Is your washing machine a feminist?


“Until such time as science shall illuminate the housewife’s path,
she must walk in the twilight of traditional opinion”
Wesley Clair Mitchell, 1912

“The washing machine liberated women more than the pill”. So sayeth the Catholic church, anyway. Now this statement- which was part of a long editorial to celebrate International Women’s Day, and asked the question-“What in the 20th century did more to liberate Western women? The debate is heated. Some say the pill, some say abortion rights and some the right to work outside the home. Some, however, dare to go further: the washing machine.”

This article, rather unsurprisingly, prompted a fair few heated responses- with even the normally neutral Reuters saying “feminists of the world- sit down before you read this”. Italian MP Paola Concia responded to it by saying “Instead of entering into an abstract debate on gender, it would be better if L’Osservatore Romano discussed reality, such as the fear in which many women still live when they are in the streets and between the walls of their own homes,”, and many others on the blogosphere sadly used it as an example of just how far we have to go with feminism.

While there may be no surprises that the Catholic church are not the biggest fans of contraception, this is quite an interesting approach to nudging one of the pills greatest accolades- that it sparked a rebirth of feminism and women’s liberation- aside, and it has chosen what could be seen as a rather unlikely technology as an opponent.

Or has it? L’Osservatore Romano is not alone in thinking that the washing machine, has had a pretty major role to play in shaping society, and in particular- women’s lives. Hans Rosling of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and longtime lover of stats, also feels like the washing machine is a pretty influential bit of technology. And in a ten minute Ted talk on washing machines, calls them “the greatest invention of the industrial revolution”. Emanuela Cardia of Universite de Montreal also thinks that plug in kitchen conveniences did more than almost any other technology, to liberate women and enable many to join the work force. So far, so feminist. The washing machine does seem to be considered quite a useful tool in the liberation of women.

Washing clothes and sheets without a machine is a very long and arduous task, and if there is no ready access to water, it can involve long trips to and from a water source, often carrying heavy loads. Historically, it was considered a women’s job, and sometimes girls would be kept home from school, to aid women with the household wash day- often known as ‘blue Monday’ . In many countries, washing and other household chores still fall to girls, and Unicef reported that the expectation for girls to stay home and perform housework tasks is a substantial barrier to education in developing countries.

So surely anything that reduces the amount of time that (mainly) women spend on laundry is good thing? With all of this extra time, perhaps it will automatically free women up to, as Cardina mentions, go into the work force, or do more things. Rosling certainly thinks so. In his talk, he claims that the time freed up by the arrival of the washing machine, allowed his mother to go to the library, and bring home children’s books- sparking an interest in academia, that eventually led to his current career. Hmm. Suddenly washing machines are seeming a bit less like a tool, and actually quite imbued with feminist principals. This is also beginning to seem a little bit technologically deterministic. Has the washing machines really socially shaped women’s lives?

Ruth Schwartz Cowan, an academic from Penn University, does not necessarily subscribe to this particular view. Writing in Technology and Culture magazine in 1976 she says that “social changes (were) attendant upon the introduction of modern technology into the home”. so in her view, unlike Rosling’s, it was not the technology of washing machine’s that led to a societal effect. However, she then goes on to say that these “social changes were concomitant with a series of technological changes in the equipment that was used to do the work.”

In her book ‘More work for mother’ Schwartz Cowan believes that, far from reducing time spent on household chores, the mechanisation of many household activities such as cleaning and cooking, actually led to homemakers working longer hours in their homes. Although Joel Moykor is keen to point out that “this is not to say that labor-saving innovations in domestic technology had no beneficial effect”, and points out that Cowan says that an “American housewife of 1950 produced single-handedly what her counterpart in 1850 needed a staff of three or four to produce”. This would seem to contradict the idea that washing machines are imbued with feminist values, and in someways suggest, that actually mechanised processes of housework, are actually doing nothing for womens’ liberation.

So if we are to view washing machines as principally used, both historically and currently by women- are washing machines engendered technologies? Jean Robinson reports that “washing machines, according to attitudes expressed to me by a number of people in China, are often considered a purchase primarily for the benefit of the women in the family” and generally speaking, advertising images and commercials for washing machines and laundry products, both historically and in the present day mainly feature female protagonists. So with such cultural and gendered associations, is it possible to see a technology such as the washing machine as completely neutral? This goes back to the substantivism vs instrumentalism debate that was touched on in the previous blog post. An instrumentalist would argue that a washing machine is merely a tool that is used as a means to an (perhaps more cleaner and fragrant) end, whereas a Substantivist, might argue that all technologies are value laden, and the washing machine is no exception.

Langdon Winner, in his article ‘Do artefacts have politics?‘ asked if a bridge could be racist. A question which, to many people, initially think is slightly ridiculous. However, on reading the paper and considering the politics of the bridge he discusses, then becomes a question worth considering seriously. I think it could be worth asking seriously the question- is your washing machine a feminist? Is it a tool that has allowed millions of women to escape from the shackles of domestic drudgery? Or, is it, in its very existence a sign of oppression?


From high-tech toddlers to digital teens

“It’s a good thing I was born when I was – I have the internet right at my fingertips”

The majority of first world children are growing up as digital natives, and as they grow, new technologies will also emerge and grow. Some technologies, such as touch-screen phones, tablets and 3D cinema will seem as everyday and mundane to the children of the Noughties as they seem exciting and exotic to those who witnessed their rise. Like it or not, children are surrounded by technologies, and they will be the ones to live with the consequences and changes to society that will come as a result of technologies that are being developed today.

At almost every stage of a modern child’s life, there is the possibility that technologies will be involved – from the scans in the womb to the engineering of their car seats. But what are the implications of this? How do you parent in the digital age? And can parents keep abreast of technologies that their children master so quickly? This is something which seems to be an increasing concern for some parents – search Mumsnet or any parenting forums and there’ll nearly always be a thread discussing what threats technology may pose to their little ones. Earlier this summer Northwestern University published the results of a survey, calling the report ‘Parenting in the Digital age’. They surveyed more than 2300 parents of zero to eight-year-olds, and asked questions such as “do you think smart phones and tablet devices have made parenting easier?”.  Studies such as this seem to indicate that this concern is becoming more mainstream.

If you subscribe to an instrumentalist view of technology – in that you view technologies merely as neutral tools that you can choose to exercise will over– then perhaps there are few concerns. Surely then you can just choose to not expose your child to certain technologies that you dislike and only utilise ones that you believe to be useful. But as any parent of an under 10 will tell you (or even of teenagers for that matter) the point at which your wishes and your child’s will intersect is a relatively small one, and rarely is it as simple as one technology good, one bad. As with many areas, it is a double-edged sword – the same technological equipment (e.g. a computer or tablet) that may help your child learn to read, may also be used for online bullying, for access to pornography.

Neutral or not, technology is a crucial part of Noughties’ children’s educations. In primary schools, the Rose Report placed information communication technologies (ICT) centre stage of the early years education agenda. Some schools are even teaching children as young as four how to code, while the 2006 Education 2020 report spoke of the need to respond to “far greater access to, and reliance on, technology as a means of conducting daily interactions and transactions.” The report goes on to say, “The pace of technological change will continue to increase exponentially… this is likely to result in near-universal access to personal, multi-functional devices… Using ICT will be natural for most pupils and for an increasing majority of teachers.”

While technologies in education are often lauded as a new dawn of learning, there are increasing concerns about the amount of screen time children (and young ones in particular) are exposed to, as well as the new and worrying phenomenon of digital addiction. It is estimated that, by the age of seven, British children will have spent an astonishing 8766 hours (over a year) of their lives looking at TV, computer and game console screens. Children as young as four have been treated for technology addiction at the Capio Nightingale Clinic and there have been some studies that indicate that an increased amount of viewing time correlates with psychological difficulties, especially in adolescents.

Online bullying and behaviour on social networking sites is a concern for many parents. And 88 percent of social-media-using teens reported that they had witnessed people posting cruel or unkind remarks online. Many children’s knowledge of social networking sites and online technologies is better than their parents’, so often negative behaviour or bullying can go undetected, or can be difficult to monitor.

One potential way of monitoring your child’s use of technology is to implement parental controls, such as porn filters or web blocks, and/or restrict access to devices during certain hours (I know of one family that has a digital Sabbath every Saturday – no TV, mobiles, or internet access, parents included!).  Some would argue that this is a restriction of your children’s digital rights, which “arbitrarily denies them choice, exposure to ideas, and freedom of speech”. Controls may also not even be effective. Some 22 percent of 11-year-olds are able to get around parental controls, and as children’s technological knowledge increases, who is to say that their ability to circumnavigate technological controls won’t be greater than the average adult’s ability to set them in the first place?

The difficulty of predicting what kind of impact new technologies may have, not only on children’s lives, but also on the whole of society, is echoed in the Collingridge dilemma. And often, if that impact is negative, a technology may have become so entrenched, or ‘locked-in’ that controlling or changing them is difficult, or impossible. This of course, is a problem for the whole of society – not just for parents – but not knowing what effects technology may have on your child, both in the near and distant future, is quite unsettling.

When you consider what a key part technology plays in children’s lives, both through their education and, as often or not, as part of their social interactions, is it really possible to take a purely instrumentalist view of the technologies that surround the children of the Noughties? I would argue that it isn’t. Instead I would suggest that the way technology shapes children’s futures, reflects the concepts behind a substantivism approach – that technologies do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they play a role in the way that society is shaped. The problem is, with the increasing pace of change, can parents not only keep up, but understand the implications of new technologies on their children’s development?

Of course this is a discussion that focuses on children who are lucky enough to be on the right side of the digital divide, and have access to these technologies. There are hundreds of thousands of children who do not have this privilege, and as a result of that, whose lives may be even more negatively affected than those of any child who faces problems ensuing from access to technology. But that, perhaps, is a discussion for another time.