Career choices for women were very limited in the 1700s. Women in Europe and in the United States were expected to marry, bear children, and take care of their homes and families. Married women were not permitted to own property or own their own businesses. There were only a few options available for single women who needed to earn a living.
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Dorothy A. Mays, author of "Women in Early America: Struggle, Survival, and Freedom in a New World," writes that women who produced pieces of clothing in their homes were called seamstresses. Seamstresses created clothing, such as jackets, that were difficult for women to make at home. The wages for their work were usually low. Mays explains that a woman had to sew as many as seven shirts to earn the same amount of money that a man earned in a day's labour.
Milliners designed and created hats, gloves, bonnets and, sometimes, dresses. There were many women who owned their own millinery businesses, and they often employed other women to do piecework. Milliners also offered valuable services in laundering, mending and dying clothing.
According to the Spinsters Treadle website, the word "spinster" used to mean a person who spun cotton, wool or flax into yarn. This process was extremely time-consuming and women with children did not have time to create fine, high-quality yarn. This process was usually left to single females. Spinsters were usually unmarried women, which is the genesis of the current definition of spinster. Girls from age 6 to 9 also typically worked at this trade and were paid low wages.
Peter Vronsky, the author of "Female Serial Killers: How and Why Women Become Monsters," explains that the life of a domestic servant in England was extremely difficult. There were no labour laws at this time, so girls worked seven days a week and were paid a pittance, if they received any money at all. Deborah Simonton, author of "A History of European Women's Work: 1700 to the Present," explains that some homeowners gave the girl's wages directly to her father rather than to her. The job duties of a domestic servant were wide and varied. Some held higher ranking positions such as ladies' maid, while a maid-of-all-work did whatever needed to be done around the home.
Vronsky notes that for women who failed at being domestic servants, the only two options left for employment were prostitution and theft, the first of which was extremely dangerous and the second punishable by hanging.
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- "A History of European Women's Work - 1700 to the Present: The Experience of Domestic Service"; Deborah Simonton; 1998
- The Spinsters Treadle: Handspinning Yarn - Why?
- "Female Serial Killers: How and Why Women Become Monsters"; Peter Vronsky; 2007
- "Women in Early America: Struggle, Survival, and Freedom in a New World"; Dorothy A. Mays; 2004