Yet, with the importance of their work and the need that it filled, it was most often relegated to a lower status and was maintained servile to the power structure that it served.
Most women during this period worked in occupations that were done at or near the home. The need to maintain a family life often kept them oscillating between short periods of employment and the duties of motherhood. Out of convenience and necessity, a woman's choice of occupations was limited from birth. As Hanawalt observes, "The division of labor by sex was set early in a child's life" (8). A woman's dowry would be the initial contribution that women would make to the economy. It was most often used to set up the household, and then used to keep it running (Hanawalt 17). The tilling of soil was a solely male domain, while women became the bakers, cooks, tailors, and thread makers. This was done to support the home life and generate supplemental income. The brewing of ale, to be used in the home, was a typical example of a steady outside income, as was spinning thread (Hanawalt 11).
While the woman's dowry and marriage became a pooled resource to support a family, slavery was an institution that supported the manors and generated a source of unskilled labor. Though oppressive, slavery was, as Sturad remarks, "... an acceptable alternative to for the organization of unskilled labor through the medieval period" (39). The slave system provided the labor for processing goods for export, as governesses, and wet nurses. Women were given special respect based on a complex system that was defined by skill and rank. Caring for children was a valued skill and the ability to provide breastmilk to newborns was economically rewarded. The system of slavery, while filling a societal need with efficiency, was overwhelmingly populated by women. In Ragusa during the years 1280-1284, the ranks of the slaves were as high as 90% female (Stuard 44).
A woman's contribution to the economy was often hidden behind the most visible signs of commerce and the layers of male dominance. However, there were professions that enabled women to climb in status through occupational work. Nursing was especially valued. The 4 year apprenticeship required for nurses and the bonuses given to accept apprentices relate the importance that the beginning 16th century placed on the skill. The occupation was wide in scope demanding nurses to perform as back up medical assistants during plague epidemics (Weisner 105).
While the occupations that were very gender specific were often rewarding for women, often women were excluded from the normal channels of commerce. The crafts were generally maintained as a male dominion as was membership in most guilds. Though not legally barred from entering crafts, a woman would most likely enter the field through her family's or husband's business. The same was true of the status gained by entering a trade, as it would be lower than the male membership. Where wealthier men had even greater dominance, such as Exeter, organizations were formed that effectively barred women's participation by excluding them from select groups. Markets and commerce were not banned by law, but the prejudice of tradition as Kowaleski observed, "...effectively blocked any real chance of commercial success" (155).
Single women and wives could rarely escape the lower status granted to them unless they married into a status.