Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Women's Work

Have I told you about the exhibit?

I probably have, it’s all I talked about for several months last fall. But then, maybe I didn’t. I don’t like to talk about work in this space. I don’t feel it’s appropriate.

Anyway, last fall I had the privilege to work on an exhibit. It was a photographic website on the daily lives of women in rural Newfoundland prior to confederation.

It was a lot more work than I expected, but not nearly the kind of work that the women I was representing had done.

Do you know what’s involved in “making fish”? I do now. This is what women would do with the fish that the men brought in before it could be sold. It had to be washed, salted and dried many times over. We are talking literal tons of fish here. Washed, salted, and spread out to dry. Many times. I know I’m repeating myself here, but it’s important. One thing that had never occurred to me about this process: if there was any sign of rain, the fish had to be brought in before it happened, then spread out again after.

In case you’re not familiar with Newfoundland weather, this is the part where a chill goes down your spine.

Basically, this would be all day, six days a week, of backbreaking labour. Labour that had to be performed perfectly, as it was the backbone of the family finances.

But that’s not all!

During the fishing season, the family would eat five meals a day. The first breakfast around 4am, as the men had to be on the water by dawn. Then a second breakfast a few hours later. The largest meal of the day was at midday, then at 5 there would be a light supper, followed by lunch before bed. All of these were cooked and served by the women of the family. Newfoundland families from this time often had 8 or more children, which was helpful for the hands with work, but made for more mouths to feed, not to mention more laundry.

But let’s just stick with the feeding for now. In the communities this exhibit examines, there were few stores. Women could buy flour, oats, tea, tobacco and molasses, but often not a whole lot else. (Especially if the fishing was poor). Women baked bread and prepared all meals from scratch. The majority of their ingredients they had to provide for themselves as well.

Most houses had a vegetable patch, but gardening is hard in Newfoundland. In most areas the topsoil is very thin, and what there is is highly acidic. Also, there can be frosts in June and September, so the growing season is very short. Women would lay out caplin to rot in the sun and fertilize the soil. The vegetables that were grown in these patches would be the only ones their families would get. The berries picked up from the barrens the only fruit.

One thing that sticks with me from my research is an oral interview that was done with an elderly woman years ago. She had been born in the late 1890s and had been interviewed in the early 80s. She was describing her housework and said, “When I had a spell, I’d do some weeding.” What she meant, was that she weeded as a break from work.

Personally, I consider weeding to be work.

I won’t even get into the cleaning, the laundry, the knitting and sewing, childrearing, teaching, healing, etc.

My point is that women worked hard. They have for millennia, all over the globe. I’m sure in the world now there are women who have similar lifestyles.

I work 40 hours a week in an ergonomic chair in a climate controlled environment, where I have full benefits and rights and have never encountered any kind of discrimination, then I come home to my 21st century partner, electric stove and washing machine, and do pretty much whatever I feel like. Because I can.

But I do bake bread. And I grow vegetables. I cook dinner. I crochet blankets. I don’t have to do these things, but I choose to. Whenever I push my fists into warm dough, I know that my grandmothers did this, and their grandmothers. So on and again for a thousand years, on this side of the ocean and the other.

I don’t have to do these things, but a little ache in my shoulders and some slightly sore feet remind me of where I’ve come from. They give me a sense of connection and continuity with the past. And remind me to be grateful for all the advantages I have now.

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