Arnold Kling  

Electric Liberation

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A paper by Jeremy Greenwood, Ananth Seshadri, and Mehmet Yorukoglu examines the role of modern appliances in liberating women from housework.


To understand the impact of the household revolution, try to imagine the tyranny of household chores at the turn of the last century. In 1890 only 24 percent of houses had running water, none had central heating. So, the average household lugged around the home, 7 tons of coal and 9,000 gallons of water per year. The simple task of laundry was a major operation in those days. While mechanical washing machines were available as early as 1869, this invention really took off only with the development of the electric motor. Ninety-eight percent of households used a 12 cent scrubboard to wash their clothes in 1900. Water had to be ported to the stove, where it was heated by burning wood or coal. The clothes were then cleaned via a washboard or mechanical washing machine. They had to be rinsed out after this. The water then needed to be wrung out, either by hand or by using a mechanical wringer. The clothes were then hung out to dry on a clothes line. Then, the oppressive task of ironing began, using heavy flatirons that had to be heated continuously on the stove.

For Discussion. The authors argue that modern appliances helped enable women to join the labor force in the market economy. What other factors might account for this development?


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CATEGORIES: Growth: Consequences



COMMENTS (17 to date)
Lawrance George Lux writes:

The introduction of electric appliances made it possible to redirect labor hours of Women; but was it the driving force, or simply a response to an increasingly educated female population. The integration of Women occurred alongside of Ethnic groups of heavy immigration. The real change was the extension of Public Education. Second Generation Ethnic women were as demanding as the rest of the Women in America. They all wanted freedom from the drudgery of the home, and all could read of the newest inventions; highly advertized in Newspaper and catalogue. lgl

Eric Krieg writes:

It's a feedback loop. In order to AFFORD the labor saving devices, you need more income. Women start to move into the workplace, which allows them to afford the devices that free up their time.

Add to that the economics 101 fact that a larger labor force tends to hold down wages (and thus, men's wages fall as women enter the workplace), and the feedback loop becomes stronger.

It works in the other direction as well. Women begin to be forced into the workplace as their husbands wages are suppressed, and because they are working (and have no time) they need the labor savings devices!

There are many other feedback loops that kick in once the two income family becomes common, making it even more likely for women to work. For example, as household incomes rise, the price of EVERYTHING gets bid up, putting economic stress on the one income household and effectively forcing it to become a two income household.

I won't even bring up implications of taxes, except to note that the income tax was implemented in 1916, right at the beginning of the trend.

It's very clear that many of the innovations of the early 20th century benefited women more directly than men: washing machines, dryers, refrigerators, dishwashers, light and electricity throughout the house (which made rising early easier and made it easier to spread time-consuming tasks like laundry and cooking over a longer period, plus made it easier to read late at night when chores were done), better plumbing/gas/heat/electric delivery providing reliable ways to start and heat a stove for cooking or hot water for bathing, cleaning, etc.

If you haven't seen it on TV, see the astonishing short PBS TV "reality" show, "The 1900 House":

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/1900house/

In this eye-opening short series, a modern family tried to spend three months living as middle/upper-middle-class Victorians would have lived in 1900, before the advent of electricity, natural gas supplies, with the barest cold-water plumbing, candle-light, etc. Most striking was the contrast between the waking-to-sleeptime nonstop physical household labor for the women and youthful females, versus the (somewhat easier and certainly less physical but less reported-on) lives of married men.

Frankly, before I saw this series, I only appreciated on an abstract level Ibsen's Nora, or Strindberg's Miss Julie, and the real life efforts of Marie Curie and or even my own great-great-grandmother.

If any other factors accounted for the increase of women to the labor force, I'd have to suggest only that emigrations during the period may have brought in demographics of young, unmarried women with fewer constraints, or married families with women emigrating with renewed energy and hope that reinforced the innovations going on at the time.

Ray Gardner writes:

This is kind of like a bunch of bored theologians who’ve given up on the trinity asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

A thousand posts to this thread could name, without repetition, the different advances in our overall standard of living and how those advances affected women, immigrants, workers et al.

Point being that a momentous leap forward in the standard of living for everyone enabled people to do what was heretofore untenable.

As house hold chores became more efficient via modern appliances, the women had more free time on their hands. With more free time and for various reasons, women entered the work force. Some wanted more stuff that might be deemed frivolous while others genuinely wanted to supplement their husbands’ incomes because the husband only earned an “average” income. So now the “average” is a two worker household where anything less than two cars, a big screen TV and a swimming pool is seen as deprived.

It is impossible to hinge all of this progress on one particular thing however, appliances or otherwise. Think of one of those James Burke books where he links all of this world history together to make his “Connections.”

Eric Krieg writes:

>>So now the “average” is a two worker household where anything less than two cars, a big screen TV and a swimming pool is seen as deprived.

Funny, isn't it? At one point central heating, indoor plumbing, and electricity were luxury items. Then they became items that EVERYBODY had. Then then the luxury items were a/c, a color TV, and a VCR.

Now, I couldn't imagine being without those items.

The thing that's funny today is the rapidity in which luxury items become common ones.

Plasma TVs are luxury items now. But their prices are falling fairly rapidly. They might be fairly common if they ever get to be less than $2000.

But those are manufactured items. Perhaps in the future, luxury will be defined as having leisure time, or, yes, being able to afford to have your wife stay home with the kids, or having a short commute, or living in a neighborhood with good schools and low taxes.

David Thomson writes:

We should not overlook the lessening of the skill level needed to perform ordinary home chores. Today’s appliances are often so easy to use---that even the dumb husband no longer has an excuse not to help out! I wash clothes, dishes, and do much of the cooking. Heck, even I can operate a microwave and a coffee maker.

David Foster writes:

In the days when you had to stoke the coal stove and scrub the washing, class differences were perforce more pronounced. The difference between a family that could afford a few servants, and one that could not, was overwhelming.

Jim Glass writes:

Yes, "1900 House" was illuminating. It should be required viewing in high school. Maybe college.

The female participants came away saying they were convinced the washing machine and vacuum cleaner made women's suffrage possible because before them women had no time to think about politics.

The show also noted that back around 1900 doing laundry was a leading cause of death among children because they were often given the task of managing with the fire, scalding water, etc.

And do you remember how for all the hardships they had to incur the thing that caused the family members to threaten to actually walk off the show was what they had to use as soap?

David Foster writes:

It's fun to consider...if electricity and the internal combusition engine had never been invented, how many of their benefits could have been obtained from further development of steam power?

For example, maybe apartment buildings could have had central steam engines and used lineshafts (like those used in factories) to deliver power to individual apartment...washing machines, etc could have been belt-driven off of the lineshaft.

What about contraception? This gave women (and families, by extension) more control over their pregnancies, and helped them to plan their careers better.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>The difference between a family that could afford a few servants, and one that could not, was overwhelming.

I was thinking about that myself. This was, of course, before the income tax and the tail end of the great wave of immigration. Get yourself a couple of servants, and you're living the life of luxury.

Dave Sheridan writes:

Short answer, I'd guess that the initial (largely exogenous) spark was the first wave of women who of necessity went to work outside the home during WWI. A lot of the other trends, as mentioned above, were and are important. They created opportunities, increased mobility and communication, and created ecomomic opportunities. These trends created the demand for labor-saving household devices.

However, it took that first exposure of a lot of "ordinary" women, many of whom found they liked the world outside, or at least the freedom to choose it.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

I don't find this totally convincing. Let's look at it somewhat abstractly, and admittedly with lots of implicit assumptions.

We might conclude that a household will buy an appliance (to reduce the wife's workload) and have her work outside the home if the wage she can earn during the time saved exceeds the cost of the appliance (on a PV basis). So if the washing machine saves ten hours a week, she will buy one and work ten hours a week if she can earn at least enough to pay for it.

But the same argument applies to servants. If you can earn more than you pay a servant then it makes sense to hire a servant and work outside the home. So the implication is that for most women, it was impossible to obtain work that paid more than servants' wages, and a woman working at home was implicitly earning servants wages.

So I would argue that improved opportunities for women played a much bigger part. These arose for a number of reasons, including improved education, increase in knowledge work relative to physical labor, the demands (and casualties?) of the two World Wars, etc. Shorter work weeks may aslo have played a part, since they allow time for the performance of some household tasks.

All pretty conjectural on my part, I admit.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>All pretty conjectural on my part, I admit.

But logical.

Women had been FORMALLY entering the workforce since the industrial revolution began. Women made up a good percentage of the original, English mill workers.

And as productivity, and thus wages, increased throughout the industrial revolution, it made it easier for women to afford the labor saving devices, thus making it easier for them to work. The feedback loop again.

K. Talbert writes:

Well, no one yet has mentioned some of the simplicities of this whole issue. 1) Many women other than those from the dominant culture in America (caucasion) were already in the work force -- the maid, the washer woman. They had no choice but to enter the workforce to supplement the wages of their male family members which were held low due to institutional discrimination.

2) Women of many classes often and still also must enter the workforce to support their children/families when the male counterpart or extended family will not or cannot adequately meet the family needs. Still today might I add, that these women make up the largest proportion of poor families.

Of course all this leads to the present-day issue of the two income family struggling to keep up with the jones'.

Many women would resent two implications in this whole argument a) that women would choose to be tied or " married" to the house (the housewife) if not for social convention which leaves them little choice in the matter. Who still is raising the kids, cleaning and cooking while working full time?

b) or that the value of the contribution to a woman's work at home can be supplanted by appliances. For all our trying, (television) we haven't yet invented the machine that will raise well adjusted children.

When both household adults are working/or only one exists in a family, who looses because of the pull on non-cash resources to spend on home making activities--which are spend generating cash?

An economist friend of mine often spoke of the looming "crisis of care" in this country.

Eric Krieg writes:

>>Many women would resent two implications in this whole argument a) that women would choose to be tied or " married" to the house (the housewife) if not for social convention which leaves them little choice in the matter.

??? Are you saying that MOST women would rather work? Only "social convention" "keeps" them at home?

I'm not a woman, but I'd have to say that, if I am interpreting you correctly, that's the stupidest thing I have ever read.

Unless we are calling children "social conventions" these days. Then I agree!

Eric Krieg writes:

>>b) or that the value of the contribution to a woman's work at home can be supplanted by appliances. For all our trying, (television) we haven't yet invented the machine that will raise well adjusted children.

I couldn't agree more. The reason for women to not work outside the home is to raise their children PROPERLY. There ain't no electrically powered substitute for mom raising her own kids.

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