Feminists regard the history of their movement as a process of liberation propelled by ideas. They think of it as parallel to the civil rights movement. They think The Great Feminist Thinkers wrote books and pamphlets filled with world-changing ideas that raised the consciousness of women who, in turn, threw off the shackles of housework, child-rearing and honoring their husbands in favor of careers and self-discovery. They are, of course, wrong.
Feminist writings were mainly self-contradictory, whiney, pick-and-mix grab-bags of enlightenment and Marxist thinking with the pronouns changed. They desperately chased the credit for a change that was already happening. The liberation of women was not a movement propelled by ideas but a movement propelled by boredom. Boredom allowed for by the inventions of labor-saving household appliances and the resulting surfeit of free time.
The Golden Age Of Capitalism
The late 19th century and the early 20th was an incredibly productive time: between the industrial revolution and the First World War there was a swell of technological creativity resulting in not only the creation of so many of the machines and technology we take for granted today but also the means by which to mass produce and sell those inventions. By the 1950s there was a booming economy in the US, the Golden Age of Capitalism, resulting in a rapidly growing middle class the members of which could afford the new devices that were increasingly advertised.
Feminism is a middle class phenomenon (as pointed out in the ROK article Why Modern Feminism is a White Woman’s Privilege). The reason is that white middle class women, historically, have had the time for it. There are also two eras where middle class women became far more numerous than they were previously. These are the two great expansions of the middle class that have occurred since 1800: the first following the industrial revolution and the second following the Second World War.
These growths of the middle class coincide with the first two waves of feminism and it is perfectly reasonable to see the correlation between middle class growth and increased feminist activism and to go one step further and say that the expansion of the middle class causes feminism. This is especially true if you look at feminism not as the result of the writings of a few social activists. If it was that, then there would be many more feminist movements in the history books. Even though there have always been feminist writers of some description (Christine de Pizan b1364, Anne Bradstreet b1612, Mary Wollstonecraft b1759, and many male writers advocating for various sorts of rights for women from Plato onwards) there hasn’t always been feminism.
The liberation of women or the rejection of traditional female roles by women was not brought about by feminist theories but by the widespread use of labor-saving household appliances. Feminism, mostly, just claims responsibility. In doing so it tries to identify itself as a liberating intellectual movement rather than an unfortunate consequence of widespread affluence.
Perhaps the greatest time-saver is the washing machine. It has been in a process of creation and recreation over hundreds of years but a version using the principles of modern washers was invented by James King in 1851. Then, in 1908, Alva J. Fisher invented ‘The Mighty Thor’; the first electric washing machine. By the 1960s front-loading electric washing machines with heating elements and automatic spin cycles that could wash, rinse and spin at the touch of a button were being mass-produced. Perhaps a middle-class woman like Betty Friedman was left with lots of time with which to write about her unhappiness in The Feminine Mystique (1963).
Certainly, the thousands who read this book and who agreed with its premise – that women of the day were unhappy in the role of homemaker, wife and mother – probably did not consider the idea that it was not the role of homemaker that made them unhappy but that a large proportion of that role was increasingly being performed by machines.
Clothes washing could be done by automatic washing machine, dish-washing by the dishwasher, and clothes drying by the tumble dryer. Working class women, those for whom homemaking was still a full time job, were kept busy by that role and probably did not have an idle moment in which to become dissatisfied with it.
It was middle class women who found temselves idle, and it is they who claimed to be unhappy. They probably were unhappy, since a person with no role to perform is a person who experiences ennui: listlessness or dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation.
An even more problematic invention than the washing machine is the microwave oven, invented by Percy LeBaron Spencer in 1954. The washing machine gives a woman some free time, as do most other household appliances. This free time can be used to read feminist literature but it does not eliminate entirely any aspect of her traditional role. The microwave oven, on the other hand, arguably does.
In the 1970s and 1980s microwaves became more powerful, more efficient, affordable and an increasingly common feature of the modern kitchen. In 1976 Andrea Dworkin wrote and published Our Blood and she was at her most prolific during the following decades: New Woman’s Broken Heart (1980), Pornography (1981), Right Wing Women (1983), Ice & Fire (1986), Intercourse (1987). By this point in the history of feminism (where second wave blurs into third wave) feminists like Dworkin had rejected women’s traditional homemaker role in its entirety. Even that aspect of the traditional role that allows for creativity and which requires a certain degree of artfulness – cooking – was rejected.
The loss of the art of home cooking is a massive blow for the traditional family. However, the theoretical rejection of the role of home-cook by feminists can have no affect on society at large without the widespread availability of something like the microwave oven.
The microwave oven, more than any feminist tract, destroys the traditional family roles and eliminates the necessity of family meal times. When any member of the family can heat up a pre-cooked meal at anytime the idea of a home cooked meal and of the family sitting around the table to eat at the same time becomes obsolete. Another large chunk of the role of homemaker is eliminated without any pen of Dworkin, Brownmiller or Friedman having to touch paper. All that was necessary was the microwave and pre-cooked TV dinners.
The Devil Makes Work For Idle Hands To Do
These are just a couple of the domestic household appliances that have handed women the spare time to become dissatisfied with family life and become feminists. I’ve not even mentioned the vacuum cleaner, the iron, the fridge-freezer, disposable diapers, indoor plumbing, waste disposal machines, or the dishwasher (invented by a woman called Josephine Cochran in 1886 who, somehow, found herself not oppressed by the patriarchy).
In many cases the traditional roles of women were eliminated by male inventions leaving some women to, perhaps, become feminists almost by default. These inventions of men whose natural curiosity, inventiveness and propensity to solve problems – even problems that were not their own – led directly to women being free of laborious and time-consuming household tasks and, in turn, to their abandoning the responsibilities of housekeeping or to those responsibilities falling away.
We shouldn’t curse these men with our hindsight. They had no clue they were paving the way for the collected works of Andrea Dworkin. After all, the women, finding themselves liberated by the mechanisation of the household, didn’t have to become feminists. They could have used their time to do almost anything else. They could, at least, have retained the ability to cook.