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More Work For Mother: The Ironies Of Household Technology From The Open Hearth To The Microwave, by Ruth Schwartz Cowan.

March 9, 2012

WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH

More Work For Mother: The Ironies Of Household Technology From The Open Hearth To The Microwave by Ruth Schwartz Cowan. Basic Books (1985), Paperback, 288 pages.

A careful, highly readable account of domestic spaces in American history; how they have changed and what those changes have meant for women.

This book is a meticulously researched study, not the rhetorical complaint about women as victims that its title might imply. An expert on the history of technology, Cowan asks a simple question: did men and women experience changing technology, in this case, industrialization, in gendered ways? For years historians have written about how industrialization lessened the physical work for people. Cowan says this didn’t happen for everyone. Women, in their almost universal roles as mothers and housewives, had to do more work, not less, as industrialization progressed. Using broad strokes, she sometimes overstates her thesis, but in doing so she pushes us to look at ourselves from a new perspective.

Cowan starts her story in the British colonies of North America. Households were large and required much hard labor, but that labor was shared. Husbands, children, servants all helped carry water and cut wood and perform essential tasks. Gender roles were somewhat flexible. Cooking and child-rearing were usually women’s work, but neither required specialized attention. An open hearth for cooking and a new baby about every two years did not allow varied diets and intensive focus on individual children.

By the time the new nation was formed and industrialization was spreading, domestic life was changing with what Cowan calls “the invention of housework.” Men left the home to earn money to buy goods rather than working within the domestic setting to raise and create them. Children left to attend school, and eventually families had fewer children. Women in the upper classes were restricted to their homes, where they were left to do more of the daily tasks essential to maintaining the domestic spaces. Meanwhile, new inventions like the cast iron stove and finely milled flour were raising family exceptions beyond the simple stews and quick breads of colonial times. And ideas about child-rearing required a mother to give intensive attention to her fewer remaining children in order to insure their moral perfection.

The twentieth century continued these trends as more appliances lessened the need for servants. Slowly more jobs opened for those who had been domestic servants. Decisions and labor that had once been made in households came to depend on community-size systems for obtaining food, water, and healthcare. Some attractive alternatives, from boarding houses to refrigerators that ran on gas got squeezed out. Eventually, mothers started entering employment outside the home while still being held responsible for all that occurred within it. Such employment seemed necessary less as personal fulfillment than because, in the consumer-based economy, the family needed the additional money. As Cowan points out, increasingly households lost control over the decisions and processes which affected their lives. And mothers were expected to do more and more.

I consider Cowan’s attention to the differences that existed between men and women’s lives to be women’s history at its best. She offers an example of how new questions can bring new understanding and why gender is an import category of analysis.

I recommend this book highly to everyone. If a person is not particularly interested in women’s history, this book may help them grasp its importance. And the importance of recognizing women’s unique importance.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2012 8:32 pm

    Sounds interesting; I love the history of technology and I love looking at history from a smaller (i.e, domestic or interpersonal) scope and challenge assumptions about the history of the family. This sounds like a book I would like very much.

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