Friday, March 14, 2008

More Work for Mother 9 -- 1920 to Now

The magazine Working Mother--a reflection of where mothers are today.

This is the ninth and final installment of a report on More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Hearth to the Microwave by Ruth Cowan Schwartz. My comments are in brackets.

In sum:
1920-1940: The Golden Age of the homemaker was over. First off, most middle and upper middle class women ceased to have servants. Brakes on immigration dried up this labor force, and hired help became more expensive. The lady of the house was for the first time doing all the housework or nearly all of it alone--without substantial help from the rest of her family or from hired help. One result of this change was the move toward smaller homes (the Sears kit bungalow, for instance) that could be maintained by only one person. In the 1930s, of course, most middle-class women were struggling to keep their family's head above water under the conditions of the Great Depression.

For those struggling to make ends meet, in these two decades, these families continued to face a precarious economic life. However, their home conditions improved. Many of these families were moving into home ownership thanks to building and loan associations (remember It's a Wonderful Life?) These homes were not spacious--often only four rooms but they were wired for electricity, have running water, an indoor bathroom, a gas range, and a telephone. "In the period after the First World War, the diffusion of these amenities combined with public health measures that were becoming more prevalent (purification and inspection of milk, water treatment plants, sewers for poor neighborhoods, diphtheria inoculations, regular refuse collection, fortification of certain foods with vitamins, certification of meat and poultry supplies) meant that the standard of living for this generation was considerably higher (or rather the standards of death and illness considerably lower) than it had been for their parents." However, this amelioration of the conditions of life did not extend to rural areas or to African Americans. Even by the time that the United States entered World War II, one-third of American homes lack the amenities of running water, an indoor bathroom, and central heating. And everywhere, lower-income women continued to work very hard both inside and outside the home.

In the postwar 1940s and 1950s, these amenities continued to be diffused to the rest of the population, and appliances were increasingly introduced into American homes. In an intriguing section, Schwartz shows that in the 1950s, the routine day of a housewife with children was pretty much the same--whether she was the wife of an attorney or the wife of a plumber.

Going into the last quarter of the 20th century, being a homemaker remained the equivalent of a full-time job. Citing John P. Robinson's 1977 study, How Americans Spend Time, Schwartz reports that "housewives who are not employed in the labor market spend, roughly speaking, fifty hours a week doing housework; housewives who are employed in the labor market spend, again roughly speaking, thirty-five hours on their work in and for their homes." This amount of work correlates with all other reports on women's work in the home in this period, she says. Thus, Schwartz argues correctly that no introduction of technology has freed up women--as it did earlier for men--to enter the work force.

Today, a mother with a full-time job can be working up to 80 hours a week, as her weekends are used for doing all the chores she could not perform during the work week. In short, only the lucky half of the women of 1890-1920 enjoyed a hiatus in the amount of work they perform in the home. Technology has increased women's productivity, but it has not eliminated work. Nevertheless, Schwartz points out, that is the common misunderstanding with its corollary that housework is not real work because it is not measured in money terms. I will be posting more on the working mother but this concludes the report on More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, a fascinating study.

Corrections, reflections, and additions are welcome!

Other posts in this series:
More Work for Mother 8 -- 1890-1920: The Impoverished Other Half
More Work for Mother 7 -- 1890-1920: The Golden Age for the Half the Country's Women
More Work for Mother 6 -- 20th Century Pluses and Minuses
More Work for Mother 5 -- 19th Century Pluses and Minuses
More Work for Mother 4 -- Enter the Stove
More Work for Mother 3 -- The Flour Revolution
More Work for Mother 2 -- Keeping House in Colonial America
More Work for Mother?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Linda,
I agree that the 80+-hour week for the working mother is now the norm. Many professional working women I know, in fact, think of their time in the office as relatively less stressful and exhausting than their work at home, or their long commutes to and from the office, which can add 3 to 4 hours to the day. So, it's a 12 hour day, 5 days a week to serve as a second bread winner, 2 or more hours of housekeeping/errands during the week, and a mobilization of 16-20 hours each weekend for laundry, cleaning, and more errands. I can only imagine how women who perform additional menial work outside the home handle this schedule. Over the long haul, such a routine cannot be sustained, and both work place performance and family life suffer greatly. America made a poor choice when it went down the road to the two-income household, and this should be a leading public policy concern.