What is a woman’s work?

In the EBTs, normally a woman is depicted as a wife or mother, and of course, she may become a bhikkhuni. Apart from the world’s oldest profession, however, there are not, so far as I recall, many instances of women working at jobs. But nor, again IIRC, are there instances were they are prohibited from working.

So I was interested to come across this short passage from the Vinaya (brahmali’s translation). This concerns the group of six nuns, who were the classic bad girls of the Sangha, parallel to the group of six monks. In the Bhikkhuni Khandhaka (Kd 20) they are said to have engaged in a wide variety of work. this is inappropriate for nuns, of course, but the fact that they did it suggests that it may have been normal for women.

The nuns from the group of six made up their eyes, applied facial marks, stared out the windows, exposed themselves to view, organized dancing, appointed sex workers, set up bars, set up slaughterhouses, set up shops, made loans, engaged in trade, were attended on by slaves, were attended on by servants, were attended on by animals, traded in raw and cooked greens, and wore felt.


There is a woman who is a teacher in SN 35.133 Verahaccāni.

I think it’s also safe to assume that the “menial” jobs were also done by both sexes. Lots of things were like family businesses, no? Those families of basket weavers would certainly have everyone working at the task I would think.

And of course there are servants, as in MN 21 Kakacūpama.

And don’t forget the queens.


These types of jobs for women are also found in the Chinese bhikkhuni vinayas. There are nuns who’re accused of “setting up a shop” for various items, nuns that run businesses where they rent out fancy clothing, work as paid makeup artists for laywomen, grow flowers to sell garlands, employ workers as prostitutes, etc.
And of course, nuns that work as cooks, weavers, household helpers, or in childcare, and do other chores, such as spinning yarn etc.


The Pali suttas also have women who manage a large household, seemingly by themselves, i.e. all the business operations (large households had fields and properties with external workers and slaves, etc.)

For example, Velukantaki Nandamata is the head of a large household in AN 7.53 (Her husband is said to be dead, so she seems to be in charge.)

Nakulamata says that she would be economically independent if her husband died since she’s skilled at spinning and carding wool: AN 6.16.

There’s also Visakha Migaramata who represents herself in a court of law for some business: Ud 2.9.


I also vaguely remember some research about female warriors at the Buddha’s time. Apparently there were harem women who were body guards, not consorts of the king. I don’t recall the details though…

There were also female acrobats: sn47.19


You forgot courtesans, Bhante. Courtesans were a very specific kind of prostitutes that were also skilled in the arts, such as singing, dancing or playing a musical instrument. They were also a lot more expensive than regular prostitutes and greatly sought after by kings and wealthy men.

In ancient India you didn’t have that many options as a woman. You would either become a wife and a mother, a nun, or a courtesan. Some women also were weavers or started buisnesses like Visakha (the first girlboss???).


My great-great grandmother ran a bar in Scotland. Of course, she wasn’t a Buddhist nun. But had she been, it would only have heightened her ability to know precisely when to throw out the unruly bum or two. As it happened, her daughter ended up in India as a young missionary teacher under the auspices of the Free Church of Scotland. (Apparently she wasn’t enthusiastic about the prospects under her mother’s tutelage.) At which point she met my great-grandfather and so on and so forth.

This is all to say that, when I think about it, I imagine some nuns took their vows while still needing to carry a substantial family responsibility which they inherited earlier in life. Otherwise, who would take care of the children and the elders? It has always been this way. Here’s to the ones who paved the way!


See Bhante @sujato 's comment in DN 2: SuttaCentral


How could I?


Indeed. But it does seem that the early Buddhist texts record a number of possible livelihoods, almost in passing. Doubtless a more thorough search would reveal more.

Good to know.

Right, not a simple job!

Oh, great one, yes.

Right, of course.

Indeed, and a number of such cases are found in the Vinaya.

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