Wednesday, July 29, 2015

That Australian life - the importance of labour saving devices and improved health care in the women's revolution.

This post continues the series that began with  That Australian life - bobbed haircuts on the changing life of women, especially Australian women. The series is based on History Revisited columns that I wrote for the Armidale Express.

One of Australia’s best known paintings is Frederick McCubbin’s On the Wallaby Track (1896). It’s a bush scene. The man lights a fire to boil the billy. His young wife leans back against a tree, eyes shut, exhausted. A strapping baby rests upon her lap.

That painting is in the NSW Art Gallery. I always focus on the woman. Each time, I wonder how she coped on the track with a long and apparently heavy dress like that, with shoes or boots that appear quite uncomfortable.

In my last post, I suggested that being a wife and mother in the nineteenth century was hard and sometimes dangerous work, especially for the ordinary woman without access to domestic help to do the really hard work.

Consider an example. Older Australians will remember laundries often to be found in a separate room at the back of the house with their coppers. Fires had to be lit, the water in the copper heated, the clothes washed in the hot water stirred with an old broomstick. Then the water was squeezed out using a mangle and clothes hung on long lines stretched across the back yard.

This was, in fact, relative luxury. Fifty years earlier, clothes were often boiled in a kerosene tin set on bars across an open fire. In both cases, the time and effort involved was substantial.

Once clean, those clothes requiring ironing were ironed with heavy metal irons heated on the stove. There were different types of irons depending on the clothes, but in all cases the irons cooled quite quickly and had to be reheated. Is it any wonder that washing day was an ordeal?

If you look at the time and effort involved in all this, you might see why I rank labour saving devices as the first and most important advance supporting the changing role of women. Many women did do paid work while married, but the time to do so was just so limited.

I rank improvements in health care as the second most important factor in supporting the changing role of women. It meant that fewer women died in child birth, something obviously important from a personal and family perspective. But it also meant that fewer children died.

Infant death was one key reason for the big families of the past. It meant that you needed more children to ensure family survival. You could not choose to have a particular family size, to stop having children to achieve that, because infant and child mortality made such a choice impossible.

I doubt that the women’s revolution could have happened without these two things, labour saving devices plus improvements in health care. Labour saving devices gave women extra time while still maintaining family responsibilities. Improvements in health care meant that women had to spend less time in child rearing. The combination led to a social revolution.


In a comment, marcellous suggested that I was barely scratching the surface and pointed to this 2012 Guardian piece. On reading it, my first reaction was to find it odd, my second was to wonder if I was odd in finding it odd. Upon further reflection, it is an interesting period piece, a sort of post feminism class based guilt thing.

I would be interested in your comments.


Anonymous said...

Jim, you are just scratching the surface here.

See for example here.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi marcellous and thanks. Very interesting My first reaction on reading that piece was to find it odd, class ridden angst. My second reaction was to wonder if I was odd to find it odd. I will bring it up in the main post with a more detailed comment. As you say, I am just scratching the surface, but my focus is historical.

Anonymous said...


OK the link might not have been the best choice but what I wanted to direct your attention to was the class as well as the gender aspect of housework and hence of labour saving devices. For middle class women, labour saving devices replaced employees/servants although (I'm thinking Feminine Mystique here) they then probably increased a woman's work in the home (put another way, a man could get by with just one servant now - his wife).

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi marcellous. I hadn't quite caught your point, but the piece did cause me to focus on changing roles of, availability of, attitudes to servants and domestic help. It's quite a complicated tapestry whose effects vary. Timing is important, too. More thought required!