NEW WORK FOR PEASANT WOMEN

 

Industrialization and urbanization expanded markets and created new kinds of manufacturing that enabled peasant women to increase the amount of non‑agricultural work they did. For centuries, some had been making handcrafts for sale; now production of those goods rose rapidly. By 1912, 8 million women, children, and men were engaged in this work. Women and girls specialized in beadwork, embroidery, and the making of gloves, lace, straw hats, and knitted goods. It was not uncommon for an eight‑year‑old to knit a pair of socks a day. Many women did more than one craft, switching from straw hats in the spring to embroidery in the fall, as the demand for products changed with the seasons. There were also enterprising peasant businesswomen who bought machinery to knit socks or stitch gloves and then set up small workshops staffed by neighbors. Some of these women prospered.25

Women and girls also worked in cottage industry, that is, manufacturing performed in the villages for city‑based companies. This practice had developed in Western Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; there women had made up the majority of the work force. Men were more involved in Russia, but the specialties employing women were similar across the continent. They were particularly likely to be engaged in weaving cotton cloth and bleaching linen, and they also wound thread onto bobbins for use in textile mills, assembled the paper mouthpieces of cigarettes, and made bootlaces.

The division of labor and the pay scales of cottage industry were gendered across Europe. In Russia as elsewhere, men worked in more mechanized manufacturing; in the textile industry, they ran the power looms, women the hand looms. The hours were long–thirteen or more per day for weavers–the pay was low, and women were even more poorly paid than men. In cottage industry, as in handcrafts, some peasant women became entrepreneurs who supplied the raw materials, supervised workers in the villages, and then delivered products to buyers in the cities. The income from all this work was a welcome contribution to the family pot, and it could be earned while the families continued to farm.

Other peasant women fostered children abandoned by their parents to state orphanages. The numbers of such children grew hugely in the second half of the nineteenth century across Europe, because the booms and busts of industrializing economies left many people unable to provide for their children and because urban women were having more out‑of‑wedlock births. There were years when as many as 17,000 children were turned in to the central orphanage in Moscow. The facility in St. Petersburg handled thousands of babies and young children as well. After 1870, zemstva‑established orphanages in the countryside were also sheltering abandoned children. To ease the strain of caring for so many, administrators organized foster‑care programs that placed children with peasant families. In the peak years, the Moscow orphanage alone was supervising the foster care of 40,000 youngsters.26

Foster mothers were paid for their labors, which included breast‑feeding the babies and rearing older children along with their own offspring. Here too, enterprising peasant women provided the intermediary services on which the system depended: they collected abandoned children for delivery to the orphanages, recruited women as foster mothers, brought babies from the orphanages to the countryside, and delivered the foster mothers’ monthly stipends. Although the stipends were low, there were villages in the poorer regions around Moscow that derived most of their non‑farm income from caring for abandoned children. Elsewhere, taking in a child supplemented the family income and provided extra hands to work in the fields, if the children survived. Most did not; victims of neglect from birth, foster children were very vulnerable to the diseases that carried off peasant children.27

Many peasant women also worked away from their villages after Emancipation. In Poland by the first decade of the twentieth century, an estimated hundred thousand women were doing field labor on other people’s farms. Across the empire, such women made up 25 percent of the female paid‑labor force. Some of these field hands were young, single women whose relatives could work the family plots without them. Others were widows and wives of men who were disabled or absent; they leased their land to others so that they could work full‑time for wealthier employers. This made more sense than farming alone or with young children, even though the demand for field hands was seasonal and women were paid less than men.28 Other women became house servants or nannies, jobs that often paid better and were less wearing.

 








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