Tuesday, August 24, 2004

The “Price” of Opulence

Don Boudreaux posted this article today criticizing an NPR interview between Susan Stamberg and author Susan Strasser. The Susans were discussing Ms. Strasser’s book, Never Done: A History of American Housework, a work that describes how modern technology may make housework easier, but caused a great deal of social damage. A typical woman’s work of sewing and laundry and so on became less valuable as industrialization set in (preventing them from selling their services). Moreover, they lost the social connections with their neighbors because they stopped doing the chores together.

According to reviewer Erika Mitchell,

Strasser notes that industrialization simplified many household tasks, from cooking to heating, from dress making to laundry. This enabled women to accomplish more in less time, but rather than reap the benefits of having spare time, she cites time use studies that show that following industrialization, women devoted the same amount of time to their housework, but were able and consequently expected to work towards much higher standards. As if this weren't enough, manufacturers also pushed women to fill their spare housework time by increasing their consumption activities, to take on consumption as a new household task alongside cooking, cleaning and childcare. But since virtually every source of income from women's work in the home had dried up by this point, in order to go along with the drive to consume, women needed to take jobs outside the home to supplement the family income. And that's why their work is never done.

It’s common in our modern society for people to let themselves be overwhelmed with the nostalgia for some forgotten past. Humans, after all, are always looking for the better thing and while some people turn to technology and novelty, others yearn for something more certain—dead but recorded cultures. This longing tends to cause reactionaries to distort the facts and even contradict themselves in pursuit of some idealized past.

While Mitchell says Strasser acknowledges that housework became more productive, women spent the same amount of time doing housework to achieve higher standards of living. Apparently, a higher standard of living really isn’t a good thing. Strasser clearly downplays the fact that a higher standard of living is the cornerstone to a prosperous society.

But then it turns out that’s not true—their spare household time was filled with “consumption activities.” I have no idea what “consumption activities” are but my best guess is buying stuff, something I’ve learned most females actually enjoy. I really don’t think manufacturers “pushed” them to do anything.

People always talk about the price of success or of opulence or of progress. The suspicion of genuine advancement harkens to fears of the unknown and appeals to misconception that the world is a zero-sum game—every gain is someone else’s loss. Paradoxically, while our ancestors struggled to accomplish economic success, modern society’s biggest problem seems to be accepting it.


Illy said...

David, you are absolutely right!
I was actually thinking about this the other day. I was cleaning the kitchen, thinking about what to cook for dinner, and feeling altogether domestic. And then I started reflecting on how I, even in my most domestic moments, have it infinitely easier than my mother. As for my grandmothers, let's not even go there!
I am 21, I go to college full-time and I keep house, so to speak, since I am living rent-free in my boyfriend's condo. My duties (which prevent me from feeling like a total parasite or, um, "kept woman") are pretty much the usual: cleaning the place, doing the laundry, cooking, grocery shopping and the like. I manage to do all this, do well in school, and also spend a considerable amount of time reading, exercising, playing poker or video games, surfing the web and blogging. Sometimes I throw some volunteering in the mix, too. When my mother was in college (some 30 years ago), she was able to be an honors student because she was living with her parents and had no housekeeping duties. When my grandmother was my age (some 60 years ago), she had to drop out of college because her family could no longer afford a maid and a cook, and she had to help her mother *and* her sister keep house.
I think Strasser's thesis that a woman's work is *still* never done is absolutely bogus. If shopping, watching TV and attending the kids' dance recital are examples of housework, then I'm almost all for being a housewife. As long as I can still read good books. Which I probably can.

Erika Mitchell said...

Interesting discussion...

I think what the time studies show is that women's work is never done because they have a given amount of time and something obligates them to fill it with activities that benefit the household. In the Nineteenth Century, if a woman devoted all her waking hours to housework, she might manage to keep her family fed and clothed, but not to the standards that we would think of as minimal today. As electricity and running water became more common, together with the appliances that are made possible with these luxuries, a woman could accomplish the earlier tasks in far less time. The new appliances made her work much more productive, but instead of realizing some "free time" as a result, women kept on with the housework, spending about the same amount of time as before, but reached much higher standards within that time. And when that wasn't enough work to fill her time, advertisers stepped into the void, pushing new products for household cleaning, chores, and cooking. In order to purchase these products, women had to spend more time at the store. (And here, we're not talking about "recreational shopping"--this is time spent purchasing mops, floor cleansers, sponges, bleaches, etc.) So here's an interesting question--why did and do women feel so obligated to fill their time with domestic chores? Why can't they sit down and relax, letting things around the house slide a little, but enjoying life more? Is this obligation to fill one's time productively part of Western or American society? Is it universal? Is it bound in time?

While you're on the subject of housework, you might take a look at a book called "More Work for Mother" written by Strasser's undergraduate advisor Ruth Schwartz Cowan. In my opinion, Strasser's book is much better written, and the dialogue between the two is almost perceptible. Cowan approaches the topic with her feminist agenda that women have to work harder than men, and that of course, life in the past was better. Strasser has a less polemic approach and as a result, picks up on some things that Cowan missed. I'd love to hear either one discuss the other's work...As an aside, another book by Strasser, "Waste and Want", was the best book I've read this year.

Was life easier for women in the past? I've tried living a little more simply this year, grinding my own wheat, making my own bread, boiling my own soy milk, gardening, canning jellies and preserves. I don't have to make clothes since we've got enough in the house, and I would never give up my washing machine for a rock by a stream. But I'm finding just the extra food preparation alone eats up the majority of my time. At least, I'm putting the extra time around the house in by choice, and not as a matter of survival, as Nineteenth Century women did. I'm very glad to have the option of taking advantage of Twenty-First Century technologies.