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Housework

History Of Housework

Before the Industrial Revolution, economic production was organized in and through homes. All household members, resident servants, and apprentices contributed to the upkeep of the home and to the production of goods that sustained the family. The household served several functions, acting also as educational institution and factory. Within this productive unit, housework contributed to the production of goods for internal use as well as for sale to others.

As the Industrial Revolution altered the economic landscape, productive work moved from homes into factories, and the character of housework changed. Men and unmarried women left home in increasing numbers to work in the waged labor force, while housewives found themselves doing less productive and more family-related labor. This unpaid work, also referred to as social reproduction, included bearing and raising children, as well as preparing other family members for work in the paid labor force by cooking, cleaning, and tending to their physical and emotional needs.

As men began to specialize in paid work, housework became increasingly linked to women. In the early nineteenth century, the ideology of separate spheres, associating men with the (public) workplace and women with the (private) home, became popular. According to this ideology, the home was viewed as pure, serene, and secure, as opposed to the impure, unsympathetic, and uncertain work world. Women, perceived as pious, virtuous, and submissive, became the rightful guardians of the domestic haven, even as their role in productive labor declined. Although more fantasy than reality, particularly in poor and working-class families, the "cult of true womanhood" linked women's "nature" with the performance of family work.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, many chores previously performed in the home had moved into the public sphere. Fabrics, soaps, candles, and other household items formerly manufactured in the household were increasingly factory-made and purchased by women for use in the home. By the late nineteenth century, households that once produced their own goods had begun to consume the products of U.S. industry (Strasser 1982). In the process, women's unpaid housework came to be seen as less important than men's paid labor, which financed this burgeoning household consumerism.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, the declining importance of housework was countered by the rise of home economics, which advocated industrial-like efficiency in running households. Technological developments, including the spread of electricity and running water, encouraged invention of a number of "labor-saving" household appliances, including electric irons and washing machines. However, these appliances actually saved little time because the early twentieth century also saw a substantial increase in standards of household care (Cowan 1983). Since then, continuous innovation in household appliance technology has increased the efficiency of many tasks, but these innovations have also promoted higher standards of cleanliness, hygiene, and fashion, which in turn have encouraged women to perform selected household tasks more frequently (such as bathing, laundry, ironing, vacuuming, and dusting). Newer market-based "conveniences"—such as fast-food restaurants, supermarkets, and Internet shopping—have reduced the time that women spend on housework, but only slightly. In the modern era, labor markets and economic conditions have increased women's paid labor force participation and reduced the time that they have available to perform domestic labor. At the same time, cultural expectations that housework is "women's work" have persisted.


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