Today women who take up the challenge of successfully combining home and family with a career are often labelled “superwomen”. Having attempted to do the same I greatly admire those women who from necessity or desire take this road and are able to balance their home and life without burning out. I used to think how great it would be to live in a time when men were the breadwinners and the women had only the responsibility to look after home and children. One thing genealogy has taught me is that my female ancestors did not have an easy time, and I doubt that I could cope with the challenges they faced throughout their lives.
In tracing my ancestors, it is clear that households were a patriarchy; men controlled every aspect of the household. Women acted as subordinates to men. Men were the decision-makers usually in charge of all household finances even if their wife provided some income either through their dowry/inheritance or by selling produce that she grew or made. The man was the owner of all property of the household and women rarely spoke against or divorced their husband. Women could not vote, own land while married, go to a university, earn equal wages, enter many professions, and even report domestic abuse. Would I be willing to live without my education, my work and the recognition of my contribution to our family and the community as a whole…definitely not!
My ancestors were middle class and the women were responsible for running the household, for cooking and feeding the family, tending the garden and animals, raising their children and of course, seeing their husband’s needs were met. While I nod my head thinking I could probably do that then I remember not only the labour-saving devices we have today but also that simplest of “luxuries”; running water at the turn of a tap, sewerage whisked away unseen, light and heating at the touch of a button So no thanks, I will forgo that challenge as well.
My 2x great grandmother, Margaret Henderson (nee Crosby), gave birth to eleven children between 1838 and 1858, or the average of one child every two years. All except one infant survived to adulthood. Women assumed that after marriage children would follow promptly and regularly and that is certainly the case with nearly all my married female ancestors who had at least six children unless they died in childbirth. With no birth control, the prevailing sense was that children just ‘came’ and that there was little to be done about it, besides it was also regarded as a married woman’s duty. Babies were born at home, usually with the assistance of family or a “midwife” with no formal training. With no anaesthetics or antisepsis, childbirth was both dangerous and painful. Married women regarded it as their place to endure this suffering. Given most of my ancestors abided strictly by their religious beliefs I am sure the woman in labour was reminded of the quote from Genesis (3:16) while they were in labour “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain, you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” So no thanks to that challenge as well!
My maternal ancestors were amazing when I think of the lives they endured. Would I take on the challenge of trying to live like them? The answer would have to be a definite no… I can already hear my husband suggesting that a “scold’s bridle” would be definitely needed for such an argumentative wife.