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Women's Work : The First 20,000 Years:

Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times

Elizabeth Wayland Barber
Published by W W Norton & Co
Publication date: 1994
Pages: 334
ISBN: 0393313484 (paperback)
ISBN: 0393035060 (hardback)

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From Kirkus Reviews, 03/14/94:
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. -- Copyright ©1994, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

From The WomanSource Catalog & Review: Tools for Connecting the Community for Women; review by Ilene Rosoff, 01/31/97:
Elizabeth Wayland Barber is an archeologist and a weaver, and it was her knowledge of cloth making that led her to the discovery of its importance in ancient societies, and in the lives of women. Prior to the Bronze age, when male-run guilds commercialized the textile industry, it was women who ruled the fiber arts (most likely because cloth production, like food production, was compatible with childrearing) as weavers, spinners, cloth and clothing makers. Their work helped build the economies of early societies and led to advances in technology and the art of mass production. Women's cloth making also built a symbolic language in the coded messages women wove-as tribal insignia and cultural trademarks in patterns woven into cloth, and as social and sexual status symbols. Tracing the roles of women's cloth making in societies worldwide over the last 20,000 years, Women's Work reclaims the great impact of clothing in women's lives and of women's cloth making on society.

New discoveries about the textile arts reveal women's unexpectedly influential role in ancient societies. Barber "weaves the strands of mythology and literature, archaeology, ethnology, and documented history into a rich tapestry" says John Noble Wilford, New York Times Book Review. Photos and drawings. Author lectures.

Drawing on the latest archaeological and technological research, this intriguing study of women's history explores the relationship between the development of the fiber arts and women's roles in society.

Book News, Inc., 02/28/95:
Barber uses data gathered by sophisticated new methods of studying the past, shaping a wealth of information on textiles as one of women's most important contributions to past societies. She examines the relationship of women and their textile work to society and economics over the huge span of prehistoric and early historic times, and chronicles the growth of the textile industry, fashion, and ancient costume. Includes numerous b&w drawings and some photos. Annotation copyright Book News, Inc. Portland, Or.

Excerpted from Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber (as appears in The WomanSource Catalog & Review). Copyright(c) 1994. Reprinted by permission, all rights reserved:
Among the Batak the act of creation itself is viewed as women's special work, not only in production of babies, which grow where nothing has existed before, but also in creating cloth, which comes into being where nothing has existed before. Cloth and its making are thus taken as analogs for life and birth, in every sense.


I want to know that you actually read the book before writing your paper. I will reassure myself by means of the following scheme. When you decide that you are going to read the book, come to me and I will give you a bookmark containing three sentences. As you read, you will spot these sentences and write their page numbers on the bookmark. Each bookmark will be different, so you can't just copy someone else's bookmark. Your bookmark must have your name and my signature on it. Turn in your bookmark with your paper as evidence that you actually read the book.


For this project you will write a 4-6 page paper on a topic discussed in the book. It should be typewritten and double-spaced using a not-unreasonably-large font. Turn in two copies of your paper, one for my files and one which will be returned to you. Your paper is not a book report. It should not simply summarize points from the book. Rather, it should formulate a thesis and then support this thesis using examples from the book. You may address one of the following topics or make up your own.

Criterion for Success

I will grade your paper in the same manner and on the same scale as I do the Rhetoric Proficiency Exam. 0-3 is failing and 4-6 is passing on this scale. You may seek advice from the writing center. If you fail you may revise your paper and resubmit it. However, just as with other projects, you may attempt only one project per day.