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Work

"Women's work" referred to work that was considered suitable for women and usually included the undervalued and unpaid labor of housekeeping and child-rearing. As recently as the 1960s, most women were limited to certain fields: paid domestic work, nursing, teaching, and secretarial work. Women who worked in alternative fields often didn’t get credit for their work. These examples from the Smithsonian collections prove women’s work is any work that women want to do!

Collection Objects

Discover the stories behind these objects or browse other collection items related to women and their work.

 Poster depicting a Red Cross nurse.

World War I Navy Nurses Served Without Commissioned Rank

Teal electric corn grinder.

Concha Sanchez's American Journey

Woman cutting a yellow squash in a restaurant kitchen. Steam rises from a sink behind her. She wears a baseball cap.

Leah Chase, Queen of Creole Cuisine

Pages from Poems on Various Subjects

Phillis Wheatley Published Poems about Freedom While Enslaved

Sandra Day O'Connor wears her work robes for the Supreme Court. She stares off to the left, out of frame.

The Nation's First Woman Supreme Court Justice

Blue wool blouse; sleeveless; 6 hidden buttons down front; blue and gold 4 stripe captain insignia shoulderboards

The First Official Maternity Uniform for Pregnant Pilots

Conversation Kit

Let's Talk! Dead Letter Office Blind Reading Album Conversation Kit
Dead Letter Office Blind Reading Album Teaching and Discussion Guide

Grades 9–12. Time: Variable (1–2 class periods, plus at-home work). Aligned to CCSS, National Standards for History and C3 standards.

In this lesson plan, students will use the example of the Postal Service's Dead Letter Office to explore working women throughout American history. Students will answer the question: How has society held, and responded to, contradictory perceptions of women's role in the workforce?

Videos

Meet some of the women in early Aviation including Ruth Law, Bessie Coleman, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and Amelia Earhart. They set records, broke barriers and have become symbols for women everywhere to look up to. 

Kathleen Franz, a curator of work and labor at the National Museum of American History, discusses Gilda Mirós and Isabel Norniella, two Latina trailblazers in advertising and broadcasting.

Madam C.J. Walker was suffering from poverty and hair loss when she decided to concoct a hair regrowth lotion to heal her damaged scalp. Fast forward a handful of years and millions of dollars later, Walker was leading one of the most successful, and philanthropic, cosmetic companies to date.

Dolores Huerta was interviewed by Taína Caragol, curator of Latino art and history, at the National Portrait Gallery in 2015. Through her example as a labor and civil rights leader, and her challenge to norms that restrict women's role in society, Dolores Huerta became an early symbol of female power for the Chicano and feminist movements.

The legacy of NASA's Mission Control was changed forever when Frances "Poppy" Northcutt joined the team in 1965 to work on the Apollo program. Since then, Poppy has become an example and advocate for women in the workplace.

How did women serve in uniform during World War I? Tory Altman joins Curator Margaret Vining of the National Museum of American History's Division of Armed Forces History to talk about women's service in the conflict, and how their contributions helped the cause of woman suffrage. 

Playlist

Bev Grant and Working Women

Bev Grant and Working Women

Songs about work and labor compiled by Meredith Holmgren, Curator of American Women's Music.

Smithsonian American Women book cover.

Smithsonian American Women

Remarkable objects and stories of strength, ingenuity, and vision from the National Collection

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