One of the old jokes about the silliness of 1960s sitcoms was that some shows (e.g., Hazel, The Brady Bunch) showed the family with a made, even though the wife was a fulltime homemaker. WTF? Why would she need a maid? The obvious answer — they can afford it, and housework sucks — didn’t occur to me. Or, obviously, whoever made the jokes.
My cluelessness was brought home to me after reading MORE WORK FOR MOTHER: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave by Ruth Schwartz Cowan. The thesis is one I’ve heard before, that improvements in household technology — washing machines, vacuum cleaners — actually made life harder for housewives (in contrast to a thesis that dismissed working women as housewives liberated by technology and needing something to do). Vacuum cleaners meant rugs didn’t have to be taken out, hung and beaten to get out the dust; that meant they could be cleaned every week instead of every couple of months. And the labor that was saved was more likely to be the man of the house or a servant than the woman of the home.
Having heard this thesis before, I wasn’t sure I’d learn much from the book, but I did. Cowan shows how this has been going on for a long time. For example, improvements in technology made it possible to mass-produce white flour and transport it for sale. No more grinding your own meal! But instead of added leisure, women wound up baking yeast breads instead of flat-breads (which are much less work), or taking up cake baking (much more work). Husbands got liberated from household work (household tech made the division into separate spheres in the 19th century attainable), women got slammed. Various alternatives — communal kitchens, commercial laundries — never took off and servants became harder and harder to find. Cowan concludes that short of attaining gender parity in housekeeping, the best hope is to lower our standards below “immaculate.” It’s a good book, and good research for Undead Sexist Cliches.
I thought I was also well informed on the topic of THE TECHNOLOGY OF ORGASM: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction by Rachel P. Maines but I had a lot to learn there too. For centuries doctors and healers believed hysteria (a very broad diagnosis) was the result of the womb relocating in the body, which I knew; what I didn’t know was that it moved because it was horny, and needed to discharge it’s “semen.” The solution was massage of the clitoris and labia — sure enough a woman would tense up, breathe rapidly, then suddenly relax as the womb evacuated the semen. The sexual overtones were missed (though some doctors were aware of them) due to the absolute faith penis-in-vagina sex was the only way a woman could have a real orgasm. Maines points out this may also explain why so many women weren’t that interested about sex or even “frigid” — if PIV wasn’t doing it for them, the fault had to be theirs. Vibrators were developed as a tool for doctors to deliver orgasmic relief without the grossness of actually touching anything. A really fascinating and thought-provoking book; I’d love to use this idea in a story, but I’m not sure I could do it without making audiences laugh at the wrong times.
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