Born around The First World War: Refining Gender Complementarity

With Monica Rudberg Men's Work and Women's Work

We didn’t have many earthly possessions. But we did have our own house and enough food ... We had a good and happy childhood, at the same time as we had to work. And we have taken care of each other ... During the summer, when my father worked at the docks—when all the coal boats came in—he earnt 1200 kr. And then we bought flour and coffee and sugar, margarine, potatoes and such for winter, in bulk so that we’d more or less get through the winter. He also had a boat he sometimes used to go fishing for dinner, when the weather allowed it . And mother always cooked, she was good at cooking. They bought pig’s trotters that she pickled herself. We could eat that instead of bread, so that was in order to save bread... Quite amazing how she made the money go round ... She also used to clean people’s houses when they needed it, she did that too ... My father helped at home as much as he could. And then he was a cobbler. We never had to stay home because we didn’t have shoes. Never! (Martha, b. 1913)

© The Author(s) 2017 H.B. Nielsen, Feeling Gender,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-349-95082-9_5

Martha’s account of her childhood in a working-class family in a small fishing town in northern Norway gives us a glimpse of how it could be to grow up in the early part of the twentieth century. The key words are industriousness, thrift and solidarity. It was a poor childhood of simple living conditions and hard work for the majority of children, but not descending into starvation (Danielsen 1990; Kjeldstadli 1994; Nielsen 2006). The vast majority of our 21 interviewees from the eldest generation, born between 1899 and 1927, grew up, like Martha, with many siblings in families of smallholders, farmers and fishermen. They were working-class, lower middle-class or small self-employed families where money was scarce and the income insecure. As mentioned in Chap. 4, such were the living conditions of most people in Norway before the introduction of the first public policies on social security from the mid- 1930s onwards.

A gendered division of work was part of the struggle to survive. Yet it took on different forms according to the rural/urban divide, which was of huge importance at a time when the majority lived in rural areas. Economic and cultural class differences crossed this main divide in a variety of ways. Borghild, a rural girl born in 1911, characterised her family as ‘a family of fighters with the women inside and the men outside’. In farmer families women would assist in men’s outdoor work when they were needed, or they would do all of the work if the husband for some reason was absent. In city families, if the father had a small enterprise, the mother would assist him in different ways. In one case a mother opened her own shop, but named it after her husband. There was less flexibility the other way round, but on rare occasions men assisted in household work, for instance, in periods of male unemployment or on special occasions like the annual slaughter or at Christmas. In rural families the father generally handled the money, but the mother could occasionally make some of her own money by taking in washing and sewing jobs for people or by selling eggs and vegetables from the farm. Conversely, in the cities the father usually handed over his salary to the mother so that she could make sure that it was used in the most economical way (see also Astrom 1986; Thorsen 1993a). Most people in this generation say that their fathers made the major decisions, while their mothers made decisions concerning the household and child rearing.

What is worth noticing in these descriptions of the gender divisions of their childhood is that both parents’ contributions are seen as work. Fathers provided money through their work on the farm or outside the family, but the mothers’ contribution to the family’s survival is considered just as essential. Like Martha, the other informants describe how their mothers’ superior skills at household work and needlework meant being able to stretch funds to provide enough food and clothing. The women in this generation give detailed accounts of their mothers’ work, while the men mainly remember the food she served. Einar, who grew up at a smallholding, still remembers this with fondness and in great detail nearly 50 years later:

Mother made something she called chopped potatoes. It was a bit of fried pork and some chopped-up potatoes from the day before. And I thought that was delicious. And then there was a lot of oats, raw oats with milk. We had good milk since we got it from the farm. And then mother fried roe and waffles, and she made the best of what she had. I’d say that. And mother’s meatballs! I’ve never tasted meatballs like these ever again [laughs]! (Einar, b. 1923)

Children, especially those growing up in rural families, were introduced to this gendered division of work early on: girls were supposed to help their mothers inside the house, while sons helped their fathers outside the house. Children from urban working-class families also helped out, but here the practical circumstances sometimes led to less gendered divisions of work. Martha describes how she and her nine siblings were given their share of the work according to age, not gender: when they were five or six years old, the job was to take out the goats and sheep to pasture; when they were older, they delivered coal to customers in the mornings before school, in a wheelbarrow during summer and on a sledge during winter. If there had been a storm, they would collect driftwood underneath the piers. Later again they worked folding newspapers, or they delivered the newspaper or bills to people. All the money they earned was handed over to their mother. Martha still remembers that they got 2 kr. for folding 3000 papers—‘and that was actually a barrel of coal. Martha’s father died when she was 17, making her the main breadwinner in her family until she married at 25. She recalls, clearly moved, how her older brother came back from sea and gave her a gold watch as a sign of appreciation. Most of the children who helped out in their families emphasise that it gave them a feeling of belonging. The work could be strenuous, but it is never described as negative, as the long and cold walk to school and back was, for instance. Johanna (b. 1910), who grew up at a small farm and worked as hard as Martha throughout her childhood and youth, explains why she did not mind helping out: ‘I wanted terribly to be part of what was happening’.

There was generally greater flexibility in women’s work both for the rural and urban children: girls would often assist their fathers as well as helping their mothers, whereas very few boys assisted their mothers with work inside the house. Both girls and boys remember it as positive to help their fathers outside. The only boy who reports that he and his brothers (he had no sisters) helped their mother in the kitchen on a more regular basis resented it and much preferred helping their father. He remembers with disgust that he and his brothers were called their mother’s ‘little servants’ (Martin, from a smallholder family, b. 1905). Brothers also got more free time and their education was given priority over that of their sisters. As boys they were expected to earn their living outside of the family, unless they were due to inherit the family farm. For girls, the responsibility for their families extended into their adult lives, and in the cases where they stayed at home to help out, this meant having to ask their parents for money for all necessities (see Thorsen 1993a). But neither girls nor boys from rural families got much education at all at this time. For economic reasons, it was necessary that they started work early, within or outside the family. The men are brief when they talk about school—they didn’t belong there, writing was difficult, they didn’t do well: ‘well, yes, school didn’t go so well for me, I guess you could say... we moved too much ... it became too much of a mess (Anton, from a smallholder family, b. 1900). Work counted more than school where they grew up and it was a relief when they could start apprenticeships as 15-year-olds. The women generally have more happy memories of school—often remembering themselves as clever—but the rural girls also saw it as pretty irrelevant even if was enjoyable. Johanna, who is otherwise rather reserved, becomes quite ecstatic when she remembers how much she liked maths:

And I really wanted to do math, I really wanted to do math, I really wanted to do math, and I was, and I was, can’t explain how much I wanted to do math all the time... and you know what, I want to do math still, yes, I do. (Johanna, b. 1910)

What came after compulsory school was less clear for the girls than for the boys. Most of the rural girls stayed home helping their mothers or took jobs as domestic servants in other families until they married. Johanna did both: first she stayed at home to help out because her sister had already left—’I just couldn’t imagine leaving father and mother and put them out, no, I just couldn’t’, she says—and later took up a post as a dairymaid at another farm. Finally she stayed half a year in a school for domestic science to learn the theory behind what her mother had taught her in practice. This turned out to be a perfect route of preparation for marrying a wealthy farmer, which she did when she was 23. For urban girls, there were more chances to continue on to middle school because there were more schools in the cities and their families did not need them in the same way. The urban girls in our sample recall that their mothers played an important role in letting them continue in school, often against the wishes of their more traditional fathers who thought education was not necessary for girls who were going to marry anyway. Clara (lower middle class, b. 1912), for example, had a mother who prioritised the education of her daughters because her sons could become sailors after compulsory school and thus had a career mapped out for them. In Martha’s poor family all the siblings completed middle school thanks to an ambitious mother who herself had problems with reading and writing. Because of her good grades, Martha got into the telegraph school, and it was with this qualification that she could provide for her family when her father died in 1930. Some of the rural girls eventually saw a chance to get away from home by taking jobs as domestic servants for urban families. These families often took gross advantage of their proficiency in household work and acceptance of hard work.[1] The smallholder daughter Karen remembers with pride her first job as servant girl in Oslo:

I was used to working and then, oh, I got so much praise, oh, I got so much praise ... I remember Mrs Herman Andersen, he was a wholesaler, they lived on the ground floor, then she came and was like, ‘Look at Karen, oh, how nice she has made it. ’ And you know, I cleaned and really went at it, because I thought... Everything was so easy, you know, compared to what I had at home, so I thought it was really fun, and you were paid for it! (Karen, b. 1924)

What has been labelled in cultural history as ‘the mentality of work’ (Le Goff 1978, as cited in Thorsen 1993a) or the moral imperative of ‘being of use’ (Gullestad 1996) was thus installed particularly among the women in the eldest generation during early childhood. For those who did not enter into social mobility, it was kept as a strong and guiding moral value throughout their life.

Growing up urban middle class during this time did not automatically imply better material conditions or increased security than for the working class. Even if it did, the basic moral of diligence and frugality was similar. Some of the middle-class women of this generation in our sample also experienced having to leave school and start working to help the family to survive economically when the father died. However, with regard to family culture, values and life expectations, these poorer middle-class girls still share some traits with the very few informants from this generation who belonged to relatively well-off families. Harald (born 1899) and Dagny (born 1911) for example, who both grew up upper middle class, also describe a gendered division of work, albeit in quite a different version. The idea of work is here usually limited to describe the fathers’ activities outside the family. However, the fathers’ work is mostly implied by the fact that they needed to rest when they came home. Harald had a father who taught at the city’s best upper secondary school:

Father always had a nap. In the afternoons he laid on a chaise longue, I guess you could call it a divan. Then we had no business in the room next to the dining room. We had to keep away. He was to be completely undisturbed and he needed that because he ... and when he was done napping, he drank coffee. And then he marked papers, you know. And he had private pupils. So he had enough to do. He also worked in the handicrafts association, when he was a secretary there. (Harald, b. 1899)

Well-off urban families had maids to do the harder household chores and Harald’s mother’s most important responsibility was rearing and educating the children. The father did not interfere, not even with the homework of the children, but he was present as a silent authority behind the mother. His word was the ‘law’. When the children came of age, including Harald’s two sisters, their father participated more actively in their future educational choices. Dagny also received higher education, backed up by both her parents (see Lorentzen (2012) about the bourgeois father’s presence in the family in the early twentieth century).

Both Harald and Dagny did some work at home. Harald chopped wood and Dagny learnt to wash her own clothes when she came of age— the latter much to the dismay of the elderly maid who had been with the family since before Dagny was born. Other middle-class girls talk about doing the dishes, but nobody even comes close to the amount of work we heard about in the more ordinary childhoods. In the middle class during this time period, upbringing is not done through work, but separated off as a specific task of its own: children had to learn to behave, to bow and make curtsy, to dance, be polite to their elders, to develop good table manners, to speak properly, to do well in school and to not be greedy or egotistic. Assisting the mother’s charity work, however, could be seen as educational work since it taught the children compassion with the poor. Dagny was a single child, adored and spoiled by her father, who was a wealthy bank manager in their small town. Her mother was a good pianist and dedicated much of her time to charity work, where Dagny had to assist:

You should’ve seen the amazing Christmas care packages mother made for people in the hard 1930s, when people were really struggling. Yes. And they weren’t paupers’ gifts either, far from it! They had those bazaars for Christmas and the money they made off of them went to the city’s needy, as we said back then ...

All the tasks mother gave me! I was supposed to sing, then do this, then do that, you know, then do the flowers ... There was no mercy, it was like that to have an active mum. Get ready to work! (Dagny, b. 1911)

Thus, the distinction between work and care, which in the less privileged families was depicted as a continuum of gendered work and the provision of food, is in the upper-class families separated into the father’s work and the mother’s educational care and compassion.

  • [1] In 1930 40 per cent of all women with gainful work were domestic servants. In 1950 it was 25 percent, but at this time the majority of them were employed in farm work, not in the cities (Melby 1999).
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