hispanic women.

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