In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan argued that new technologies should liberate women from their traditional role as caregivers. She lauded “the scientific advance[s] that might have freed women from the drudgery of cooking, cleaning, and washing” (342)–and lamented the fact that, instead of using washing machines to save time, housewives just decided to wash clothes more often. Friedan, being a socialist, believed that technology and the means of production dictate social organization–so now that we’ve reached a certain level of technological development, society must progress past obsolete social roles.
Friedan’s argument has become so ingrained in the conventional wisdom that even anti-feminists repeat it without acknowledging its origin. For instance, the blogger Pro-Male/Anti-Feminist Tech writes that, in the past, “there weren’t washing machines, stoves, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, etc. so there was more work to be done in maintaining a household.” Now that we do have such conveniences, there’s no need to even debate whether women should stay home–it’s clear that they don’t need to. Thus feminism and the “men’s rights movement” converge.
But, as the reader may have surmised, I am no fan of the conventional wisdom.
First of all, it is foolish to embrace all technology uncritically. When deciding which kinds of labor-saving devices to adopt in the home, we should consider their effects on the family, the community, and society at large. For instance, it is now technologically possible to outsource childbirth itself, in the form of surrogate mothers, so that Mom doesn’t even have to take a six-week maternity leave anymore. Outsourcing childbirth is efficient–after all, it creates a literal division of labor–but I think most husbands would reject such a proposal, because of its possible effects on mother-child bonding as well as the natural uneasiness that families feel when introducing strangers into such an intimate area. So the question isn’t, “Are there technologies that can replace some of the functions of a traditional wife and mother?”, but rather, “If such technologies exist, should we be using them? Are they moral? Are they compatible with the fundamentals of the good life?”
I think certain labor-saving devices, such as the washing machine and dishwasher, are largely innocuous (I say “largely” because there may in fact be environmental effects that could someday force us to limit their use). However, TV dinners and microwaves are another technological innovation that get cited as a way to replace the housewife. But even feminists have finally acknowledged that convenience food is really bad for you (probably because Michael Pollan made cooking cool again). So, can we agree that TV dinners and take-out food are not a civilized way to feed one’s family? That it’s healthiest for the family when Mom doesn’t get home from her commute at 6 pm, since it’s difficult to prepare much of a home-cooked meal when you don’t even get home until dinnertime?
So, while technology can facilitate housewifery, over-reliance on technology–or adopting the wrong kinds of technology–can dehumanize and weaken the entire family.
Secondly–and more importantly–the art of household management may have gotten easier with washing machines and online bill-pay, but child-rearing has actually gotten more labor-intensive in recent years. In bygone eras, extended families were more close-knit and could therefore help out with child-rearing more. Furthermore, institutions like the Church could provide much of a child’s moral education. Sadly, this is no longer the case. Children are probably more likely to learn heresy than sound doctrine in a catechism class, while public schools indoctrinate children into feminism. Countering the secular and materialistic dogma of our times is practically a full-time job, one that often requires homeschooling or vigilant involvement in your children’s school.
Of course, having a stay-at-home mother may not work for every family. Circumstances may require her to work outside the home, and it’s ultimately the husband’s decision to make. But I hope that families truly choose what is best for their situation, without being swayed by the conventional wisdom that mocks mothers as nothing more than glorified Roombas.