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More Work For Mother: The Ironies Of Household Technology From The Open Hearth To The Microwave

10 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0465047321
ISBN-10: 0465047327
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Editorial Reviews


Why is it that "a man works from sun to sun but a woman's work is never done?" It hasn't always been this way, and Ruth Cowan's meticulously researched and engagingly readable book shows the transformation. More Work for Mother describes the change not as a capitalist or patriarchal conspiracy, but rather as a series of small steps away from the traditional farming family, with its gender-specific but equally time-consuming tasks, toward completely "separate spheres" for the sexes and households as units of consumption rather than production. Inventions such as washing machines, cotton cloth, and even white flour acted as catalysts by giving the less well-off a chance at the comforts the prosperous already possessed, but in general it was men and children whose chores were relieved by these innovations. Needing money to buy the things they could not produce, men left farming to become wage-earners, while children went to school, leaving Mother at home alone with "labor-saving" devices, no help, and raised expectations for yeast bread and clean clothes. Unfortunately, women's roles did not change as dramatically as the inventions, and our current housework rules and habits have their basis in issues of personal control more appropriate to times long gone. Even today, despite a grand array of high-tech gizmos, women still spend as much time on home maintenance as they did eighty years ago. We can't go back to our agricultural past, even if we'd like to, but historian Ruth Cowan shows us new ways to envision and direct our future. -- For great reviews of books for girls, check out Let's Hear It for the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14. -- From 500 Great Books by Women; review by Jane Keefer

About the Author

Ruth Schwartz Cowan is associate professor of history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (March 11, 1985)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465047327
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465047321
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #63,698 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

31 of 34 people found the following review helpful By John M. Bozeman on September 20, 2003
Format: Paperback
I had sort of avoided this book because if its title--it sounded like it was going to be one of those books about how since Year One women have been shamelessly victimized by the evil patriarchy.
Boy, was I wrong! The book is a masterpiece of American social, cultural, and technological history. In a clear and sympathetic manner, it shows how home maintenance and upkeep have gradually changed in the U.S. over time. During colonial/pioneer days, everbody in a family had essential work to do: men chopped wood, plowed, and harvested; children carried wood and water; women spun, sewed, and cooked. If anybody fell down on the job, all suffered. Gradually, things changed--men (and sometimes children) increasingly left the house to work for wages during the day.
Superficially, this makes it look like, over time, American households quit being net producers of goods (grain, milk, eggs, cloth, etc.) to net consumers of finished products (pre-made clothes, canned goods, etc.). Cowan shows that this is not exactly the case. While "hard" goods did cease to be produced at home, services--health care, cooking, cleaning, etc.--were still produced for family use. And these services, in spite of in introduction of labor-saving appliances and tools--still, to this day, require both time and skill to use. In fact, while much of the drudgery (heavy lifting and water hauling, for example) was reduced, the complexity of the duties actually increased.
Cowan writes in a very clear style, and provides excellent examples to make her points. For example, she shows how diets changed with time, and gives a number of example of "failed alternatives" to private housework (co-operatives, residential hotels, etc.
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38 of 44 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 21, 2000
Format: Paperback
I love books that challenge convetional wisdom, such a book is "More Work for Mother." The assumptions it challenges are many, but the major two are that separate spheres of work have always been the norm, and that industrialization left nothing for women to do at home.
As a mother myself, I was gratified to see historical and statistical confirmation for what I suspected all along: that the household technologies that enable us to live more sanitary and comfortable lives have not necessarily made our lives less difficult or less laborious. As Cowan points out, industrialization decreased the labor involved mostly in the work that was traditionally performed by men and children.
Prior to industrialization it took an entire family working together to make a meal: children drew the water, men obtained the fuel and prepared the grain, and women cooked the meals. After industrialization, water was brought to the home by pipes, coal and prepared grain were purchased (by women--now an extra task), but women still prepared the meals--often more complex and labor-intensive meals because expectations were raised by the greater variety of foodstuffs available and the new cookstoves. At the same time, the family no longer worked together quite as much and a lot of the "togetherness" was lost. The father became less central to child-rearing because he was no longer available in the home all day long, thus more familial responsiblities were also laid on women's plates.
I highly recommend this book to women who find their days exhausting but can't figure out why.
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66 of 80 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 25, 2004
Format: Paperback
This book is history of housework and household technology in America. Cowan's thesis is that American women have paradoxically been required to take on more and more work as "labor-saving" technologies have been adopted. At the outset of the book, Cowan seems to state that she will show that developments in technology have not really made women's lives easier, but have served to bind women ever more tightly to the home. But by the end of the book, the message seems to be slightly different: that household technology has raised society's expectations of what women should be able to accomplish in the home, and that women must now work harder because of double duty- -doing the housework in addition to holding down fulltime jobs.
The book is organized along chronological lines, starting with pre-industrial conditions, moving on to industrialization, and finishing with the years following the Second World War. Food and laundry are two topics that receive heavy focus throughout the book. Cowan points out that in the pre-industrial times, food preparation required considerable help from men, for such things as butchering animals. But once meat was available in tins, men were released from such food preparation chores, while women's work increased, since new stove technologies made it possible for women to undertake more complicated methods of food preparation. Cowan argues that laundry duties also increased following industrialization, since when fabric was homespun, people only owned a few items of clothing that were hardly ever washed, but once cheap factory-made fabric became available, people got in the habit of changing clothes quite often, resulting in mounds of items to be laundered.
But I'm not sure I fully agree with these arguments.
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