On the latest module I'm teaching, we've got to the topic of the sociology of the home. I am quite excited about this area of social science, as I have lots and lots and LOTS of data about The Home.
(This is one of those bits of the module where I have to be careful to stick to the module materials and not include a lot of interesting ideas from other things I've read and experienced. Although those all provide fascinating insights into domestic life, I can end up putting too many of them into my discussion. Then I don't have a clear argument, whereas if I stick to the carefully selected module materials I can write a much simpler clearer account.)
As an early task, students are asked to take a photo of a labour-saving kitchen appliance and upload it to a Group page.
This is mine. (The big red one is mine, LOL - the little one belongs to Piglet, or did a long time ago before she graduated onto my mixer.) I wouldn't normally spend the kind of money on a labour-saving appliance I spent on this Kitchenaid mixer - after all, it only takes ten minutes to beat sugar into flour. OK - fifteen. However I had long wished to have one of these luxury cake making appliances, so when it came round to my 50th birthday I asked my friends and family to pitch in and help me buy it.
I never really wanted a dishwasher, since there were just three of us in the family, but when I moved into a house that had one, I gradually started to use it. I was of the opinion that with a dishwasher, you have to rinse off the dishes before you put them in so why not just wash them? And I wasn't convinced by the long scientific arguments of the dishwasher manufacturers that this is a more ecologically sound way of washing up than doing it by hand. There didn't seem to be a whole lot of sound evidence being presented for that!
I found the dishwasher quite stressful. Unless you have lots of people round all the time, it takes a while to fill it up. You have to buy extra plates so you have enough to use while dirty ones sit in the dishwasher and find somewhere to keep them on the rare occasions they are all clean. You try to cram bits and pieces into places where they might fit and worry when you hear them rattling in the washer. You have to think constantly about what to put in it and when to just wash up a couple of mugs by hand, whereas when you wash by hand you just run less water if you have fewer plates. It was handy when the cub scouts came to tea - but that was just once a week.
Labour saving appliances, like many things in the home, are about social class. Those at the lower end of the scale can't afford them, those in the middle will sometimes buy them to demonstrate status rather than because they're useful, and those in upper classes can often afford to do without (sometimes by hiring people in the lower paid quadrant of the working world).
It reminds me of what I noticed in Pakistan, while I was working there. In Pakistan, many women live 'in purdah' - they don't leave the family compound. Lower class women had to go out, though, to help on the farm. This suggests why many women were content to live in purdah, staying at home is better than having to labour hard outside the home. Upper class women also went out, they had the social status to defy this convention.
After a few years, my dishwasher broke down. I considered whether to buy a new one but I figured that I could treat myself instead. Even students who think they are the world's worse dunce at statistics will be able to make a strong comparative statement about these two figures:
Bottle of nail varnish: £2.50
Hmmm. At that rate, I could afford to buy some really special nail varnish.
I went to John Lewis where they had some nail varnish for about £3 and another one for about £10. I don't like to make assumptions but there was a young woman near the nail varnish who had beautiful make-up so I asked her if there was a good reason I should pay £7 more (see! I can do maths too) for the luxury super-duper nail varnish. She said: "Oh! I am the Ellie girl. I don't know about nail varnish. I will see if I can find someone to help you."
She came back with a young man, who looked gravely at the two varnishes I had selected. "I don't use nail varnish myself," he said. "However, all the reviews for this one [indicating the more expensive one] are very good. Nobody ever brings it back to the store."
This shows you the difference between two kinds of thinking. One is called standpoint epistemology, and basically argues that we understand things much better from our personal experience. If you are a woman, you will know much better how sexism works from your personal experience (this is called feminist standpoint epistemology). However, it seems like a dim lookout for the world if only women are going to be able to understand how sexism operates. I do hope that by studying expert advice (as this man did by looking at reviews on the internet), people can come to a good understanding of things they don't necessarily have personal experience in. Then, since positions of political power are largely occupied by men, we might get something done to tackle sexism.
Anyway, I was treating myself. So although I didn't believe for a minute that this nail varnish would be able to cope with my already splitting nails when they suddenly had to take on board the family's washing up, I bought the stuff.
LOL, it worked! People were stopping me at the school gate saying in envious tones: "Your nails look great. Have you had a manicure?" and I would say: "No, my dishwasher broke."
Actually I afterwards reflected that I should have chosen the steam iron as my labour-saving device. I think that really does save labour; compared to heating up heavy flatirons in a fire and hefting them onto my clothes. However my upper class friends laugh at me and say they never bother to iron clothes ....