In “Household Labor and Technology in a Consumer Culture,” Eileen B. Leonard challenges the idea that technology liberated women from the burdens of domestic work, arguing instead that technology changed the domestic work women were responsible for; further, Leonard discusses the persistent gender, race, and class inequalities that technology failed to undermine (and perhaps even perpetuated). Leonard starts by assessing the notion that technology “liberated” women by making household work easier. Leonard explains that technology didn’t lessen the work women were expected to do; rather, it changed the work, and even made it “women’s work.” To defend this, Leonard explains that, with new technology “woman began to bear the burden of housework themselves while, for husbands and children, the home slowly became a place of leisure” (Leonard, 149). With the invention of new technology to make certain tasks physically easier, housework became the responsibility of women, as the more physical labor (“men’s work”) was reduced. Leonard goes on to argue that, as women entered the non-domestic workforce, they were still seen as responsible for the domestic work, so “increasing work for women outside the home has not resulted in a more equitable distribution of labor inside the home” (Leonard, 151). Leonard then adds that rising expectations, such as standards of cleanliness, nutrition, and child care helped maintain the amount of domestic work women were expected to do (Leonard, 152). These increasing standards were due to advertising shifting to focus on women as the consumers of household technology, idealizing the housewife as the “guardian of the family” and teaching her that, to meet standards, she must have the newest household appliances (Leonard, 153).
Leonard then shifts the discussion to how technological advancements affected non-middle class white women, as that seems to be the demographic of focus in the standard history. Leonard notes that “the traditionally male sphere of paid labor has increasingly been opening to women,” but these opportunities were largely for white middle class women. And, as these women moved into the “male” sphere of paid labor, domestic labor has “been filled by women with few other options,” usually women of color, of the working class, and/or of immigrant status (Leonard, 158). Leonard explains that paid domestic labor became increasingly stigmatized and devalued throughout the twentieth century, so women with the opportunity to work elsewhere did so, leaving the work for those without other options (mostly racial minorities and the working class). The combination of racism, classism, and the already existing stigmatization of domestic labor forced (and forces) these women to tolerate harsh conditions and mistreatment by employers (Leonard, 163).
In terms of historiography, Leonard cites several researches who are knowledgeable in the study of women’s relationship with technology; however, most (if not all) of those cited share a similar view with Leonard. Because of this, I do not consider this article purely historiographic. It’s definitely an argumentative piece, and Leonard’s bias is obvious. Though I appreciate her challenge to the standard history, the article could have included a fairer assessment of different views.
I really enjoyed Leonard’s article and challenge of the standard notion that technology made women’s lives easier. In general, I appreciate that historians are even researching and discussing this aspect of history (which is sad, as it should have been considered long before it was). However, I do think Leonard could have benefited by giving the other perspective a little more respect, as the article was one-sided. Though she acknowledged the general benefits of technology in a few sentences, she didn’t go into detail about those benefits. I understand that the point of this article is to challenge the standard notion of how liberating technology was, but the argument would have benefited by giving a fairer assessment of alternative perspectives (perhaps citing historians with different views instead of those with views that line up with her own).
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Eileen B. Leonard, “Household Labor and Technology in a Consumer Culture,” Women, Technology, and the Myth of Progress, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., (2003): pp. 148-169.