The nature of women’s work at home has undergone dramatic shifts over the past 200 years largely due to the introduction of new household technologies.  To evaluate these changes in the nature of work, it is essential to first establish a time frame of established change and a definition of housework and household technologies.  Interestingly, the word housework was not part of the language prior to 1940 in the United States (Primeau, 1992).  Thus, it is useful in tracing the roots to the common day definition of housework.  Similarly, tracing the beginning of housework also reveals how the nature of women’s work in the household has transformed. 

Defining Terms:

“Housework includes all activities connected with the care of a household and its members, that is, food preparation and meal clean up, clothing and linen care, home care, family care, shopping and household management, and travel connected with household errands” (Vanek, 1978:370).  This is the definition of housework not part of language prior to 1940.  However, this does not mean households before 1940 experienced no family care or food preparation.  It reflects, on the other hand, how society grouped all these activities into a single term because of the nature of women’s work after the industrial revolution as will be discussed later. 

Household technology almost always makes a difference in the actions involved in performing a particular household task; it usually affects the degree of physical effort and the duration of a task (Thrall, 1982).  The outcome of technology can be to “improve the quality of a task, to eliminate a task entirely, or to create a new one” (Thrall, 1982:178).  Examples of household technology are: a blender, microwave, clothes dryers, dishwashers, and a garbage disposal. 

Household technologies can also be grouped into systems or areas.  Cowan (1983) outlined eight systems: food supply, clothing, healthcare, transportation, water, gas, electricity, and petroleum products.  In Nell du Vall’s book Domestic Technology, ten groups are identified, which are analogous to Cowan’s list: food origins and production; food preservation and processing; cooking; clothing; cleaning; water and waste disposal; heating and housing; lighting; tools; and health and children (1988).  The importance of these lists lies not in the specific amount of groupings, but rather the similarities of what constitutes household technology.


Beginning of Housework: Byproduct of the Industrial Revolution.

Tracing the roots to housework is essential to understand how household technologies have changed the nature of women’s work.  Ruth Cowan claimed that housework began during industrialization between 1860 and 1910 when families shifted from being producers of most of their products to consumers of market products (1983).  This paper, however, will focus on technologies developed in post-industrial era (post 1910).  But, it is crucial to understand the effect of industrialization on household technologies and the beginning of housework

Cowan claimed four technologies in particular increased the amount of work for women at home and decreased the amount for men, which lead to the notion of common day housework.  The first technology was large flourmills.  In 1850, families switched from the homegrown wheat, rye, and cornmeal to the fine and superfine flours being produced at large flourmills scattered throughout the eastern half of the country (Cowan, 1983).  While men’s work lessened as they no longer had to haul grain, “the switch may well have increased the time and energy that women had to spend in their tasks, particularly cooking and baking” since flour was more time consuming to use than corn or rye (Cowan, 1983:49).  The second technology was the conversion from the hearth to the stove for heating and cooking purposes during the 19th century.  The stove, according to Cowan (1983), halved the amount of work that men had to do in cutting, hauling, and splitting wood for fuel.  Later, purchased coal was used as fuel and the need to collect wood was eliminated.  Meanwhile, women still needed to clean the stove and cook food with it. 

The third of Cowan’s technologies, manufactured cloth, directly shaped the term housework.  Cotton replaced linen and wool as the most frequently utilized fabric.  This resulted in more laundering since cotton could be washed fairly easily (Cowan, 1983).  Lastly, the introduction of waste water systems or water closets “eliminated the chore of collecting ‘slops’ but added the chore of cleaning toilets” (Cowan 1983:66).  These four major technologies born of the industrialization period shaped what is today known as housework.  Additionally, the period of industrialization between 1860 and 1910 catalyzed the social norm of women doing more household work then men as argued by Cowan (1983). 


Household technologies in 20th century have changed some physical activities related to housework and increased the productivity of women’s work in the home.  Also, technologies have shifted the industrialization notion that women do the majority of household work.  Even though women do the majority of work, household work divisions are rooted in the division of labor that occurred during industrialization.  Several research and studies covered will support or contradict the thesis.  These will be evaluated and discussed along with the greater significance of the shifting nature of women’s work at home. 

Literature Review

The following literature review iterates the stances on the nature of women’s work in the household as well as the different technologies introduced during the 20th century. 

1970s and 1980s: “Classic” Studies Regarding Nature of Women’s Work.

Elizabeth Silva (2002) coined the “Classic” studies about the roles of women in family life by grouping the similarities in the works by (Bose, 1979; Cowan, 1983; Thrall, 1970; Vanek, 1973). 

Three basic arguments are stressed: 1) that household technologies either do not have any positive impact on housework or have only a very minimal impact; 2) that the household gender division of labor is not affected by the availability and use of these technologies; and 3) that technologies do not positively influence the lives of women who do housework.  (Silva, 2002:331)

The “Classic” studies have a negative view of household technologies on division of labor and claim these technologies have only increased the amount of women’s work.  However, Cowan (1983) admitted that the “nature of work has changed” since post-industrial era (p. 101).  During pre-industrialization and early industrialization, women fed, clothed, and nursed their families by preparing (with the help of their husbands and children) food, clothing, and medication.  The nature of work has changed because during the post-industrial era, women feed, clothe, and nurse their families (without much direct assistance) by cooking, cleaning, driving, shopping, and waiting (Cowan, 1978).  In comparison to pre-industrialization, the same household needs are attended differently because women need to go shopping in a car, drive their children to school or the doctor, and wait for the blender or toaster to prepare food.

The introduction of the laundry machine had an impact on the nature of work.  According to Cowan (1983) the washing machine killed both the laundry business and the laundresses’ job after the 1920s by transforming it into a housewife’s job.  Silva (2002) pointed out the bias in this study because it focused on the 1920s when most middle-class homes lost servants and instead began  to do housework themselves anyways.  Nonetheless, laundering became widespread in the early 20th century and a significant part of women’s work. 

Introduction of the dishwasher and waste disposal also had an effect on women’s work.  Thrall (1970, 1982) stated that after the introduction of these technologies, in the mid-20th-century, women displaced men from the task of dishwashing and disposing of the rubbish.  However, Silva (2002) pointed out the bias in the study because it surveyed 99 middle-class families in a Boston suburb where most females did not have a job.   

In Thrall’s 1982 study, he stated that “universal technologies” included electric service, automatic oil, gas, hot and cold running water, mechanical refrigeration, and at least one car (p. 187).   Non-universal technologies are listed on table 1 – this is a comprehensive list of household technologies in use in the 1980s. 

Non-universal Household Equipment
Credit: Thrall, 1982:187

Late 20th-century: Non-Classic Studies Regarding Nature of Women’s Work.

The non-classic studies -  a response to the classic studies - find evidence and propose ideas to contradict the three major “classic” arguments while still agreeing that the nature of women’s work has changed due to technologies.  

The non-classic studies agree that women do the majority of household work, but not as much as perceived by the classic studies.  Women continue to do the majority of the housework, but they are doing less than in the past and men do between 20% and 35% of housework (John & Shelton, 1988).  Analogous to this is “that women continue to be responsible for 70% of unpaid work in the home” (Primeau, 1992:981).  Yet, the amount of women’s work at home has been decreasing.  “Certain sorts of domestic work time have in fact decreased markedly over recent decades.  Factors underlying this decrease are […] timesaving features of new household appliances such as dishwashers and microwave ovens” (Gershuny & Robinson, 1988:539).  Another non-classic author expressed the same idea:

Today, with more tow-career families and single heads of households, and with an aging population, women are no longer the sole users of domestic technologies.  All of us use technology to some degree, whether it is using a microwave oven to heat a frozen meal, a stove or other appliance to heat water or make coffee, or an automatic laundry to wash clothes.  We may not all use the same tools, but we are all affected in some way.  (Vall, 1988:2) 

Non-classic studies also expressed that the nature of women’s work are affected by other non-technological factors.  Marital status, race and ethnicity, domestic labor, and the help of children all factor into nature of women’s work (John et. al, 1996).  Silva (2002) stated that the “new debates on household technologies have begun to engage not only with issues of power and economics, but also with the issues of moralities, choices and strategies within the nexus of family and personal relationships” (p.338). 

More Women are Entering Workforce in the late 20th Century.

Throughout the late 20th century more women are entering the work force.  “As of 1990, two thirds of married women were employed in the American labor force” (Primeau, 1992:981).  In addition, work by Mischel et al. supports the fact that more women are entering the workforce.  The chart Median Family Income by Family Type shows that between 1973 and 2007, married couples with the wife in labor force experienced a 36% increase in median family income.  In contrast to the wife not being in the labor force, married couples experienced a 0.6% decrease in median family income.  Thus, more women have been entering the workforce between 1973 and 2007, providing families with significantly more income than families with only the husband working.    


The views presented by classic studies tend to focus on how technology has not changed the amount of women’s work in the household since pre-industrialization.  But, the nature of women’s work has definitely changed in post-industrialization era (after 1910).  Women’s work in the household ironically consists of being outside of the home more; housework includes transportation involved with picking the children up from school, going shopping for groceries and other household items.  These are the physical changes involved with nature of women’s work at home.  Technologies developed during industrialization had been refined and “universal” by the mid-20th-century.  For example, the wood or coal powered stove that was used for heating and cooking in 1850 was replaced with “universal” gas and electric central heat and stoves.  These universal technologies had almost minimal effect on nature of women’s work in the 20th century because they were default in every household.  Instead, the technologies that changed the nature of work were non-universal technologies as depicted in table 1.  Examples include the laundry machine, dishwasher, and waste disposal.

The views presented by non-classic studies tend to focus less on presenting women as sole household workers and more on quantifying the amount of work.  Though women still do majority of household work, they have been entering the workforce in larger numbers since 1973.  Additionally, women are not doing all of the housework.  Hence, household technologies have granted greater productivity to women’s work in the household.  Household technology is certainly a major influence on the nature of women’s work.  There are, however, more factors that determine the nature of women’s work in the household such as a race, ethnicity, morality, and personal relationships.  In addition, the nature of women’s work could also be affected by the dynamic of husband-wife relationships.  These non-technology factors are out of this paper’s scope but worth noting because technology is not the sole factor in determining the extent  of women’s work at home. 

These non-classic views also rebut the concept of the industrialization notion that women do all of the housework.  Women do not do all housework and are joining the workforce in greater numbers.  Meanwhile, household needs are still being met – such as food, clothing, cooking, cleaning, healthcare, etc., - with less physical work because of new technologies.   


Limitations of this paper include the lack of recent studies on nature of women’s work.  Most data and studies evaluated in this paper were done between 1970 and 2002.  Thus, the focus was on 20th-century technologies.  Speculation includes that non-universal technologies of the 1980s have now become “universal” in households in America and more women have entered the workforce with less time spent on household work.

In conclusion, the beginning of common day housework as defined by Cowan was largely characterized by the industrialization period (1860 – 1910).  New technologies were formed in the 20th century and adapted in this industrialization period; this shaped how the “classic” studies viewed the nature of women’s work at home during the post-industrialization era.  Post-industrialization technologies changed the physical activities of women’s work with the introduction of the car, dishwasher, waste disposal, and laundry machine.  As technologies advanced the non-classic studies revealed that women are not the only ones doing housework and that their productivity has increased while maintaining the same quality. 


Bose, Christine. 1979. “Technology and changes in the division of labor in the

               American home.” Women's Studies International Quarterly 2:295-304.


Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. 1982. More work for mother. New York: Basic Books, Inc.  


(------.) 1976. “The Industrial Revolution in the Home.” Technology and Culture 17:1-



Gershuny, Jonathan. 1988. “Historical Changes in the Household Division of Labor.”

Demography 25:537-552.


John, Daphne and Beth Shelton. 1996. “The Division of Household Labor.” Annual

Review of Sociology 22:299-322.


Mischel et al. 2009. “The State of Working America 2008/2009.”  Cornell University



Primeau, Loree. 1992. “A Woman’s Place: Unpaid Work in the Home.” American

Journal of Occupational Therapy 46:981-988.


Silva, Elizabeth. 2002. “Time and Emotion in Studies of Household Technologies.”  

Work Employment Society 16:329-340.


Thrall, Charles. 1982. “The Conservative Use of Modern Household Technology.”

Technology and Culture 23:175-194.


(------.) 1970. “Household Technology and the Division of Labor in Families”, PhD

dissertation, Harvard University.


Vanek, Joann. 1978. “Household Technology and Social Status: Rising Living

Standards and Status and Residence Differences in Housework.” Technology

and Culture 19:361-375.


(------.) 1973 “Keeping Busy: Time Spent in Housework, United States, 1920-1970”,

PhD dissertation, University of Michigan.