I thought I would use this final post in the More Work for Mother series to explore our current circumstances. For those who missed Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, this series of posts is based on Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s book More Work For Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave.
By the end of her book, Cowan concludes that technological developments over the last century haven’t reduced housework for women. Instead, they have leveled the playing field, allowing families across all social classes have achieved the same basic standard in food preparation, house cleaning, and personal hygiene. Today, nearly everyone in the U.S., not just the wealthy, bathes regularly, wears laundered clothes, and receives basic nutrition. Nevertheless, housework still takes time and most of it is still done by women.
Are we stuck with this dynamic for the foreseeable future? Or is society shifting towards a more balanced division of household labor? I don’t think we have an answer, but I’d like to bring up two recent phenomena.
New Domesticity: I don’t know a huge amount about this and would like to read more. If anyone has suggestions please comment! By “new domesticity” I mean the recent growth in home-based activities like canning, pickling, jam making, knitting, etc. In More Work for Mother, Cowan mentions the appeal of traditional self-sufficiency in our society and calls these activities a “backward search for femininity.” I wonder if the trend is somewhat more complicated. While people have many reasons to participate in traditional home cooking and crafting activities, might the trend reflect reactions to the frantic rat-race in modern business? Or the recent backlash against processed food? We’re stressed at work and don’t trust our food. Why not fall back to traditional tasks we can trust? Maybe so, but I wonder if society has just rationalized increases in women’s labors as a default alternative to addressing the underlying issues. Surely this is a fertile topic for broader feminist discussions.
Stay-at-Home Dads: But! I hear you say. What about the rise of stay-at-home dads? Many popular media outlets have highlighted stay-at-home dads and more equal balances in housework generally. Again, I am not an expert here and would welcome hard data on this topic. Are stay-at-home dads just an artifact of this most recent economic downturn? Or do they represent a substantial shift in the way families approach the household and its labors? Hopefully they reflect a societal shift in gender roles, but Cowan would not be hopeful. Apparently such talk pops up once a decade.