As a PhD student interested in technology and its role in society, professors are always suggesting interesting reading material. Of course, I never read most of it, but this blog gave me a good excuse to finally read Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s seminal book More Work For Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave.
The book covers a lot of ground, so I’m going to get four posts out of it. This “Part 1” will discuss Cowan’s basic thesis: industrialization eliminated “housework” for men and children but preserved “women’s work” and in some ways made it worse.
For most of human history, basic survival required a lot of work from every person in the household. Men made leather goods, whittled tools, ground grain into meal (or hauled it to the mill), chopped and stacked wood, tended animals, and worked the fields. Women cooked, tended children, made soap and candles, sewed, and wove. Even children worked, tending smaller children, mending, stirring pots, and cleaning vegetables. If the family needed help during the harvest/slaughtering season, or if someone was ill, they would hire help or foster a young family member. In this dynamic, everyone had work to do and each person developed specialized skills to complete this work.
Then the industrial revolution changed the balance. Children went to school and men’s work became industrialized: flour was milled commercially, tools and leather goods were made in factories, coal and gas replaced wood. However, traditionally women’s work remained in the home and new technologies often created more work for married women.
The production of industrial clothing reduced women’s sewing and weaving tasks, but now the family has more clothing that is expected to be washed more frequently.
- Coal and gas stoves meant that women didn’t tend the fire anymore, but they are expected to provide more diverse and more time consuming meals.
- Vacuum cleaners simplified carpet cleaning, but now women are expected to clean the carpets weekly rather than yearly.
In addition, with the boom in factory jobs, domestic workers could find better pay for less work outside the home, so married women are expected to do all of this by themselves.
This got me thinking. Aren’t there “labor-saving” devices today that only make more work for women? Here are some examples I thought up and I’d love to hear others:
We now have McMansions where each kid has his/her own room with a bathroom and Dad has his man-cave, but now Mom needs to clean more rooms.
- How many kitchen devices promise to grill a stuffed pepper, infuse a steak, or puree something exotic? Guess who usually makes all these specialized meals and then cleans the contraptions.
- How many laundry steaming and sanitizing machines are on the market, raising the sanitation standard yet again?