A Woman's Work

The Grohmann Museum presents centuries of art celebrating women at work. In honor of Women's History Month, March 2021. Dedicated to all the women who paved the way.

By Grohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Girl with Goat (ca. 1870) by Carl SpitzwegGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

A Celebration of Women

Mother Theresa said ""I can do things you cannot. You can do things I cannot. Together, we can do great things."  Look through the eyes of artists whose paintings reside in the the Grohmann Museum Collection, and through the quotes of great writers and thinkers, who celebrate the hard work and perseverance of women throughout the centuries. 

Potato Harvest (1889) by Ludwig KnausGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Domestic, Rural and Farm Life

Our journey begins with rural life where women maintained their household and took care of their children, but also worked right alongside their husbands and families taking care of fields and animals. Survival depended on everyone working together. 

When Janet was a Child (circa 1896) by Carl von MarrGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Small but Fierce

In "A Midsummer Night's Dream" William Shakespeare said of Hermia: "Though she may be small, she be fierce." Even the littlest girls on the farm were expected to help. Here, we see Janet walking behind her father as he plows his field. On her back is a pack which likely contains seeds. Holes in the bottom allow the seeds to fall into the furrow as she walks along.

Break Time by Carl Von MarrGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Among the many chores a young farm girl would have had was bringing lunch to the fields for her family.

Young Farmers Breaking Flax (1885) by Hubert von HerkomerGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Young women are seen here breaking apart the hard stalks of flax. The tough fibers inside the stalks would be woven into linen thread and used for making cloth for bedding, furnishings, and clothing.

Stacking Grain Sheaves (1870) by Julian DupréGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

The Strength of a Woman

The woman working here gathering sheaves of wheat is working right along side the men, doing the same job. The artist's spirit of French nationalism is clear in her dress representing the colors of the French flag. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said of a woman's strength: "A woman is like a teabag; you never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water."  

Poppy Threshing (1850) by Désiré-François Laugée,Grohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Women as Healers

In Native American Wisdom there is a saying, "The old ones say that women will lead the healing among the tribes. Inside them are the powers of love and healing." Women have always been caretakers and healers. They have been nurses, midwives, healers, surgeons, and apothecaries. Here, women thresh the heads of poppy flowers. The oil from poppy seeds has long been revered for its medicinal qualities.

Women Stripping Feathers (1877) by Otto PiltzGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Animals, fishing, and artisanal crafts 

Not all work was done in the fields. Women processed animals, fished, and worked alongside their families to produce textile and leather goods. This artist portrays women stripping feathers to be used in bedding and for writing quills. 

The Slaughtered Pig (1650) by Mattheus van HelmontGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

A family slaughters a pig in their barn, most likely in winter to take advantage of cold temperatures to help preserve the meat. Notice the little boy and his "balloon" - the pig's bladder.

The Seaweed Gatherers (1912) by Fredrick Arthur BridgmanGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

The Sea

In "Little Women" Louisa May Alcott's character Amy states: "I am not afraid of storms for I am learning to sail my ship." Just as farm women harvested the fruits of the field, the women who lived on the coasts harvested all the fruits of the sea. These women are gathering seaweed. Seaweed was nutrient-rich, feeding people, animals, and the soil. It was also valued for its medicinal properties.

The Washerwomen of the Breton Coast (1870) by Jules Adolphe Aimé Louis BretonGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Love and Beauty

 Louisa May Alcott also said "Be worthy of love and love will come." It is rumored that the artist, Jules Breton, loved the center figure of this portrait of women washing clothes by the sea.

Return of the Oyster Fishers at Cancale (1874) by François Nicolas Augustin Feyen-PerrinGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

The three beautiful young women leading the oyster fishers are well aware of the attention they are receiving.

The Mussel Gatherers (1800) by P. TestaGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Mussels and oysters were a culinary staple of the European Atlantic coasts.

Interior with Artisan Family (1840) by August MansfieldGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

M.O.M. The Master of Multitasking

Just as agricultural families were crucial to food production for all, artisan families were crucial for the production of clothing, wood, textiles, and leather goods. The family here works together spinning yarn, carving wood, and teaching a young child.

Three Sisters Making Belgian Lace (1907) by Leon FredericGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Sisterhood

"A sister can be seen as someone who is very much ourselves, and not ourselves. A special kind of double." is a beautiful quote by Toni Morrison. Belgian lace is made by arranging pins over a pattern on paper, then twisting strands of thread on special spools around the pins and pattern. Is is still made by hand the same way today.

Old Woman Working a Loom (1931) by Karl HenckelGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Weaving

Until the Industrial Era, cloth was made in homes on looms such as this one. The artist paints the sunlight so vividly here as good light is key for the weaver to have while working.

Child Labor in the Dye Works (1900) by Heinrich KleyGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

A young girl is seen here helping a dye-maker dye cloth. Child labor laws did not come into effect in the United States until around 1920.

A Sewing Lesson (Circa 1880) by Otto PilzGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Women Embroidering (1904) by J.C.Grohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Sewing circles gave women the opportunity to visit, gossip, and share ideas while still getting necessary work done.

Wine Harvest in the Tyrol (1901) by Peder Severin KrøyerGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Wine Production

Women played important roles in the production of beer and wine. They picked grapes and hops, crushed fruit into juices, worked the mash tubs, and even made corks for the bottles. 

The Hops Pickers by C.H. HartGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Passementerie Workshop (circa 1884) by Karl MeunierGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

From Rural to Urban Life

Not all women were mothers, homemakers, farmers, or fishers. Women owned and worked in shops, were cabinetmakers, carpenters, miners, and worked in construction. The women in this painting is making Passementerie - or decorative ribbon and cord trims for clothing and upolstery.

The Carpenter Shop of Sophy Christiansen (1899) by Maria Christine ThymannGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Paving the Way

Gloria Steinem, champion of women's rights said "Like art, revolutions come from combining what exists into what has never existed before." This scene depicts the carpentry shop owned by Sophy Christiansen and Catherine Horsbol, who were among the first female Danish cabinet makers. Their shop operated from 1867-1955. Some of their pieces are still on the market today, particularly those done in the Art Deco style. Horsbol is seen instructing an apprentice while Christiansen has her back to the artist. Notice they are the only women in the shop - the rest are men.

The Miners (ca. 1890) by Constantin-Emile MeunierGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Wearing the Trousers

Michelle Obama was once quoted, "The one way to get me to work my hardest was to doubt me." Undeterred by those who doubted, women also ditched their skirts and donned pants to crawl deep into the earth to mine alongside men. Working conditions were miserable and dangerous, but women and children continued working the mines in England until the Mines Act of 1842.

Trummerfrauen (Rubble Woman) Reclaiming Bricks after World War II by Schultze-Gorlitz, JohviGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Trummerfrauen

Trummerfrauen, or "rubble girls", were the German women who sifted through the rubble left behind by World War II, looking for bricks and other useable building materials. Participation was mandatory for those aged 15-50, and they were paid just 6 marks per day. Compare this to a loaf of bread, which at that time could cost 90 marks. 

Hard Construction Work, Triptych, right: Women Extruding Tiles (1945) by L.A.Grohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Socialist countries believed it was important to portray women doing the same work as men. Here, women use an extruder to form and cut clay building tiles in East Berlin, Germany.

Brooklyn Galvanizing Shop (detail) (1925) by Frrancesc Pausas CollGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Working with a Smile

Maya Angelou said "It won't work unless you do." This young lady seems to have captivated the artists eye while doing her job in a galvanizing factory in Brooklyn, New York. He shows her smiling face doing a job that was hot, steamy, and dirty. Steel is first cleaned, then dipped into zinc vats to form a protective, anti-rust coating. 

The Seaweed Gatherers (1912) by Fredrick Arthur BridgmanGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Maya Angelou "Phenomenal Woman"

Now you understand  Just why my head’s not bowed.  I don’t shout or jump about or have to talk real loud. When you see me passing, It ought to make you proud.... ’Cause I’m woman. Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me. 

Grohmann Museum Atrium Ceiling Mural (2007) by Hans Dieter TylleGrohmann Museum at Milwaukee School of Engineering

Today

Thank you for walking through history and taking a deeper look at ways women have worked throughout the centuries. If we are to understand where we are going, and  become catalysts for innovation and change, we must first understand how we got to where we are today. Women throughout history did the work that needed to be done simply because it needed to get done. Women continue to do that today. 

Credits: Story

© 2021 Grohmann Museum Collection


"Well-behaved women seldom make history." Pulitzer prize-winning author and historian, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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