Work Advice For Women From History Was Pretty Sexist & Totally Bizarre

Being a woman in the workplace comes with its challenges, even in the modern era. Research shows that people *still* have trouble with women in the workplace, particularly with women in power, and these attitudes are incredibly difficult to fight. Part of the issue is, of course, how deeply these attitudes are entrenched in work culture. And that’s partially down to the history of women working. Looking at old advice for women shows a lot of bizarre work advice for women from history that doesn’t feel all that dissimilar from the advice you probably get today.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2017 women made up 47 percent of the workforce, and the number of working women hit 74.6 million. It’s a far cry from the past, when the woman’s place was “in the home” and female workers were largely domestic servants or laborers. During the Depression in the U.S., for instance, American political journalist Norman Cousins declared, “Simply fire the women, who shouldn’t be working anyway, and hire the men. Presto! No unemployment. No relief rolls. No depression.” And women have consistently had to battle against the idea that working isn’t “feminine,” and fight the fact that the standards for female excellence in the workplace are significantly higher than those for men.

Here are six bizarre pieces of advice for working women though history that show how far we’ve come — and how far we still need to go.

Dr. Emily Winifred Dickson was a pioneering Irish surgeon who was the first woman to be elected a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 1893 — and gave it all up when she got married. In 1899, she published an article explaining that medicine was far too demanding for a wife and mother:

However, when her husband came back from World War I an invalid, she resumed practice to support her family and continued as a doctor until her death in 1944.

In 1720, the clergyman Thomas Seaton published The Conduct Of Servants In Great Families, which was intended as an advice manual for people working in domestic service in Britain’s noble houses. Female servants, he acknowledged, ran the risk of being assaulted: “It will sometimes happen that a Master of a Great House is Young, and Wanton, and Bold, and Rakish; freely resigning himself to the steerage of his Lusts,” he wrote.

The servants themselves, he noted, should do their best to get away, “concealing themselves” when their boss was “in this humor.” But the servant herself was responsible, he said, “if she by any Wantonness of Behavior, or Looseness or Immodesty in Dress, takes a Pride in being viewed with Admiration […] she herself lays the first stumbling block in their Way.”

The Ladies’ Book Of Etiquette, published in the U.S. in 1869 by Florence Hartley, promises to be “a complete handbook for the use of the lady in polite society,” and has a lot of advice for women in their capacity as employer. In 1870 52 percent of women in America were in domestic service, and it was normal for a female head of household to employ several servants or maids — usually women. So what should you look out for in a domestic?

According to Hartley, female servants needed to be educated, because “they are wretched reasoners, generally losing sight of their own true interest,” and if they were better educated they would be “less credulous” and “better servants.”

But Hartley also warns against “over-indulgence” and giving servants breaks or kindness. “The real charity is to keep servants steadily to their duties,” because “to them idleness is the root of all evil; for if their time is not spent in vicious amusements, it is often passed in slander, discontent and vanity.”

The writer Edith Cherry Johnson published an advice book in 1923 that seems, on first look, to be relevant to modern tastes: To Women of The Business World. However, the book makes for slightly alarming reading. While she said “What men can do, women can do likewise,” she thought there was a pretty distinct catch. The only people who should pursue careers that put them in competition with men, she wrote, were the “four [sic] percent of women in America” who had “very superior intellects”. Every other woman, she explained, would work better in industries where they were “not required to show a great deal of initiative.”

Dutch sociologist Cas Wouters, in Sex And Manners: Female Emancipation In The West 1890-2000, notes that in the 1930s, manners and advice books for women newly entering the working world made her prepare to be seen as “less” than a woman. Working women “should not lay claim to excessive politeness,” said one, because “the woman who practises [sic] an occupation is exterior to male courtesy; this courtesy only attends to a woman who performs her female function”. Charming.

Another noted that “a good secretary is a machine, not a female.” And God help anybody who actually aspired to be something other than a machine; pioneering chemist Helen Wassell revealed that she was tempted to quit her scientific career in the ’30s to become a secretary, because that was the “advice” of the time.

The pioneering aviator Jacqueline Cochran broke a lot of records for women — including being the very first woman to break the sound barrier — but when it came to her attitudes to working women, it seems she wasn’t very forward thinking. At all. She was brought in to consult on the WAF, or Women In The Airforce, in 1950, and her report, which was pretty ambivalent on the idea that a mixed-gender air force was a good idea at all, spent most of its time disparaging the WAF’s uniforms.

And that wasn’t all she didn’t like. Science historian Deborah Douglas reveals that Cochran “equated good work with a particular standard of physical attractiveness.” If you weren’t cute, in this logic, you weren’t allowed to be in the WAF. And she wasn’t the only person who thought it, either. One WAF colonel received the compliment, “She thinks like a man but is flatteringly feminine.”

Thankfully, much of this advice isn’t doled out verbatim anymore, but a lot of these attitudes still persist well into the modern era. The best solution for them? Calling them out time and again, no matter how frustrating it is.

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