More Work for Mother: the Ironies of American Housework
© 1985 Ruth Cowan
Throughout the 20thcentury, households were transformed by a new abundance of labor-saving devices, from washing machines to toaster ovens, and processed goods that reduced housewives’ workloads, leaving them free to learn trades and professions of their own and fully participate in the modern world. But in the second decade of the 21st century, American women are just as chore-taxed as ever, lamenting of the ‘second shift’ that awaits them upon arriving home. Despite the many machines now investing our homes, most of the work still has to be done by hand, for Parkinson’s Law holds true there as well as anywhere else: work expands to fill the time available for its completion. In More Work for Mother, author Ruth Cowan demonstrates how gadgets and goods created new work while eliminating others, and argues that women will not be free from drudgery until housework is freed from the realm of ‘femininity’ to the point that men won’t feel emasculated by laundry.
The devices and goods of the 19thand 20th century – refrigerators, washing machines, microwaves, convenient bags of flour, even more convenient no-bake cheesecake mixes, even more convenient instant cereal — did indeed reduce a lot of labor. In fact, for men they reduced virtually all household work. More Work for Other opens with a history of housework. Although modern readers might be aware that women’s traditional role was in the home, men’s traditional role was in the home, as well; prior to industrialism, men didn’t pack a lunch pail and disappear into the country for a day at work. The home and the work of most families were intimately connected, typically inseparable. Women may have baked bread, but it was men who gathered and ground it; women may have washed clothes, but men chopped the wood and let children lug in the water. But while men’s roles in the household largely vanished, women found that work remained constant. The availability of affordable clothing reduced the need for sewing and repairing, but increased the burden of laundry, and standards of cleanliness climbed as the ability to clean increased. Laundry and scrubbing agents meant that minor stains could no longer be tolerated, necessitating near-daily cleaning regimens. And those new labor-saving devices were often fragile things, needing frequent cleaning to avoid their works being gummed up. Additionally, for middle class or wealthier women, the availability of do-it-yourself machines meant that retaining maids and other servants was a sinful waste – never mind that doing it themselves meant more hours of their own time spent doing the labor, regardless of advertisers’ claims of quick ease-of-use. There were options that might have truly revolutionized household chores – commercial kitchens with thrice-daily delivery, commercial laundries, cooperatives, apartment hotels – but most fell by the wayside, either because of cultural imperatives or because of market forces.
Although not as sweeping as Susan Strasser’s Never Done, what’s lost in extensive narrative is replaced by more serious analysis and an abundance of good points made. Cowan notes, for instance, that the increase of standardized products destroyed easy class differences: while in the mid-19th century a street urchin and the scion of a wealthy businessman would look as different as night and day just judging from their clothes’ cleanliness, today both could wear the same products, and the fact that vitually all homes have water and heating means that no one is denied the ability to shower every day. The interior of homes, too, are far closer than they once were; the absence of gadgets and electricity might have once marked a hovel, but these days not even campers will tolerate going without a refrigerator. Her driving point is that the fact that homes are now filled with gadgets and manufactured articles doesn’t mean that homes are no longer productive; mothers are still ‘producing’ clean bathrooms, fed children, and presentable clothing. If the labor women perform was priced as though they were in the open market, people would never assume homemaking to be unproductive. Ultimately, Cowan believes women will be freed from drudgery only when we relax fanatic standards regarding cleanliness and the housework that remains is stripped, through cultural or technological means, of its traditionally female association so that men will pitch in more. If that argument, made in 1985, has lost some of its edge in a 21st century peopled by “Mr.Moms” , most of the work has not.