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Housework and technology (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

We, of course, celebrate Mother's today, but it remains a sad fact of motherhood that women, particularly mothers, do the majority of housework.

In fact, earlier this month the Spanish parliament passed a law requiring men to do more housework. But didn't technology make all of this easier, nearly erasing housework?

No one disputes that at the beginning of the 20th century it became much less backbreaking. In a sense just as the nation became "industrialized" so did the home: Electrical appliances and gas heating helped a housewife cook and clean. But for whom did appliances make work easier? And for whom did they save time? Consider the simple example of a meal. Most families in the 18th century ate stew - just a big pot of meat and vegetables cooked in liquid for a long time. To make the stew took both sexes.

A man used handmade knives to butcher an animal, a woman carried water to the house in wood buckets, held together by leather likely made by her husband. She cooked the stew, made from vegetables from her garden, over a fire using wood chopped by her husband.

She thickened the stew with grain husked and threshed by her husband. Any scraps or garbage that were not used were moved outside - likely again by her husband.

Now let's fast forward to today.

We buy food from the grocery, toss it in a manufactured steel pan, flick on a burner and cook dinner - disposing of the scraps down a garbage disposal. Look what happened to housework: Technology has liberated men from their role - no need to butcher animals, or cut fire wood, or even toss out the food scraps. Examples like this abound. Look at cleaning a rug.

In the past it might be a children's chore to take the rugs outside a few times a year and beat them. Today, of course, mothers drag a vacuum cleaner across the carpet - no need for the children to help. These example give us a way to look at any technological innovation: Keep the new technology in perspective by looking at the big picture. For housework it didn't create more time, technology's main effect was a gender shift of work toward women. And in addition, these newer technologies created a higher standard of cleanliness for a housewife to achieve.

So, if you'd like to give your Mother a real gift for the holiday you can start by doing all the housework.

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises