Via Alas, Emma at gendergeek discusses the myth of the liberating vacuum cleaner in response to a commenter’s contention that technology had a greater impact on gender equality than did feminism, because technology set women free from domestic drudgery.
Except, erm, it didn’t:
The notion that women were saved from a life of Little-House-on-the-Prairie style, cornbread making, dust sweeping, gingham sewing, fire lighting servitude by the wonders of modern technology is very popular. In this re-imagining of the history of housework, the labour market is veritably clamouring for the talents of the ladies, who are prevented from taking part in paid work only by the vexatious inefficiency of their current tools for picking up dust and cleaning clothes. The evidence, dear reader, spins an entirely contradictory yarn. Michael Leonosio, writing on the dollar cost of domestic labour in the Journal of Forensic Economics in 1981, describes a forty-year survey of the time women spend doing housework.
A striking finding is that while at the beginning of the time period [the 1920s], the average hours devoted to housework by full-time housewives was 52 hours per week, by the 1960s weekly housework had risen to 55 hours.
In fact, over the 40-year period average hours fluctuated within the 51-56 hour range. Thus, despite the introduction of presumably labor-saving appliances in the home and the drift of the population from rural to urban settings, hours of housework for full-time homemakers did not appear to decline.
Emma notes that the labor-saving devices themselves may have contributed to this rise in the number of hours spent on housework, because they serve as a reminder that there were things that needed doing:
Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, in For Her Own Good, provide a likely explanation for this phenomenon.
Washing machines permit you to do daily, instead of weekly, laundries. Vacuum cleaners and rug shampooers remind you that you do not have to live with dust or countenance a stain on the carpet. Each of them – the dishwasher, the roll warmer, the freezer, the blender – is, the material embodiment of a task, a silent imperative to work. [Emphasis authors’ own.]
This is a very good point. Back when you had to beat your rugs to get them clean, your rugs stayed dirty until there was time to take them up and beat them. If laundry had to be taken down to the river or all washed by hand, it was more efficient to do it all at once rather than a bit each day. Time was spent on the tasks that were more necessary, as opposed to the fussy stuff.
But if you have a vacuum and a washing machine, there’s no reason to let things go that long. Standards go up, expectations rise, and more pressure is put on women to meet them.*
I, personally, am somewhat of a slob, but I feel a lot of societal pressure to make my home neat, especially for guests. I’ve gone so far as to refuse to let people in if the place is particularly messy, and I’ve taken a lot of shit from my brothers about my housekeeping habits (theirs are better than mine, admittedly). Of course, that they feel entitled to comment on my housekeeping habits and I don’t feel entitled to comment on theirs (nor, really, does my sister feel entitled to comment on mine) points to the fact that we were raised with a very gendered idea of housework. And I’m not living up to my assigned role, which is to keep a clean home.
What would truly liberate me from housework would be being able to shed that nagging voice that tells me that I will be judged by the state of my home. Or rather, that it matters that I will be judged, because judged I shall be regardless. I’d love it if I could be free of worrying what people think of my housekeeping, or free of feeling that I can’t even let people in. I’d love to be able to accept that I’m perfectly comfortable with a certain amount of dust and clutter (nowhere near Collyer Brothers proportions) and everyone else should be, too.
Men I know with worse housekeeping habits than I have seem to have no issue with letting me into their apartments, and seem to feel no embarassment at the state thereof (with the exception of the bathroom, usually). I would imagine that the guy who lives downstairs from me, whose apartment I was in this morning to get photos of the water damage caused by the cleaners I hired, would not be terribly embarassed that the super let someone into his very, very messy apartment.
But me? I stress that people in the apartments on the other side of the courtyard can see the mess in my kitchen. I was mortified when I found out that my dogwalker, in order to get stuff to clean up poor sick Junebug’s diarrhea, had taken a trip through parts of the apartment not visible from the doorway and not clean. And my place wasn’t even that awful! And when I called the cleaning service to complain about the damage to my plumbing and the general crappiness of the job they did, the first thing the woman I spoke with did was tell me that I was a slob, so it was all my fault. I have to be honest, that one hurt, and I spent a lot of time stuck on that instead of sticking to, Hey! You broke my fucking plumbing!
There’s no good reason I should be alloting any mental real estate to this. But it’s one of those things, like weight, that women are conditioned to expend a lot of thought on, to the exclusion of other things.
I’m also well aware that I get somewhat of a pass on all this because I’m single and live alone. If I lived with a man, or had kids, I would probably feel even more pressure to keep things clean because of the expectations I grew up with that women took care of things for men and children. It’s astonishingly easy to fall into those kinds of patterns, too, even in a non-romantic-relationship context, as I found when I shared a secretary with a male attorney and decisions about gift-buying and whatnot were by some tacit agreement taken on by me.
In the meantime, my efforts at training the cats to do the dishes have come to naught.
* I can think of at least two other areas where improvement in technology has raised standards and expectations: papers and mixed tapes. When I was in college, almost nobody had a computer that was worth a damn, but nearly everyone had a typewriter or one of those Brother word processors. Papers usually looked crappy — I know that I just about never hit the bottom margins right, and just gave up on footnotes. By the time I got to law school, computers were more widely available, and the profs expected you to have clean-looking papers. Same thing with making mixed tapes — because you no longer have to cue up the tape just right and can instead just start the digital track, the finished product is always cleaner.