Women’s Work


(c) Connecticut Explored Inc., Summer 2003

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I simply can’t watch those “reality” TV series. But offer me a “historical reality” show and I’m glued to the television set.

I took the bait part way through the first of the genre a couple of years ago. In the BBC’s 1900 House, a 21st-century family recreated, with absolute historical accuracy, the life of a middle-class London family a century ago. I was hooked after seeing the entire series (twice) of Frontier House, PBS’s version in which three American families replicate the pioneer experience from wagon train to building homesteads and racing against time to set by enough stores for a fictional winter. They reeled me in, hook, line, and sinker, with the recently aired Manor House, in which a British family of 5 occupied the upstairs and 12 volunteers the downstairs quarters of a gorgeous hulk of a house. They lived the life of a nouveau-riche country squire, his family, and servants in Edwardian England.

These shows tap into my curiosity of what life was really like in times past, and it’s such a hoot to follow the trials and travails of the dupes who volunteer to shed every 21st-century convenience they’ve ever known. You learn how hard everyone worked—except for Manor House’s “Lord and Lady Oliff Cooper,” in real life a flooring purveyor and emergency room doctor who would remain in 1914 if they could truly time travel and legitimately join the peerage (careers and 21st-century convenience be damned, they know a good gig when they’ve been waited on hand and foot for three months). You are also struck by how stultifying existence could be, especially for women, amidst the monotonous, never-ending, daily drudgery of hard work and absence of opportunity.

We are reminded that women have always worked, and very hard. And still, women have been community builders and affected real change, as this issue, “A Woman’s Place,” celebrates. In addition to the stories in this issue, I recommend a virtual visit to the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame website, www.cwhf.org. The organization was founded “to give honor and formal public recognition to Connecticut women, past and present, who have ‘broken new ground’ or have emerged as leaders in their fields of endeavor.” Among the inductees are Mary Hall (1843-1927), the first female lawyer in Connecticut, [See “Mary Hall: Breaking the Legal Barrier,” Spring 2017.], Emeline Roberts Jones (1836-1916), the first female dentist in America, Rachel Taylor Milton (1901-1995), the founder of the Urban League of Hartford, and Constance Baker Motley (b. 1922), whose short introduction, “first female African American federal court judge, successfully argued nine U.S. Supreme Court civil rights cases,” just scratches the surface of this woman’s amazing contributions.[See “Site: Lines: Constance Baker Motley’s Chester Retreat,” Summer 2019.]

It’s inspiring to learn of the accomplishments of women who had so much stacked against them. If placed in their shoes, in a “historical reality” show based on the life of any one of the Hall of Fame’s honorees, could today’s modern woman hack it? Or would many of us—like Manor House’s first two scullery maids—be reduced to blubbering, “where’s-my-microwave,” “what-do-you-mean-I-can’t-shower-daily” messes? Of course, the volunteers who stuck it out lost weight, and the scullery maid had a scorching love affair with the hall boy…

All I can say is, keep up the good work.

Elizabeth Normen

Hog River Journal  is Hartford and the region’s magazine of history, culture, and the arts and is named for the Hog River, now buried under the city. Through compelling stories and intriguing images, Hog River Journal uncovers the region’s cultural heritage with the aim of revealing connections between our past, present, and future. 


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