Goodbye Corset, Hello Wonderbra 


Ever wonder who or what exactly was responsible for the womenís movement, a crusade to free women from the bondage of cooking, cleaning, and generally working like a mule till she dropped from sheer exhaustion?  I know what youíre thinking.  There was a crusade to free women?  When was this and more importantly, who won? 

First, letís take a trip back in time to say, 1900 and see what the typical womanís day was like.  Step aboard my time machine, everybody in, okay if we all suck it in we can fit one more, watch your feet the doors are closing.  Everybody comfy? 

Now if I described everything the typical woman did in a day, weíd be here till the next century so consider this the condensed version, the Cliff Notes of Household Drudgery.

On the subject of cooking consider this: the stove had to be continually fed with new supplies of coal or wood - an average of fifty pounds a day. At least twice a day, the ash box had to be emptied, a task that required a woman to gather ashes and cinders in a grate and then dump them into a pan below. Altogether, a housewife spent four hours every day sifting ashes, adjusting dampers, lighting fires, carrying coal or wood, and rubbing the stove with thick black wax to keep it from rusting.

Cleaning was an even more arduous task than cooking. The soot and smoke from coal and wood burning stoves blackened walls and dirtied drapes and carpets. Gas and kerosene lamps left smelly deposits of black soot on furniture and curtains. Each day, the lamp's glass chimneys had to be wiped and wicks trimmed or replaced. Floors had to scrubbed, rugs beaten, and windows washed.

Homes without running water also lacked the simplest way to dispose garbage: sinks with drains. This meant that women had to remove dirty dishwater, kitchen slops, and, worst of all, the contents of chamber pots from their house by hand.

Laundry was the household chore that nineteenth century housewives detested most. Rachel Haskell, a Nevada housewife, called it "the Herculean task which women all dread" and "the great domestic dread of the household." On Sunday evenings, a housewife soaked clothing in tubs of warm water. When she woke up the next morning, she had to scrub the laundry on a rough washboard and rub it with soap made from lye, which severely irritated her hands. Next, she placed the laundry in big vats of boiling water and stirred the clothes about with a long pole to prevent the clothes from developing yellow spots. Then she lifted the clothes out of the vats with a wash stick, rinsed the clothes twice, once in plain water and once with bluing, wrung the clothes out and hung them out to dry. At this point, clothes would be pressed with heavy flatirons and collars would be stiffened with starch.

It is at this point that I declare, dear ladies, that it is MEN who are responsible for the womenís movement, or more precisely, inventors of the modern household appliances, the fore bearers of the same items we still use today.  Items such as the vacuum cleaner, invented by John S. Thurman in 1899, the washing machine, invented by Alva J. Fisher in 1908, and the electric iron, invented by Henry W. Seeley in 1882, broke the chains of bondage, allowing the mistress of the house more time to explore the world of politics and social reform.  (If youíre wondering why, it seems, we still spend just as much time on housework today, itís because of the higher standards of cleanliness adopted in the 1930ís.) 

Technology was also pivotal to the education of women with the invention of the radio and telephone, which provided communication outside the home, broadening womenís access to news and information.  The radio and phonograph also acquainted women with wider worlds of culture, entertainment, and news.  The printing press, which printed newspapers at a penny per copy, also helped open new worlds to working class women.

The final technological advancement to change the lives of women was birth control, which became available in the 1920ís.  Condoms, diaphragms, and cervical caps were adopted by increasing numbers of women, who were for the first time able to reliably predict and plan the arrival of their children, which allowed them much more freedom to engage in activities outside the home and to concentrate their resources on the quality of life for fewer children, rather than spreading their time and resources over larger numbers of children. 

There you have it ladies.  So the next time your man becomes nostalgic for the days when a man never washed a dish or changed a dirty diaper, remind him that he need only look in the mirror to see whoís to blame. 


For more information, check out the following websites: 

"Technological Modernization and the Social Role of Women" 
A paper presented by Dr. Reid S. Derr of East Georgia College
An extensive website of inventors and inventions throughout history in all fields of study.
What happens when a family from present day agrees to live according to the standards of the 1900ís?  Letís just say itís an eye opening experience.

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