In her broad reaching study of the urban foundations in western society Katherine Lynch noted that throughout the centuries although women were integral to local economies they were usually restricted to domestic jobs and excluded from skilled professions. Braverman observed that women ‘formed a pool of labour which could be drawn on in times of economic expansion and repelled in times of recession’. Raelene Frances prefers to ‘conceptualise women as a pool of potential wage-earners who can be provided for the labour market under certain circumstances’. The notions put forward by Frances also help to explain women’s actions in undertaking paid work and then giving it up.
The gendered division of labour served to marginalise women and to devalue women’s positions within the workforce. The gendered division of labour traditionally determined the type of work considered acceptable for women in the private and public sphere, as well as limiting jobs a woman was permitted to do within an industry. Frances and Scates claim that, ‘The division of labour by gender was a social construction which determined where women could work as much as did personal ability or market forces’.
Women’s work has thus been defined by their status as wives and mothers, and not, as was the case with men, defined in a broader public sense and in relation to the wider economic community. This is an important point to recognise because a significant number of goldfields women have been recorded as wives and mothers.