A social rhetoric surrounding household technologies, such as the dishwasher, is that these devices are “labor-saving.” Ruth Schwartz Cowan (1983) argued that this assumption of technology, especially technologies made for domestic work, is wrong. She instead posited that so-called labor-saving devices have actually increased work for women.
Cowan traced household technologies in detail from industrialism, through the great wars, and into the postwar years. Before looking at these eras closely, she examined the general tools and conditions of pre-industrialism. This was necessary to her research because industrialism is generally seen as the catalyst that made housework lighter, easier, and less time consuming. Yet as technologies emerged to improve and streamline household chores, work moved from being shared among family members and hired to domestic servants to solely resting with the housewife. Suburbia contributed to this, by causing men to travel long distances for work and requiring that somebody (the wife) stay at home to work and maintain technological systems and to care for children.
In outlining the state of housework, Cowan recognized that technological systems are socially constructed and maintained. “We live in isolated households and do our marketing for the tiniest consumption units; but, to get our bread to the table, we still need bakers, agribusiness, utility companies, and stove manufacturers” (p. 6). In this sense, housework resembles market labor, yet women are not considered to be producers or to perform any measurable labor. Housework is seen as consumption, which contributes to the view that time and labor are being saved.
However, “while enjoying the benefits that these technological systems provide, we need not succumb entirely to the work processes that they seem to have ordained for us” (p. 214). Instead, Cowan saw a need to change ideology and remove ourselves from the unwritten rules of using the systems. Her ideas involved gender neutrality and rejecting the notion of separate spheres or that men will be feminized by performing “women’s work.”
This is a fascinating read on the history of technology, especially as it applies to women and the workplace of the home.