Sunday, March 2, 2008

More Work for Mother ?

Women are told that over the course of especially the latter half of the 20th century, so many labor-saving devices were introduced into the home that we are largely freed from such labor and are therefore expected to join the labor force, spending up to 8 hours of the day outside the home at a workplace. Ruth Schwartz Cowan challenged this idea in her book More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, which was published in 1983. The basic thesis of the book is that the industrialization of productive processes from the days of colonial America have changed but not appreciably reduced the workload for the woman of the house. She shows this by comparing the total social and work processes that were involved in creating a meal in colonial America and creating a meal in the home of a middle-class family in the industrializing 19th century. She also examines in detail the processes of industrialization in the food system, the clothing system, the health care system, and water and heating systems over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. At the conclusion of this survey, she summarizes her thesis in this way:

"Our commonly received notions about the impact of twentieth-century household technology have thus deceived us on two crucial grounds. They have led us to believe that households no longer produce anything particularly important, and that, consequently, housewives no longer have anything particularly time consuming to do. Both notions are false, deriving from an incomplete understanding of the nature of these particular technological changes. Modern labor-saving devices eliminated drudgery, not labor. Households are the locales in which our society produces healthy people, and housewives are the workers who are responsible for almost all of the stages in that production process. Before industrialization, women fed, clothed, and nursed their families by preparing (with the help of their husbands and children) food, clothing, and medication. In the post-industrial age, women feed, clothe, and nurse their families (without much assistance from anyone else) by cooking, cleaning, driving, shopping, and waiting. The nature of the work has changed, but the goal is still there and so is the necessity for time-consuming labor."

In the coming days, I will be posting some details of her historical survey of technology in the home since colonial America, which I found thoroughly fascinating.


Wendy WaterBirde said...

This is so on target Linda : ) Reminds me of Taylor Caldwell's article where she contrasted her own life with her Aunt Polly's. Her aunt didn’t have the labor saving devices like we have today and yet she always seemed to look more peaceful and rested. She wasnt the first to notice this either, have heard it in many places. Something i’ve been drawn to there is the book "Better Off", whose author had this to say after he and his wife had lived among the Amish:

""Time moved more slowly but also...we had more of it...we were able to relax and read the way we were doing right now; in the absence of fast-paced gizmos, ringing phones, alarm clocks, television, radios, and cars, we could simply take our time. In being slower, time is more capacious. The event is only in the moment. By speeding through life with technology, you reduce what any given moment can hold. By slowing down, you expand it."

I think its true. When you are doing your household chores with things that make them go faster, then things are moving faster for you...and so ironically your time is more cramped and stressed because you are moving fast so much of the time. Wheras if things take longer to do, you move more slowly through doing them, your time is more spacious. Comparing sweeping to "labor saving" vacuuming for example....the latter is fast and noisy and definitely not relaxing, the former is slower and quiet and you can be in a more contemplative and present place doing it. When someone has a lot of labor saving devices then we expect them to do more with the free time left (like chaffering kids around etc), but what that ends up meaning is that one is moving fast so much of the time. Versus doing things that take longer and so doing less of things since they move more slowly....which is far less stressful i think.

Anonymous said...

What I miss most about the daily routine is the opportunity to slow down, sit, and share time with my family during the course of household tasks, such as pea-shelling, sewing, or even ironing. The social fabric has been stressed by the rev-up in technology, as each individual care-giver has been stressed by the demands outside of the home.