Book Review: Women’s Work. The First 20,000 Years

Book Review: Women’s Work. The First 20,000 Years

Women’s Work. The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times.

by Elizabeth Wayland Barber

As I write this, it is International Women’s Day. It seems fitting to study and celebrate women’s contribution to society from the earliest times.

Of course, the first and most obvious question is “How do we define women’s work?” and this is exactly where Barber’s book begins:

For millennia women have sat together spinning, weaving, and sewing. Why should textiles have become their craft par excellence, rather than the work of men? Was it always thus, and if so, why?

Barber refers to a hypothesis by Judith Brown entitled “Note on the Division of Labor by Sex.” During her research, Brown had concluded that the extent to which a community relies upon women to provide a type of labour depends upon the compatibility of that labour with the necessity of childcare. Brown’s observations were that women’s work held certain characteristics:

  1. It does not require unbroken concentration
  2. It tends to be repetitive
  3. It is easily interruptible
  4. It is easily resumed once interrupted
  5. It does not place a child in danger
  6. It does not require the worker to range far from home.

I am sure everyone reading this who has experience of combining work and childcare understands this list! (As an aside, we find later in the book that this definition meant that doing the laundry was men’s work in ancient Egypt, due to the danger posed to children by the Nile-dwelling crocodiles.) None of this is to put women or their contributions in a box. As a former physicist, I know exactly what it’s like to be working in a male-dominated environment. It is simply to explain how women came to take the roles they most often performed in early societies.


Barber is an academic with a special interest in archaæological textiles. She has written academic texts, but this book is aimed at a general audience and her writing is as engaging as it is informed. Archæological textiles is a small and difficult field of study, due to the fact that materials such as wood and fibre are rarely preserved in the archaeological record. One of the fascinating things Barber does is outline all the other pieces of evidence that can help fill in the picture of our rich textile heritage. For example, she looks at language development, noting:

One doesn’t have a term for something one doesn’t know yet, so if an ancient term for something exists, what the word signified must have been a known entity.

Barber starts way back in the Palæolithic (the old stone age) and describes the oldest known (at the time of writing) fibre artefact: a cord twisted from three two-ply fibre strings, dated to around 15,000 BC and yet easily recognisable to any spinner today.

Barber skillfully crafts her story, not only chronologically, taking us from the stone age to the bronze and then iron age, stopping off at civilisations such as the Minoans, the Egyptians, and the Mycenæans, but she also divides the chapters by topic. She takes us through different kinds of societies: hunter-gatherer, horticultural, early urban manufacturing to iron age industrial settlements. She covers fascinating areas of interest to textile historians: the function of cloth and clothing, its symbolism, elite textile production, textile myths and what we can learn from them about the women and their work in those societies. As an added treat, her book is liberally illustrated throughout with drawings and photographs of textile artefacts, archæological sites, patterns, techniques, motifs and more.

Reading this book not only greatly expanded my knowledge of the rich historical context of the craft I have chosen to work in, it also made me proud to be part of that unbroken tradition, of the craftswomen who could take the simplest tools and materials, and create something that we need and use every day of our lives. And as I write this blog, with my enthusiastic seven year-old singing to me, eager to show me that she’s learnt all her words, I also feel connected to all those souls who have combined the nurture of children with work, either necessary or fulfilling or both, and I’m proud of that tradition too.

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