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.