“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?