When talking about working women – especially as of the 19th century -, you are thinking of the middle-class ladies primarily and usually forget about day-labourer countrywomen or women serving as handmaids. Although most women worked in agriculture seasonally by the second half of the 19th century. Industrialisation opened up factory gates to women as well, mainly the light industry: the textile-, food- and tobacco-industry built on female workers. They worked until they got married. Married women remained employees very rarely.
Implying that young ladies’ employment can be explained only by the strengthening feminist movements is just as one-sided point of view as explaining it with economic reasons solely. The fact is that fending for the unmarried female relatives and widows meant increasing burdens on the heads of families by the beginning of the 20th century. Thus, whom they could not fend for had to find a job or learn. On the other hand, ladies working as teachers or postwomen had to fight against a strong opposition. For a long time, even finishing secondary school meant a great challenge, not because of their limited intellects, but due to the low number of girls’ schools and later due to the lack of educators who left for the war.
Although the arts and medical faculties of universities were opened for women as of 1895, the more profitable legal and engineering fields remained closed for them. Before the WW I, several hundreds of women already learnt in tertiary schools, but their complete university emancipation was realised only by 1918. Fierce opponents kept questioning women’s aptitude. Besides emphasizing biological differences, a frequent argument of those who worried about the teacher profession was that the youth and beauty of women would divert attention from work and they would take away work opportunities from family-supporting men. In reality, female teachers left their profession after getting married, thus they did not endanger men’s breadwinning.
Women behind the counter
Women’s employment was the highest and most accepted in the habitual fields of a traditional society like trade and catering. Market-women, kitchen workers, waitresses, store saleswomen are the jobs where they do not have to compete with men. Just like seamstresses, hairdressers or nurses – our database abounds in photos about them typically.
Come and get on tractors, girls!
Probably, you all know the motto of the socialist propaganda that wanted to strengthen women’s working this way. The period propaganda praised the family model with two wage-earners, which was considered an achievement of emancipation, but in reality, it was rather a compulsion of living. Emancipation spread to almost all walks of life. The contemporary press paid especially great attention and space to rural women’s emancipation: work competitions, Stakhanovites fulfilling 120 percent and labourers awarded with the Kossuth Prize. Nevertheless, the image transmitted by the ruling power and the public opinion were different. People thought that tractor-girls were of easy virtue, because they worked with men. Later, the miner-women and tractor-girls of the 1950s went down in history rather as victims and not as heroines.
And what about these days? Girls, you are lucky to have the right to choose, if you want to be an alpinist, a doctor or a hairdresser, and this is just so!
Translated by Zita Aknai