‘Thank you to my wife’ – unpaid work by women

1 man standing holding paper next to a woman typing

This photo from 1950 says it all. For much of the twentieth-century men wrote and dictated while women typed. Photo courtesy of the Museums Victoria. (Museums Victoria has an excellent open access policy and a large collection online – check it out)

Research and writing involves a lot of repetitive time-consuming tasks such as typing, editing, transcribing and formatting data. All the public hears about is the amazing discovery. The bulk of the work is essential but it can be rather monotonous and certainly not news-worthy.

Over the last few of days #ThanksForTyping has emerged on Twitter to recognise the wives of academics who did a huge amount of this unglamorous and unpaid but essential work for their husbands in the past.  Often the only public acknowledgement they received for this was a sentence noting the debt owed to ‘my wife’ in the acknowledgements of the book or thesis.

Bruce Holsinger from the University of Virginia started the hashtag and found some extraordinary examples:

That woman must have been a world champion in multi-tasking and juggling, but how much sleep did she get? She was a part-time lecturer in chemistry. Has she been properly recognised for her expertise in this field?

Another example demonstrated ‘my wife’ was not only a typist but had considerable skills in transcribing early modern documents:

A clear example of a book where the wife should have been cited as a co-author was this one from a book published in 1964:

The point of this hashtag is that the productivity levels of researchers in the past was often due to many hours of unpaid labour by their wives. Marrying was clearly an important career move. In an era where employers are constantly demanding higher ‘productivity’ levels, it is difficult for academics to reach the levels of their forebears because they cannot draw on this font of unpaid labour.

This issue arose partly because for much of the twentieth-century typing was seen as women’s work. When I started work as an auditor at a large accounting firm in the mid-1980s I was put on one audit because of my typing skills. When I was in the office some men would fling bits of paper at me and mutter ‘type this’ as they marched off. I had to run after them and explain that I was an accountant, not a typist. I had the last laugh though. Because of my ‘typing skills’ I was using the first version of the Excel spreadsheet software. All those men who thought typing was women’s domain missed the boat.

The ‘oppressive burdens’ of unrecognised work by women for their husbands still lurked at the end of the twentieth century. This example is from a book published in 1996.

You can check this book and the acknowledgement on p. xv. yourself via Amazon. Patricia McPherson’s name is nowhere to be seen on the front cover, but she was credited as co-editor with her husband of a collection of Civil War letters in 1997.

Marital Partnerships That Were Professional Partnerships

As the tweets have shown, the assistance that wives gave their husbands was often more than the act of typing. Wives also gave professional advice and contributed their professional skills. This history is full of extraordinary stories of the hidden achievements of women. Everyone has heard of the revolutionary discoveries of Albert Einstein, but we should also know about his wife, Mileva Marić. Pauline Gagnon has written in Scientific American about this extraordinary marital and professional partnership.

Albert and Mileva studied physics together as undergraduates. They were study partners and Mileva’s results were similar to Albert’s except she excelled in experimental physics and he did not. She failed her oral examination and he passed. They continued to work in partnership before and after they married. “How happy and proud I will be when the two of us together will have brought our work on relative motion to a victorious conclusion,” wrote Albert to Mileva in 1901. Mileva’s brother who stayed with the couple on occasions during this period observed that they spent their evenings discussing physics. They continued to work in this way until Albert’s affair with his cousin which effectively ended their partnership around 1914.

It is clear that Albert and Mileva’s partnership was a professional one as well as a union of lovers. Einstein’s theory of general relativity was first published in 1905. Circumstantial evidence suggests that Mileva must have made some contribution to this work, but we will never know how much.

An Australian example is that of Francis Anderson, a Sydney professor who sparked significant education reforms in New South Wales. Anderson was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney from 1888 to 1921. In 1901 he pricked the complacent, self-congratulatory attitude surrounding public education in the state. In an incendiary speech to the Public School Teachers Association he tore away the delusions hiding the deficiencies of NSW schooling. His speech was the catalyst for the Knibbs-Turner Royal Commission which led to significant education reform in the state.

A month after he delivered the speech he published a revised version of it in pamphlet form. In it he inserted an important note:

I am indebted to my wife for invaluable aid in preparing the address for publication.

Francis Anderson,
‘The Public School System of New South Wales’, (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1901).

Book Cover of Maybanke Anderson bio

Jan Roberts’ biography of Maybanke Anderson published by Ruskin Rowe Press.

Maybanke Anderson was already a well-known suffragist as well as a prominent social and education reformer in New South Wales. She had owned and successfully managed a private school and incorporated ideas about kindergarten education in her school at a time when such concepts were novel in New South Wales. In 1896 she helped establish the first free kindergarten in New South Wales. Her biographer, Jan Roberts, provides persuasive evidence to support her contention that Maybanke Anderson probably made a significant contribution to her husband’s speech and his general views on education.

It is very difficult for historians to find concrete evidence of the nature and extent of the contribution that wives make to their husbands’ work due to the privacy of marriage. The interaction between a married couple is largely undocumented and unobserved. Roberts comments:

As so often happens, the influence his wife had on him can only be assumed; certainly there are echoes of each other in their writings over the 28 years of their marriage, and speeches by Anderson years afer her death contain, almost word for word, statements which Maybanke had made in interviews or in her writings.

Jan Roberts, Maybanke Anderson,
(Sydney: Ruskin Rowe Press, 1997), p. 158.

Australia’s capital city, Canberra, provides another example of a marital partnership which was also a professional partnership. Walter Burley Griffin won an international design contest to create Canberra in 1912. It was from these plans that Canberra was built. His wife, Marion was also an architect. Marion Mahony Griffin’s biographer, Glenda Korporaal commented about their partnership:

Exactly what went on between Marion and Walter over that time has never been documented. Walter was the town planning expert, but it would be Marion who would oversee the drawings needed to display her husband’s grand designs, just as she had done for Wright. While it was Walter who had the lifelong dream of designing great cities, Marion had some of the best architectural drawing skills in America at the time. She was determined to use all her skills and energy to see her husband realise his long-held dream. But she was also an experienced architect in her own right, experienced in perspectives of places she had never been to, and brought her own vision to the project.

Glenda Korporaal, Making Magic, edited extract published in The Canberra Times, 16/10/2015.

Cover of Making Magic

Making Magic by Glenda Korporaal, (BookPOD, 2015).

Walter Burley-Griffin did acknowledge his wife’s assistance in his work, but adding Marion Mahony Griffin’s name to Walter Burley-Griffin’s competition entry would have been a career-limiting move for him. This was the era where manliness was highly prized and women’s work was firmly in the home. A man that ‘allowed’ his wife to work was poorly regarded. What would have been the response of the government if one of the winners was a woman? This was the era when married women were not supposed to work. Imagine the howl of disapproval from the Australian public in 1912 if a woman was announced a co-winner? The Griffin’s were American and this was the era before women could vote in national elections in the United States. It would have been unthinkable for a woman to design the political hub of a nation.

These issues continue today, albeit clothed in different forms. There are many important discussions about work going on in private homes between partners. A lot of work is brought home. Just as the Andersons and Griffins did not disclose the extent of these professional discussions and problem-solving in the home, today this type of work continues to remain confidential. We justify this in many ways. Will those reasons seem valid to people in another hundred years?

In 2013 the website, Nursing Clio, published an article by Ronit Y Stahl about a prominent journalist. Michael Hastings was the journalist who exposed the bad attitude of General Stanley McChrystal towards the Obama administration. Hastings’ article led to McChrystal’s resignation. After Hastings died, his wife, Elise Jordan, revealed that she had transcribed the interview tapes with General McChrystal. Jordan is a highly experienced public relations professional and has written for prestigious publications such as The Wall Street JournalElise Jordan was a speechwriter for Condoleeza Rice when she was Secretary of State and director of communications for the National Security Council. When the article about General McChrystal was released, only Hastings was given the byline for the article.

So what you may ask? Many people think that transcribing is a simple act of listening or reading and then typing exactly what you read/heard. If it is just that, it is time-consuming work. In her article, Ronit Y Stahl points out that transcription services are now used by writers and journalists and gives the example of such a service costing $85 per hour. When a wife like Elise Jordan transcribes for her husband, she cannot do her own work so potentially loses income, valuable time advancing her career or some valuable rest.

But I believe that the issue goes further than this. Transcription is a time-consuming and skilled act of interpretation. It is also the best way to become truly intimate with the subject at hand. A transcriber becomes an expert in that text. The transcriber becomes familiar with the thought processes and the communication techniques of the composer of the text. In the case of Elise Jordan, I am sure that she and her husband would have spent hours discussing the story. Jordan would have brought her considerable professional experience and knowledge into those conversations and thus surely played a significant part in shaping and correcting her husband’s opinion which then animated the articles he wrote. This work was a partnership, it was the outcome of a significant collaboration. Ronit Y Stahl argues that Elise Jordan should have also been mentioned in the byline for the news breaking articles. I agree.

These issues are not just historical issues and they are not just about traditional media or academia. The business world benefits from spousal work as much as the academic world. This is a pervasive issue, and while we point the finger at twentieth-century examples, we would do well to give deep thought to addressing our own practices. Instead of just thanking wives for putting up with husbands working long hours at the annual Christmas dinner (à la the 1950s), organisations could think deeply throughout the year about how to give proper recognition to the contributions of spouses. This is a very difficult issue to grapple with.

This problem reveals a deep flaw in our Western individualistic paradigm. This type of unpaid and unrecognised work reflects the fact that we are first and foremost social beings. In marriage, we are one unit. We acknowledge that when we call our partners our ‘other half’. When asked by a co-author of one of Einstein’s papers, why she did not add her name given that she had worked on it, Mileva Marić Einstein replied using a familiar German idiom. “Why? The two of us are but one stone”.

We live together in deep, complex relationships which our current economic structures and social mores fail to recognise and properly acknowledge. But we can start by questioning the tales of men’s achievements and giving recognition to the quiet partners in these marital and professional partnerships.

#ThanksForTyping in the Digital Era

This is not just a historical issue. The problem is deeply embedded in our work in the digital world. The person who contributes significantly may be anonymous and may not even live in the same city, but there is still a significant ethical problem with properly acknowledging and giving recompense to significant work from which we benefit.

My writing project draws heavily on the diaries and letters written by Australian soldiers on the frontline in World War I. But in some respects my research process is quite different to that of other historians. I have created a collection of transcripts of war diaries and letters. Using a program I have written with the help of the Programming Historian I search these transcripts for phrases that are relevant for my research. I then read the text surrounding these phrases and if I find it a rich resource, I read the entire diary. If I am going to rely on the diary or letter in my work I also check the transcript against the original. This method has enabled me to find things no-one else has been able to find.

Clearly, the availability of transcripts is crucial for my project. These transcripts are the result of many hours of work by volunteers for libraries, museums and archives. From the outset of this project, I have been concerned about properly acknowledging the work of these transcribers. As yet I am not sure how I will do this, but I have promised myself I will do this

We need to make an effort to give proper acknowledgement to transcribers. Many women and men have worked on these transcription projects. Collecting institutions and researchers benefit enormously from this volunteer labour in terms of increasing their reputations and being able to ‘discover’ what has not been known before.

Transcriptions turn handwritten digitised material into machine-readable documents that can be used for data mining. Any transcription project relies heavily on volunteers with hours to spare, passion for the subject matter and skill at reading old handwriting. Often transcription projects rely on the work of elderly people. I also wonder how many volunteer transcribers have some form of disability which has caused them difficulty in finding work. Do governments acknowledge the significant contribution people on pensions are making to the resources of our society? Is this reflected through our pension systems?

Thinking about the important role of older people makes me reflect back to the earlier example of the part-time lecturer in chemistry who did a considerable amount of her husband’s work while looking after their baby. I am also wondering if there was another unacknowledged woman in that story. A grandmother was possibly looking after the baby for many hours each day.

We only value work that is paid. The corollary often applies – if it is not paid, the work is not regarded by society as valuable. This issue is a troubling one that we need to work on.

We have made wondrous advances in technology but consideration of ethical issues lags way behind. I often think that the next frontier will not be in the science and technology sphere, it will be a transformation in the weight we give to ethical issues and a consequent re-ordering of our social structures.

We now live in the ‘Information Age’. I hope that the ‘Ethical Era’ will follow.

Black old-fashioned typewriter

A typewriter from the early 1950s. Image courtesy of Museums Victoria.


Further Reading

I hope that you will explore the links I have included in this post. Here are a few more sources you might want to explore:

13 thoughts on “‘Thank you to my wife’ – unpaid work by women

  1. Thanks for the mention, Yvonne.
    Marion Mahony Griffin is a textbook example: I am sure that Korporaal looked for any shred of evidence but what Marion actually did is frustratingly unclear. We know what she ‘must have done’ but…


    • And this is the problem with all this. We cannot go back and give credit where it is due because we just don’t have the evidence. But we can draw a line and change our practices today. It is still a problem and we must fix it.


  2. Great post. Agree with you about transcription. You make an important connection to volunteer labour in the digital era too. I am amazed by what Trove correctors have achieved.


    • The work of volunteer transcribers on Trove is indeed significant. The skills of transcribers of handwritten material for other projects are valuable in an era when younger people are used to reading the printed word and don’t have a lot of skills reading bad handwriting.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes, yes, yes! I wrote about this a bit here https://learnearnandreturn.wordpress.com/2011/05/18/her-dedication/

    where I quoted my favorite dedication:

    Who has not read, set forth in prefaces written by historians of the assisted sex, how much cause they have to be grateful. There is hardly one of them, whether occupant of an endowed chair or graduate student, who does not possess a wife or sister or an aunt – some devoted woman, educated, intelligent, and unpaid – who will do hack work in his behalf. She copies documents for him amid the frigid temperatures of the Public Record Office, she verifies his references, she compiles his index, she ameliorates his English. With sincerest envy I regret that I have not the same reason for rendering graceful and grateful tributes. Much more than is customary, therefore, I am personally guilty of the sins of omission and commission in this book.

    Jean Brookes, International Rivalry in the Pacific (1941)


  4. Never knew that about Einstein! But I do run across this issue in my own reading/researching. Miles Franklin for instance knew the WB Griffins and commented even before Walter arrived in Australia that Marion should have been acknowledged; and Nettie and (daughter) Aileen Palmer did the work abridging ‘Such is Life’ which was credited to Vance. Michelle, above me, modestly doesn’t say so, but covered another aspect of this when she reviewed Annabelle Crabbe’s ‘The Wife Drought’.


    • There are soooo many examples aren’t there. Thanks for the heads up Bill! Michelle’s review is great, so it;s going straight into the ‘Further Reading’ section.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.