Today, "Man may work from sun to sun, but woman's
work is never done!" The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
Historian Ruth Schwartz
Cowan offers a remarkable idea. It is that
homemakers today work about as long as homemakers
did in the 19th century -- still about 50 to 60
hours a week. The load only varies slightly with
the number of children being raised.
Our homes are served by scores of electric motors
-- thousands of computer chips. Yet homemakers work
just as long. The big revolution hit between 1920
and 1960 with gas and electric heaters, washers,
driers, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, and mixers.
When I was a kid in the `30s, I had to grind the
coffee in a hand mill. Now there was a terrible
job. After ten minutes of that, my arm ached. Every
function took more work. Shoveling coal and taking
clinkers out with tongs, instead of just turning up
the thermostat -- sweeping rugs, putting up storm
windows. How many of you are old enough to remember
the old wire rug beater?
So why hasn't the workload fallen? Cowan looks at
details of, say, making a bed. Once we moved the
top sheet to the bottom and put only one sheet in
the wash. Once we changed underwear weekly. Now
most of us change it daily. It doesn't take more
time to sweep a rug than it does to vacuum it. But
the vacuum leaves the rug far cleaner.
Automobiles gave us mobility. So doctors and
grocers soon made patrons come to them. Homemakers
became chauffeurs. Cowan tells how, as she wrote
her article on housework, she had to stop to take a
child to a hockey game, bring her home, pick up
groceries, get her husband at the train station and
visit the doctor's office.
So what about women entering the work force? Well,
Cowan is a distinguished historian juggling
children and home. She reminds us that, when both
spouses work, they're still left with some 35 hours
of housework. Couples are learning to divide that
labor. They also shift some of the load to people
who make their living in food services, condo
managing, and child-care. But work remains.
One of Murphy's laws says work expands to fill the
time. But this is different. For our lives are now
cleaner and healthier. And, when we lay aside
maudlin nostalgia, we see our lives are probably
richer as well.
"What's the last appliance you'd give up?" I ask my
wife. "The refrigerator," she says without missing
a beat. "Think of daily trips to the store, the
rotting food." Cowan, who's still raising children,
points to the quality of medical care -- the burden
of fear it removes from a young mother. A woman,
may be exhausted at the end of her double day,
but the modern "working" housewife can at least
fall into bed knowing ... her efforts have made it
possible to sustain her family at a level of health
and comfort [once] reserved for [the] very
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds