Stella Rooney

Stella Rooney

Can automation end women’s ‘double burden’?

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Debates about technological developments have revived techno-utopianism. Conter editorial board member Stella Rooney argues that the relationship between technology and social relations is complex and produces contradictory developments, as exemplified by the changing patterns of women’s labour in the 20th century.

We live in an era of assumed equality and possibility, when prevailing ideology asserts that because a woman can achieve something, it can be achieved by all women. Feminist campaigns have raised issues of the small percentage of female CEOS; for the right to be a #GIRLBOSS. These are the demands of equality feminism, which fights for the right of women to participate in society in the same way which men do. Although somewhat surprising, Germaine Greer was indeed right when she claimed that equality is a “profoundly conservative aim”1. Equality feminism refers to the adoption of the set conditions of the status quo, whereas emancipation concerns both freedom and justice. For something to be considered liberating for women, it must not assimilate to male roles, of both patriarch and capitalist worker. Liberation presents an opportunity to imagine a future where these roles are themselves arbitrary.

Technology also presents us with an expansive opportunity, to redesign the conditions of human life and imagine Utopia. Within many past and present, real and imagined paradises however, women are treated as second-class citizens, are denied economic freedom and treated with brutality. The advancement of technology is often seen as an attempt to make life more convenient, a quest for idealisation. As those committed to building an anti-capitalist future, we must ask- does technological advancement, including the new horizons of automation, grant opportunity for the redistribution of power, or is it a tool to maintain dominance and control?

To anticipate the influence of future technologies on women’s liberation, it is necessary to look to the past. Within the west, pre-industrial revolution, relations between men and women were not more favourable or equitable, but men’s labour was to a much greater extent required to maintain the home. Although women were still responsible for the child rearing, cooking and cleaning, women assisted men in chores or work outside of the domestic environment. This is not to claim that women were treated better before capitalism, but that women’s worth as a worker, and the status of women’s labour was in some senses greater as required by pre-capitalist divisions of labour.

The industrial revolution marked a new era of women’s ‘double burden’, the burden of waged labour within a workplace and of unpaid domestic labour. By 1901, 31% of women in the UK were in paid employment2, but much of the work was severely gendered with the largest job performed by women being the role of domestic servant. The woman worker would spend her days caring for someone else’s family, then come home to care for her own.

There is a widely held belief that the advancement of domestic and convenience technologies contributed positively to women’s liberation. The real course of the development of domestic labour and the extension of the “double burden” in the post-war economy presents a more contradictory picture.

In 2009, the Vatican’s official newspaper marked international women’s day with an article entitled: “The washing machine and the emancipation of women: put in the powder, close the lid and relax3.” Catharine Beecher and her sister Harriet Stowe were influential proponents of the ideal of the home as a domestic sanctuary. In their joint work published in 1869, ‘American Woman’s Home’ they articulate the case for women to embrace their role as domestic worker stating: “The chief cause of woman’s disabilities and sufferings, is that women are not trained, as men are, for their peculiar duties”4. Beecher and Stowe identify the sole reason for women’s frustrations and sufferings as the undervaluation of women’s traditional role of the homemaker. They propose, that the domestic sphere should be treated as a both a man’s haven and women’s workplace, and that skills in all elements of women’s work should be taught and valued as vital.

The new re-division of labour in the United States, which saw the greatest boom in domestic technologies after World War two, is instructive to the global dynamic. The American dream’ championed both private ownership and the free market, but it also has its roots in the Christian values and conservative gender roles advocated by Beecher and Stowe. This ideology placed the purchase of commodities as a mark of human love, and furthered the existing idea that marriage was itself a contract of employment. This set of conditions attached to not only holy-matrimony, but to an economically viable existence, limited the spheres in which women could exist. The American dream represents the institutionalised taming of women, it represents the philosophy behind the removal of women from factories, and it served as a reiteration that men were better than them at every task.

In 1974, Jo Anne Vanek reported in her study ‘Time Spent in Housework’, that despite the rise of domestic technologies such as washing machines, dryers and detergents, the full time American housewife spent more time doing laundry in 1970 than 19205. Regarding employed women, although amount of time spent in housework decreased, they still spent an average of 26 hours a week on domestic labouring. Crucially, the study found that even if women were in paid employment, there was no evidence to suggest that their husbands contributed any extra time at all to helping with domestic chores. Domestic technology may have helped to improve standards of living for families, and possibly aided women’s equal participation in the (capitalist) labour market, but these technologies certainly did not give women increased leisure, agency or even lasting satisfaction.

The privately-owned home appliance was only one organisational model for domestic work. The wash house, or ‘Steamie’ as it was known in Scotland, was a communal model of carrying out domestic work. The wash house was a place where women took washing, often wrapped in sheets or stored in buggies, and used the communal services provided. The Steamies were known for being lively; the hubs of working class communities where women would gather to socialise. While these wash houses were not emancipatory, the loss of wash house culture has contributed to a wider alienation. The wash house allowed thousands of women to make a mark on her surroundings, to physically take up space. The Marxist feminist Mariarosa Dalla Costa once supposed, ‘‘Women buy things for their home because that home is the only proof that they exist’6. Today, many people go from work, to home, to the shop, to sleep without seeing a familiar face outside of the domestic environment. Without communal spaces, such as the wash house, we are all radically isolated housewives.

It could be said that social media has replaced former communal spaces such as the wash house where we once took part in collective conversation. But unlike the wash house, on social media there is little need to justify an opinion or to even engage with your neighbour. In many ways, the internet has become a breeding ground for much of the misinformation early activist pioneers sought to challenge. Social media allows for balkanisation, for audiences and ideologies to be further fragmented and specialised. Household work however, exists very much within the physical realm and it is often characterised as dirty work with low social status. As the artist Mireles Laderman Ukeles once asked, “fter the revolution, who picks up the garbage?”7 The internet has a capacity for ignoring the mundane but necessary aspects of life favouring clickbait over nuance and removing us from our everyday realities. Maintenance work is either carried out or supported by women, and it is maintenance work which sustains everyday life as we know it- not cyber space.

In 2013, 82% of female workers were within the care and leisure sectors8 which is here used to describe care work or working in hotels, bars, restaurants, call centres and so on. Within these sectors, the worker is required to aid in the performing or perform services for other human beings. Often, the human aspect is part of the service that the consumer is purchasing, and for women their sex is part of the package. Many service sector jobs are zero-hour and low wage, the woman worker often can’t reclaim her own agency in these workplaces because they are un-unionised. The sexualisation of low waged work is yet another stick to beat the woman worker.

Many service sector jobs often use electronic thumbprint technology to clock in and out of the shift, but the work is often continued when the worker signs out, the remnants of the day’s labour are often embedded within the worker’s mind. Not only do many workplaces now have access to worker’s fingerprints, but a small number of workplaces have begun to fit employees with microchip implants9. Only 150 recipients have been fitted so far in the UK, but this technology has far-reaching potential implications. The microchip allows the worker to sign in, operate doors and even turn on cars. It is also able to store medical information about the user. The microchip allows waged labour to become part of the worker’s body. It functions to further alienate and objectify the worker, further entrenching the idea that waged labour is a condition of human existence. It treats the worker as a commodity and defines the worker as worker only.

In 1984, Donna Harraway published ‘Cyborg Manifesto’, an influential feminist work reflecting on the relationship between socialist feminism, technology and the radical capacity of cyborgs,

“Work is being redefined as both literally female and feminized, whether performed by men or women. To be feminised means to be made extremely vulnerable; able to be disassembled, reassembled, exploited as a reserve labour force; seem less as workers than as servers; subjected to time arrangements on and off the paid job that make a mockery of a limited workday; leading an existence that always borders on being obscene, out of place and reducible to sex.”10

The care worker is often constantly on call, they must have their phone on them in case they are needed to cover a shift. The carer is terrified of their phone as they are constantly reachable, they are indeed a ‘reserve labour force’. Much of the activities of care work are dependent on domestic technology, such as cooking, cleaning, bathing. Through the commodification of the tools of caring work, or domestic technologies, care and domestic work has been further characterised as non-significant. However, as Mariarosa Dalla Costa writes of the housewife, ‘She is always on duty, for the machine doesn’t exist that makes and minds children’11, the same must be said for the carer. Caring is a job which will never be able to be fully reproduced or substituted. It is also an activity, like domestic work, which many women carry out unpaid through caring for children, family, friends or neighbours. This kind of work not only denies women the comfort of their own homes, but it robs the worker of time with their own families, catching up with their own housework, which they are often mostly responsible for. In an age of increasing automation, the answer is not to harken back nostalgically, or to romanticise a time before human beings were cut from technology. Let us identify the skills that cannot be automated and are therefore necessary. We must use new technologies to lift the double burdens of paid and unpaid work for all.

While the act of caring cannot be automated fully, it seems that domestic work can indeed be further automated, does this present a possibility for the eradication of domestic labour? The activities of vacuuming, lawn mowing and watering, cooking and cleaning can now be carried out, or aided by robotic technology. Is this a new frontier, an opportunity to free women of their domestic responsibilities? Let us evaluate these new products using Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism.

Commodity fetishism is the process of viewing an object as removed from the material and human elements of its production and social relations. This theory is useful in understanding the role of the housewife or domestic worker; she is a robotic and objectified labourer. The objects of her work, the washing machine, drier, dishwasher, hoover and microwave were once also perceived as revolutionary objects, as machines which will emancipate the worker. However, when these objects require a varying degree of human labour to operate them, this results not in freedom from labour, but in more work for the worker. As technology advances under capitalism, it isn’t used to liberate the worker, but to demand more of them.

A future feminism must reject the politics of equality for that of liberation, but it must also reject the necessity of menial work. We may once have lived within a society that crucially overvalued paid work and undervalued unpaid work but in 2018, work itself has been ‘feminised’, devalued and debased. We must advocate for political intervention against capital and the entire wage relation system. It is here useful to draw upon the autonomist Marxist notion of the ‘refusal of work’ as a basis for action.

The refusal of work is not simply a rejection of work on an individual basis, it is a demand for fewer hours, and rejection of the value placed upon waged labour within capitalist society. It is a demand for redistribution of power and wealth and economic freedom. The refusal of work seeks for the fruits of labour to be shared and utilised to reduce the amount of work all human beings are required to do. No terrain is better suited to eradicate reification than that of technology.

Let’s return to the question this essay poses, can technology eradicate household work? The answer is both yes and no, new technologies such as the washing machine could contribute to women’s liberation if these appliances had been used to give women more power, agency and leisure. Let us remember, that for the ruling classes, domestic work has been eradicated for a long time. Working class women were washing machines, dryers, and hoovers before this technology existed. While it may be true that these appliances possess labour saving capacities, technologies themselves will not emancipate women from household labour. Until domestic labour is given the same value as waged labour, the gendering of ‘female’ work will continue.

This however, should not lead to despair, but to action. The emancipatory capacity of technology is within human control, it can be used to maintain or relive burdens. If we imagine a very different future, in contrast to our current vicinity to dystopia, new technologies could be used to shorten our working hours and extend our quality of life. Technology could be used to eradicate unnecessary jobs which could be replaced by automated machines, placing greater value on activities which cannot be fully automated. This utopian approach could radically change the nature of the care industry for example, relieving stress and strenuous work for the few, and sharing the burden with the many.

To create the future, we must be able to imagine beyond our current realities. Is it utopian to imagine a society where the activity of caring is valued as more economically productive than a job which has been replaced by a machine? Or is not ???, simply a fairer way of valuing what constitutes labour. In this sense, yes, technology indeed carries the potential to further the cause of women’s liberation but also that of worker’s power. There is no sense in simply dreaming of utopia, it is imperative that we build it by sowing the seeds of resistance in our everyday lives. This requires the left and labour movement to take the organising of ‘female work’ much more seriously. We have seen glimpses of this, most namely the recent Glasgow Equal pay strike which ended in a glorious victory, but it was not without the 12 years of struggle previously. We must continue to ask the question- why do we place a higher value on the contribution of mediocre men to that of capable women? How many communist leaders must befall the trap of ‘machismo’? Why do we think of the working class as male and industrious when in accuracy, it is majority female and domestic?

The politics of the household remain one of the most untapped but most fertile sites of resistance. What is constituted within the home, shapes the entire world beyond its doors. Working class women must demand the ability to be boundless and free, the freedom to design our own emancipation using technology as a tool for revolt. And yes, to all the men reading this- comradeship starts with doing the washing up.

1 Channel 4, Germaine Greer on women’s liberation; (accessed on 30/11/18)

2 National Archive, Women’s Work; (accessed on 30/11/18) para 1

3 Squires, Nick, “Washing Machine ‘did more to liberate women than the pill’; (accessed on 30/11/18) para 2

4 Stowe, Harriet Beecher, & Beecher, Catharine Esther. (2004). American Woman’s Home. Introduction

5 Vanek, Jo Anne, ‘Time Spent in Housework’ Scientific American (1974), p116-210

6 Della Costa, Mariarosa, ‘The power of women and the subversion of the community’, (accessed on 30/11/18) p28

7 Laderman, Mireles Ukeles, ‘Manifesto for Maintenance Art’ (1969)

8 Office for National Statistics, ‘Women in the Labour Market’; (2013) (accessed on 30/11/18)

9 Kolloewe, Julia, ‘Alarm over talks to implant UK Workers with Microchips’ ( 2018) (accessed on 30/11/18)

10 Harraway, Donna, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (2016), p 38

11 Della Costa, Mariarosa, ‘The power of women and the subversion of the community’, (accessed on 30/11/18) p11

Images: Ryan McGuire

& Ekinklik

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