Welcome to the second installment in our 4-part blog series on Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s seminal book More Work For Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. Today we will discuss how modern utilities and automotive transportation helped keep “women’s work” in the home.
As discussed in Part 1, the industrial revolution moved traditionally men’s work into the commercial and industrial sectors while leaving women’s work in the private sphere. According to Cowan, modern utility access supported this break. According to her research, access to water, gas, and electric service removed men’s role in collecting and hauling water and fuel, and made it possible for cleaning and cooking tasks to remain inside the home (rather than be outsourced). For example, with a water hookup and electricity, women could clean their laundry at home rather than sending it to a commercial laundry.
The development of automotive transportation also influenced the work done by married women. Before the car came into widespread use, goods and services came to your door. The local grocery’s delivery boys would deliver your order. Doctors made house calls. Peddlers would make their rounds. As the car took over and the depression put pressure on businesses, delivery services vanished and women started driving to do their shopping, take the kids to school or the doctor, etc. Transportation service became a large part of a women’s daily route.
Cowan’s book was written in the early 1980s, so recent developments in internet shopping piqued my interest. Has the internet made things easier for women or harder? At first, I thought it’s probably helping. With the rise of online shopping and reliable delivery, women don’t have to drive all over town for many items. On the other hand, most day-to-day items like groceries still aren’t available for delivery at a price most people are willing to pay. In addition, internet access has placed the burden of research on the consumer. Whereas once you paid a travel agent to book your flights, now you spend several hours researching and comparing prices. The variety of products available also means you spend a lot more time researching the perfect backpack for your child or the best rice cooker. All this research time seems like an added burden on working mothers that we take for granted.