More Work for Mother

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Ruth Schwartz Cowan. More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. New York: Basic Books, inc. 1983. pp. 257. ISBN 0-465-04731-9.

Summary

In her book, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, Ruth Schwartz Cowan argues that although advances in technology and industrialization affecting the home reduced the total amount of work necessary to maintain a household, it only reduced work for men, children and domestic servants. As modern technological systems for the home developed, they created more work, isolation and increased social expectations for wives and mothers.

Cowan begins her narrative by describing the division of labor in pre-industrial households where men, women and children were involved in some portion of the systems to produce meals, provide general hygiene and a clean home. This involvement of the entire family in home production was possible because both the labor of men and women was centered on the home/farm and not in alternate locations. She continues to describe how the Industrial Revolution began to influence the systems of production in the home. Cowan describes how consumer goods replace the tasks of men in production for the home while at the same time increasing the effort and expectations of women’s traditional tasks. Two examples Cowan uses to illustrate her argument are the industrialized production of white flour and the evolution of the stove.

Cowan points out that changing economic conditions made some amount of wage labor mandatory for a family’s survival. Because the amount of domestic labor required of men decreased, it was only logical for men to enter the workforce as wage laborers in order to bring in money for the family, improve family economic security and provide needed consumer goods. Because industrialization also replaced tasks children traditionally completed, more and more children began to attend school outside the home. This transition changed domestic production from a system that included the men and children, to a system where women were the sole producers.

Although men and children were cut out of the system of domestic work, wives were not immediately the sole producers. Prior to WWI, domestic help for heavy cleaning and laundry was common and delivery services for groceries and laundering were available as well as house calls for medical services. But, as refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and washing machines became common, domestic servants, who were always in short supply, were eventually replaced by these new machines. Also, many businesses, such as grocery stores, lower prices by ending delivery services in order to compete in an increasingly competitive market place. These changes leave the house wife isolated in the home, while husbands and children spend increasing amounts of time away from the home. The end of delivery services also added the new and time consuming responsibility of providing transportation services for the family which primarily fell on the wife.

In addition to outlining the changes in domestic production and increasing isolation of wives, Cowan looks at failed attempts to build domestic systems that could have prevented the isolation of “women’s work” through commercialization, co-ops and communal support in areas such as childcare, housekeeping and laundry. She points out that some traditionally female tasks were commercialized, such as preparing the dead for burial and taking care of elderly family members. She states that “Americans have not objected to commercialization, they have applauded commercialization of some household functions while resisting that of others” (p. 110). She concludes that the primary reason these alternatives didn’t work was “When push comes to shove, most people will opt to increase the possibility of exercising their right to privacy and autonomy” (p. 149) as well as the increased cultural message that housework was an act of love.

She concludes her narrative with a discussion of how an increasing number of married women are entering the workforce. Cowan criticizes the common explanation that technology has allowed this due to increased free time for married women. Her entire book shows that this is not the case. Instead, Cowan argues that women are entering the workforce out of economic necessity and that this transition can be facilitated by neutralizing “both the sexual connotation of washing machines and vacuum cleaners and the senseless tyranny of spotless shirts and immaculate floors” (p. 216).

Commentary

Dan Curry, Spring 2014

In her book, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, Ruth Schwartz Cowan provides a unique and important contribution to the study of the division of labor in the United States. Her assessment of how industrialization impacted the home as well as the role of men, women and children provides a logical and needed perspective that calls into question previous assumptions. Not only does she look at the topic from the perspective of gender, she also provides a thought provoking view on how domestic work and expectations became more similar between middle and working class housewives in the later 20th Century.

There is very little to criticize in Cowan’s work. But, her assessment of time spent on housework comes mainly from household surveys of middle class women which could hide class differences regarding time and responsibilities of different socio-economic and ethnic groups in the United States. Also, because Cowan wrote More Work for Mother in 1983, it is in desperate need of updating. Her assertion that services for day care languish far behind nursing homes seems very dated. Either an updated edition of her work or a new study on the topic is needed to account for changes in the domestic division of labor and standards that most likely have occurred in the 30 years since publication.

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