Ladies, have you ever wanted to pursue a career as an herb strewer or maybe a leech collector? OK, probably not, but did you know that those female-centric careers used to actually exist? Gender-segregated roles are nothing new, but many of these bizarre, outdated jobs stem not from a positive perception of women and their ability to do a task uniquely well, but from the devaluation of their gender. For example, during Japan’s Edo period, women who served as “heoibikuni” had one responsibility — claiming noble women’s flatulence as their own. Talk about taking one for the team.
Fortunately, aside from a couple of exceptions which have largely evolved over time, most of these careers for women have died out. Here’s a look at the most interesting and absurd female-dominated jobs throughout history.
Last updated: Jan. 22, 2021
Dial Painters aka 'Radium Girls'
During World War I, young working women took jobs in clock factories as dial painters due to the pay being more than three times that of the average factory job. Glow-in-the-dark watches were all the rage, and clock manufacturers used a luminous paint made with radium to get their clocks to glow. Female workers would painstakingly paint the numbers onto tiny dials by hand using thin, dainty brushes. Often, they were instructed to get the brushes into a point with their lips to make sure they got crisp, clean strokes. Sadly, the women didn’t realize they should worry about the radium because the factories assured them the paint was safe.
Radiation poisoning isn’t immediate, so it took a while for symptoms to occur. But eventually, the women started to experience tooth loss, hips locking into place and skin that wouldn’t heal. As conditions worsened and the poisoning became deadly, dial painters took on the radium companies in lawsuits. Their legal action helped change the U.S.’s nascent workplace safety standards.
In the 21st century, computers are electronic devices that store, collect and process data. In early American history, however, there were human computers, women who calculated figures and numbers by hand. The first documented person to come up with computing is Ada Lovelace, a 19th-century writer and mathematician. Most computing positions were jobs for women and scarcely were men given the role.
The film “Hidden Figures” highlighted three real life computers — Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson — who were key players in American history when they calculated data for NASA.
Female herb strewers were tasked with distributing herbs and flowers around England’s royal family campus to mask any unpleasant aromas. This position was created in the United Kingdom before the construction of sewers, which would eventually help alleviate foul smells.
During the Edo period, from 1603 to 1867, Japanese culture birthed an odd job known as heoibikuni. These female servants cared for noble young ladies and accompanied them on every excursion they went on. It wasn’t all sunsets and picnics, however. Whenever a heoibikuni’s mistress would pass gas, it was the heoibikuni’s job to verbally proclaim to everyone in the vicinity that it was, in fact, her doing — thereby preserving the mistresses’ dignity.
Being a female samurai sounds like a tough occupation for a woman — and it was — but taking on the challenge also meant being in the background of Japanese history. Stories of prominent male samurais have made it to the mainstream over time, but very few female samurais, also known as onna-bugeisha, received notoriety. Nakano Takeko, for instance, fought on the front lines with a group of 20-30 women before dying of a bullet wound to the chest. Where is her blockbuster movie?
You thought your job was tough? Well, imagine having to gather leeches to earn a paycheck. Leech collecting was a huge deal in the early stages of 20th-century medicine, and the job was mostly done by women. The blood-sucking creatures were prescribed by doctors for issues like apoplexy (stroke), fever and headaches.
What’s more, collectors had to let the leeches suck on them for 20 minutes or longer before they could pull them off, as it was easier to do when the leeches were full of blood.
During the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s and early 1800s, child labor was fairly common. Match-making was one such position taken on by young girls. It was unsafe, sometimes deadly work, as it called for dipping matches by hand daily into a poisonous chemical called white phosphorus. Workers who inhaled the chemical developed “phossy jaw”– necrosis of the jaw bone caused by phosphorus poisoning — which often caused the jaw to glow in the dark.
The conditions were so unsettling that workers formed the Match Girls Strike of 1888 in London to bring public attention to phosphorus poisoning.
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“Necessary women” were a fixture during the colonial period, and their name was quite apt. They were tasked with the unfortunately very necessary job of emptying chamber pots filled with human waste throughout the day. It wasn’t until the end of the period that indoor bathrooms became commonplace, and the outdated job was flushed away.
The job of a Roman ornatrix slave — aka hairdresser — was to make sure her mistress’s tresses were always glamorous. According to a segment aired on NPR’s Morning Edition, their go-to hair treatments incorporated ingredients like decomposed leeches, urine, bile and pigeon droppings. It seems that the price of beauty wasn’t so much high as it was really, really gross.
Professional mourners, also called moirologists, are essentially actresses paid to mourn prominent people at funerals and wakes to make the deceased seem more important. In ancient communities in Rome, Greece, Egypt and Israel, this unusual job was commonly given to women due to the perception that they were more emotional than men. They were required to wail, cry out in anguish, cover themselves in dirt and otherwise act like the person’s death affected them personally.
The tradition of hiring professional mourners has almost died out, but in China, Taiwan, Brazil and parts of Africa, female mourners are still hired to wail for the deceased.
As early as the mid-1600s, women in Stockholm were given jobs as “roddarmadammer,” or rowing madams. They ferried people and goods across the city’s busiest rivers, wearing special-made clothing to endure various weather conditions. Military leader Francisco de Miranda described a rowing madam as a “good woman that is rowing like hell.”
Up until the late 19th century, these women’s boats were the go-to transportation option for crossing the river; soon thereafter, steamboats were introduced.
Roman vestal virgins had a very unique job. They were selected between the ages of six and 10 to serve as priestesses of the Roman goddess of the hearth, Vesta. The women were highly respected and powerful in Roman society. In fact, they were free of many of the restrictions average Roman women had to endure at the time.
That said, the role came with serious strings attached. The position required a 30-year vow of chastity. If the vestal virgins failed in their duties in any way, they would risk being severely beaten. And if they broke their vow of abstinence, they would be buried alive, or worse, have molten lead poured down their throats.
Wise Women With Powerful Spit
In ancient and medieval Europe, a group of wise women who were mostly elderly would give insight into medical issues, primarily concerning the female body. According to “Daughters of Hecate: Women and Magic in the Ancient World,” some of these homeopathic healers would spit on young ladies in order to protect them from the “evil eye” — talk about a weird job, huh? The women were hunted because they were believed to be evil sorceresses.
Breast milk has been an integral part of motherhood since the beginning of humanity. After all, long before baby formula and bottles were invented, it was the only option for mothers to feed their infants. But for some women, breastfeeding wasn’t just a way to nourish their children — it was a job.
During the Roman Empire, for instance, slaves and lower class women were required to breastfeed the babies of their noble masters. And since a woman could only act as a wet nurse if she was producing milk, it meant mothers who were already lactating for their own infants had to sacrifice feeding their children first. In fact, many noble families kept an eye on their wet nurses to ensure that they “did not put the life and happiness of their infant above everything else,” according to Colin Heywood’s “A History of Childhood.”
As hard as it might be to imagine, there was once a time when only switchboard operators could connect long-distance calls between callers. In the early- to mid-20th century, it was the responsibility of an operator to connect phone circuits through switchboard machines whenever a call was made between two parties.
The role was essential during the time as all calls in a prospective town were made through a central office. During the early 1980s, however, the position became obsolete when the digital world revolutionized the telephone game.
Vivandiére is a French name given to women who served as first-aid providers alongside military regimes during war times. The women would attend to wounds, cook, sew and carry full canteens for soldiers while on duty. The term vivandiére, which means “hospitality giver,” was commonly used in non-French speaking countries, as vivandiéres were employed during the American Civil War. The job may sound like a mobile maid, but during the time, these women were considered honorable and highly respected.
Gender-Specific Jobs Are Becoming a Thing of the Past
Bizarre jobs still exist today. After all, how could there be great-tasting ice cream without ice cream taste testers? And in order to make antidotes for snake venom, you first need snake-milkers. Thankfully, however, more and more gender-specific jobs have been eliminated over the years, especially after protection from sex-based discrimination in the workplace was enacted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Women are now free to explore any career they want, and they can — thank god — do it completely leech-free.
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