Women Working

Our Pretty Doctor
Source: Gerald Du Maurier, 1870, Wellcome Collection via Europeana, L0004377 b1312142 Slide number 1872 ptvw27rk.

This article is the eight of an ongoing series from EUROCLIO and Europeana providing teachers with ideas and practical resources for teaching a range of topics in their classrooms. You can find a wealth of additional resources including units, source collections and eLearning activities on the Historiana website and you can read the other articles in the series on labs.historiana.eu.

Source collection

The Historiana source collection Women Working brings together a variety of visual sources from the 19th and 20th century, depicting women from all around the world. The collection gives an overview of the types of work women were generally doing in the past two hundred years. The bulk of the sources show women doing either agricultural labour, manufacturing work or washing clothes. The three sources that stand out from the rest are a photo of Marie Curie at work as a scientist and two cartoons from Punch Magazine, ridiculing women in medical professions.

The relatively large amount of sources in the collection enables you to look for differences and similarities at different times and in different cultures. One of the ways to approach this is to both look at what is depicted (topic) and how it is depicted (representation). The general impression these sources give is that women in the past mostly did lowbrow, manual labour. The few exceptions of women doing more highbrow work, like working as a doctor, are represented in a way that signals scepticism from either the maker of the source or from the intended public at the time. This is exactly what students will be looking at with this source collection, in both a qualitative and a quantitative way. The overarching question is how available source material from a certain period influences and shapes our perspective of that time, in this case how we currently perceive the role of women on in the economy in the 19th and 20th century.


The aims of this learning activity for the students are:

  • The student analyses several cartoons, determines the message the maker is trying to convey and derive the personal perspective of the maker from that.
  • The student analyses a set of visual sources, describing and drawing conclusions on the general impression the sources give.
  • The student reflects on the influence of available source material on the general perspective that exists on women working, both in the past and in the present and both in and outside of the Western World.

E-Learning Activity builder

This e-Learning Activity makes use of both the analysing tool and sorting tool from the Historiana e-Learning Activity builder.

The analysing tool is used in two sub-activities. In both cases students are asked to analyse a cartoon. The analysing tool enables them to look at a large version of one specific visual source. They can click and select any square portion of the source and make an annotation directly with that selection. In that way they can describe or comment on different elements of the source, for example on text elements (like the title or on text balloons), people (either characters or actual historical persons that are depicted) or symbolic visual elements (especially in cartoons or paintings with allegoric meanings).

The sorting tool is used with a background that is divided up in two equal parts by a vertical line in the middle. In this sub-activity students are asked to study a group of sources and to divide them first by region (Western versus non-Western) on both sides of the line. After that they are asked divide the sources on each side of the line into sub-categories by type of work, for example ‘agricultural’. The intention of this sub-activity is to give the students an overview of the types of work women around the world were generally depicted doing.

Learning Activity

The primary aim of this learning activity is to have students realise available sources shape our view of the past. During the activity they both look at individual sources on a qualitative level, as well as a group of sources and the impression they leave when presented together.

The first part of the activity consists of analysing two cartoons from Punch (a satirical magazine in the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century). Students are asked to look at specific elements of the cartoons, for example the way women and men are portrayed, and to make annotations on the sources by using the analysing tool. After the analysis they are asked to comment on the impression these cartoons leave and to what extent they fit preconceptions the students have on the topic of women working. The conclusion here might be that women were not perceived equal to men up until quite recently and the fact that the cartoons mock women doing ‘intellectual work’ (as doctor or a dentist) fits the preconception of women being looked down upon by men in the past.

The second part of the activity asks students to study a group of sources from both the Western world and from outside the Western world. When sorted these sources can leave the impression that women all around the world mainly did agricultural work and ‘simple’ manufacturing, leaving the more complex tasks to men.

The final part of the activity takes a more ‘meta’ approach. Students are asked to reflect on how our perception of the past is shaped and how this perception influences our thoughts on women working in the present. The general idea is that because the source material abundantly shows women doing lowbrow work, combined with a few sources (cartoons) that ridicule women doing highbrow work, our assumption is that women had a lower socio-economic status in the 19th and well into the 20th century. This might even still be the case when looking at the position of women outside of the Western world today. This activity could be used as a lead-in to a class discussion on the construction of our views of the past and how sources are likely only to show or tell only part of what actually happened. You could challenge your students to be critical towards what sources present as ‘fact’ and have them look for nuance.


The e-learning activity Women Working makes use of the Historiana source collection of the same name. It makes use of both the analysing tool and the sorting tool of the E-Learning Activity builder. It’s aim is to have students think on the way the availability of source material shapes our views of the past. They get there by analysing both individual cartoons on women working in the 19th and 20th century, as well as looking at sources that are presented together in such a way that they leave a certain impression. Students are asked to reflect on their preconceptions in relation to women working in the past as well and to think on how historical perception influences their view on the topic in the present.


Historiana would not be possible without the efforts and generous contributions of historians and educators from Europe and beyondand the support of the Connecting Europe Facility of the European Union.


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