The phrase “women’s work” is often used derisively to indicate labor that’s seen as “less than,” but a new exhibit at New-York Historical Society reclaims that phrase. Aptly titled "Women's Work," the show chronicles the history of women's contributions to labor and how those efforts are both inherently political and essential to American society.
The exhibit features dozens of objects in the museum's collection from indenture documents to medical kits to military uniforms. With items ranging from the 1740s to today, the show celebrates the strides society has made in equality while not shying away from highlighting the gender-based inequalities that persist today.
“When we look through New-York Historical’s own collections … we can find material evidence, photographs, objects that represent the different kinds of work that women have done in different industries in different settings. Those distinctions between what women are properly meant to do are incredibly socially constructed. They’re dependent on all kinds of different structural factors, things like legal barriers, things like racial prejudice, class distinction, ethnic and national differences,” said Anna Danziger Halperin, associate director of NYHS’ Center for Women’s History.
With the historical society staff's research and collection as a foundation, the exhibit explores all kinds of work, from caregiving and factory labor to sex work and activism. Though women have traditionally been saddled with the role of caregivers, the exhibit highlights how women have also taken on physically arduous and perilous work such as using laundry clothes ringers in the late 1800s.
Also in the 1800s, teaching roles became available to women; within the next century, women overtook the education profession. As World War I dawned, women were offered roles as nurses, but they were asked to volunteer so they wouldn't expect paying jobs after the war. In the 1950s, women's voices found space on the radio waves; an audio display broadcasts the voices of Billie Holiday and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Other portions of the exhibition highlight the role of female abolition fundraisers, AIDS activists and suffragists. Some women used typically feminine arts like sewing skills to support important causes. For example, the trailblazing artist Rose Cecil O'Neill used her famous Kewpie dolls to raise money for suffrage.
The exhibition is organized thematically with entrepreneurship as a constant theme from the late 1700s to today, from a 1700s woman-led inn to Indigenous crafters to the businesswomen of today.
Some of the notable figures featured include hair care pioneer Madam C.J. Walker, journalists Sophie Loeb, political leader Shirley Chisholm and transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson.
"Even today, with having so many advances in access to education and access to professional credentialing, women still only making 82 cents out of a man's dollar, and women of color are making far less," Halperin said. "We're trying to provoke our audience to think about, 'What would it actually look like if we valued women's labor?'"
"Women's Work" is on view through August 18, 2024 in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery at New-York Historical Society on the Upper West Side. The exhibit is included with general admission, which is $22 for adults; pay-as-you-wish admission is offered from 6–8 pm on Fridays.