Women's Work

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

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New discoveries about the textile arts reveal women's unexpectedly influential role in ancient societies. Twenty thousand years ago, women were making and wearing the first clothing created from spun fibers. In fact, right up to the Industrial Revolution the fiber arts were an enormous economic force, belonging primarily to women. Despite the great toil required in making cloth and clothing, most books on ancient history and economics have no information on them. Much of this gap results from the extreme perishability of what women produced, but it seems clear that until now descriptions of prehistoric and early historic cultures have omitted virtually half the picture. Elizabeth Wayland Barber has drawn from data gathered by the most sophisticated new archaeological methods-methods she herself helped to fashion. In a "brilliantly original book" (Katha Pollitt, Washington Post Book World), she argues that women were a powerful economic force in the ancient world, with their own industry: fabric.show more

Product details

  • Paperback | 336 pages
  • 139.7 x 205.74 x 22.86mm | 272.15g
  • WW Norton & Co
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • Revised ed.
  • photographs, drawings
  • 0393313484
  • 9780393313482
  • 61,281

Review quote

"Elizabeth Barber is as knowing and perceptive as any archaeologist-author in sight...Her topic is wonderfully fresh." -- Scientific American "Elizabeth Barber is as knowing and perceptive as any archaeologist-author in sight...Her topic is wonderfully fresh." -- Scientific Americanshow more

Review Text

Employing diverse, thorough methodologies and research sources, the author of Prehistoric Textiles (not reviewed) traces the roles of women and cloth through 20,000 years of history. Prehistoric women primarily worked with food and clothing, neither likely to survive the elements, and male historians traditionally felt little need or desire to write about cloth and textiles; thus, much of women's work history has been lost, and we are left with few details for reconstruction. However, Barber's innovative research found that "data for ancient textiles lay everywhere, waiting to be picked up." By reproducing remnants of ancient cloth and garments, she also reproduced women's actual labor, which often required hours upon hours of tedious, painstaking work. Her justification for the assumption of female responsibility for cloth rests on their childbearing and -rearing duties. Women needed to stay close to home, and they required work compatible with youngsters running around - labor that could be interrupted when necessary. According to Barber, women held important positions in society as the primary producers of clothing for millennia, even into the age of emerging capitalist economies. She also deduces, from the patterns and designs of ancient material, that clothing for both sexes served as a visual means to communicate such information as fertility and marital status. (For example, many skirt remnants hold designs assumed to follow the shape of and emphasize the pubic bone.) Although this seems a logical conclusion, there's not really any empirical evidence for it. An important contribution, in terms of both historical material and interpretation, to the study of women's work. (Kirkus Reviews)show more

About Elizabeth Wayland Barber

Elizabeth Wayland Barber is the author of Women's Work and The Mummies of Urumchi. Professor emerita of archaeology and linguistics at Occidental College, she lives in California.show more

Rating details

711 ratings
4.37 out of 5 stars
5 52% (370)
4 35% (251)
3 12% (82)
2 1% (6)
1 0% (2)
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