Throughout history and across cultures, women have always worked, and their work has been essential in providing food, clothing, and shelter for their families. That work has taken many forms, from gathering wild food to churning butter, from selling handicrafts in the marketplace to working in a textile factory, from assisting executives to caring for the sick, from selling real estate to designing web pages and computer software. But women's work was not always work for a wage. In fact, at the beginning of the twentieth century, waged work was viewed as an essential part of men's, but not women's, identities.
Wage labor, in contrast to owning a farm or being an independent artisan, was once viewed as undesirable and analogous to slavery. In the nineteenthcentury United States, the growth of industrialization and the influx of landless immigrants meant that an increasing proportion of people, especially men, came to rely on working for a wage as a means of provisioning. Bread-winning came to be viewed no longer as subjection to a master, but rather as a means to economic independence. By the turn of the twentieth century, working men joined unions and struggled with employers to achieve a family wage, defined as a wage sufficient to support a dependent wife and children. 1
As masculinity was redefined to incorporate and legitimate wage labor, a family structure based upon a male breadwinner and female homemaker was idealized. The fact that some women also worked for wages became increasingly problematic. Women were largely excluded from wage labor unless their families had no other means of providing for their needs. This escape clause in the idealized vision of the male breadwinner family actually accounted for a substantial amount of economic activity in the formal and informal economy. Daughters in immigrant families, widows, and other poor women, including a higher proportion of African American than white women, participated in waged work. Other women continued their work in farming or handicrafts, took in boarders, did laundry at home, and performed a variety of other income-generating activities. This was market-oriented work, but it took place on the periphery of capitalist production.
Gradually over the twentieth century, women's productive work came to be incorporated into the industrialized economy. What was once made in the