Female work from home pioneers
Oct 17, 2018 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Next month I celebrate five years of working from home. While I really enjoy being able to spend the work day with my dogs and ignoring the traffic report on the morning news, it can be a challenge telling people what I do for a living. It’s funny how we all adapt to our own definition of normal. For me, it’s completely normal to interact with colleagues in a purely digital setting. In fact, I haven’t met most of my coworkers in person, yet I still feel connected to them. Through exchanged care packages and Skype calls, we’ve built camaraderie. When I tell most people about my average work day, I’m met with either blank stares or concerns for my welfare. (As an introvert, I enjoy the personal space and find I’m more productive at home than in a traditional office setting.) But we all have our own comfort zones and recently those zones are being pushed closer to home.
In the last few years, more and more companies have embraced the remote workplace setting. In fact, some reports indicate this trend has increased by 115% in the last decade. In rough figures, that translates to nearly 4 million folks who now count working from home as their new normal. In many ways the software industry has spearheaded this trend, developing programs that foster collaboration on a global scale. With all of these technical solutions and trendy new terms like “hot desking,” it can seem like remote working is a recent innovation. Don’t believe the hype dear readers – working remotely is nothing new. The home office was the original workplace and women, just like me, were carving out careers from the hearth long before the internet was even a passing thought. So let’s meet these female work from home pioneers, the trendsetters from the non-digital age!
The first work from home job for women was managing the home. In this role gals organized cleaning, cooking, and family life with the efficiency of a commander in the Army. In addition to this full-time job, many women in the 19th and early 20th centuries were also supporting the family’s entrepreneurial efforts (like farming, for example). Managing a household (regardless of era) requires diplomacy, determination and a level of intelligence that is mirrored in any board room setting. There are many modern women who are primarily housewives and I applaud their hard work!
The Victorian era ushered in the Industrial Revolution, spurring on the global economy and bringing families from the farm to the city. During this time the family economy underwent a big shift as well, with most families needing multiple income streams to get by. While some women went outside of the home to work in factories (even coal mines!), many gals found work from home positions. The jobs varied, but could be lumped into two main industries: textiles and food. For women with sewing skills, they would take on finishing work for clothing or shoes. Other women set up home laundering services (and we’ve already talked about what hard work this chore was back in the day!). Food preparation was another common work from home job for the 19th century woman, allowing her to tend to her family and contribute to the home’s economy. (And we wonder how we adopted this “have it all” philosophy!)
All of these jobs were deemed acceptable by society (provided your station in life was aligned with the career you pursued), but there were some women who worked from home in stealth mode. The rebel of this era was the woman wielding pen and paper – the authoress. If you are doubting the hostile environment toward women writers, consider these two quotes: “literature is not the business of a woman’s life and it cannot be” and “all women, as authors, are feeble and tiresome. I wish they were forbidden to write.” Wow! The first quote was delivered to Charlotte Brontë (yep, that Charlotte Brontë) from the poet Robert Southey. The second quote is from Nathaniel Hawthorne, moaning to his publisher in 1852.
Reading these quotes, in light of current events, makes me wonder why women owning a narrative is seen as threatening (or tiresome, to borrow an adjective). But I find myself feeling hopeful. Jane Austen may have published anonymously during her lifetime, but her work is now properly cited and has gone on to inspire countless generations.
The truth I’ve discovered, dear reader, is that women working from home are a particularly courageous and determined population. Women have been working remotely for eons. While this work may not present itself loudly, it’s there – faithfully contributing to a local and global economy. Coupling these efforts with the gals who go into an office every day, the female workforce is a mighty thing to behold! Are you a female work from home pioneer? Tell us about your experiences in the comments…