Today, I rarely think about the microwave sitting in my kitchen or the lights in my house. As a working mother, I am more focused on things like equal pay, equal access, taking down sexual harassment and the ability to control what goes in and comes out of my body.
But let’s be honest. I wouldn’t be where I am as a woman, without my washing machine, my computer or my car. Without these things, life would be a whole lot harder. In fact, most of us would still likely be stuck at home toiling over housework for 58 hours a week. Fifty-eight hours a week was the average number of hours a housewife spent cooking, cleaning and darning back in the 1950s.
Today, thanks to all our handy appliances, we spend less than 18 hours a week toiling over laundry and mopping floors. In my case, I would be surprised if this number topped fifteen. My house won’t be winning any awards in Home and Garden Magazine, but it’s not a complete shit show either.
It probably helps that I also have a husband that chips in and does 50% of the work. But without many of the inventions we find so commonplace today, life wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable, and women wouldn’t have many of the freedoms that we take for granted.
These inventions are numerous, in fact, there are too many to count. Some like the sewing machine, have been a bane to our existence, given women are the ones who are often employed to use these to produce clothes in factories around the world for sub-par wages and in sub-standard conditions.
But some of the more important inventions have actually empowered and enabled women. And it’s these life-altering inventions that have revolutionized how women work, live and get around that I want to delve into below.
Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel — the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.
— Women’s rights activist, Susan B. Anthony
Bicycles got their start in the early 1800s thanks to Baron Karl von Drais from Germany. But these contraptions, commonly referred to as velocipedes, originally hit the market without pedals.
Pedals were later added to the mix making them much faster, but because these contraptions weighed upwards of 150 lbs., they were virtually impossible for women to navigate.
Thankfully, towards the end of the 1800s, these high-wheeled bikes were replaced by safer and lighter models featuring two wheels that were the same size, cranks, pedals and brakes. What’s more, manufacturers incorporated a drop frame into the bicycles to accommodate women so they could ride in their long skirts.
As a result, bikes took off. They afforded women the luxury of traveling outside of the home unaccompanied. They became a symbol of freedom and were rapidly adopted by the country’s suffragettes who were vying to expand the vote.
Bike riding also gave rise to a change in dress for women and brought bloomers into fashion. In effect, bicycles were the catalyst for women to abandon petticoats and hoop skirts in favor of more comfortable and practical clothing.
American society has traditionally looked down on women wearing pants. In fact, amazingly, in 1993 women in the United States Congress were still barred from wearing pants on the Senate floor.
And in 2019, a Federal Judge in North Carolina had to strike down a requirement by a local charter school that girls wear skirts, as unconstitutional.
Why are pants so controversial? Because they give the appearance that women are on equal footing with men. In fact, pants provide women with the freedom to move and do things previously out of reach.
Pants came into fashion in the form of bloomers in 1850, thanks to a design from Elizabeth Smith Miller that was popularized by Amelia Bloomer. These bloomers took off as bicycles gained in popularity, largely because women found them much more comfortable to cycle in. But this fad was short-lived. And it wasn’t until WWII that women started adorning pants more frequently at home and at work.
In the 60s and 70s pants additionally became a focus of the women’s lib movement, in an attempt to normalize this trend.
Today, pants have become readily accessible and available to all women. Clearly, there are some exceptions, but pants have come to represent freedom, power, comfort and independence for women at home and in the workforce. Women can still opt to wear skirts and dresses. But this choice now resides squarely with the women in this country.
Home Appliances and Running Water
Without a doubt, the advent of running water was one of the most profound inventions of the 19th centuries. But even though indoor plumbing came to America for the first time in the 1840s, its adoption was slow and often reserved for the rich.
In fact, in 1940, according to James D. Lutz, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, only 50% of houses in America had piped water, a bathtub or shower, or a flush toilet. What’s more, over a third of houses still didn’t have a flush toilet. And as late as 1960, one in four houses still did not have full indoor plumbing across more than 16 states.
Today most of us don’t think twice about flushing our toilets or taking a hot shower. Indoor plumbing has become commonplace.
Together these appliances with indoor plumbing dramatically changed the nature of housework. Women saved close to 4 hours a week alone just by using an electric stove. And in total, women shaved almost 40 hours a week off their household chores.
As a result, women began to enter the workforce in unprecedented numbers. After all, they finally had the time to do so. In 1900 only 5% of married women had jobs. But by 2021 this number jumped to over 51%.
In the late 50s, the birthrate in the United States was overtaking the birthrate of India. Baby boomer mothers found themselves in overcrowded houses with large broods of kids facing an uncertain future.
This trend coupled with a sense that women had no control over childbirth decisions, led activist Margaret Sanger and heiress Katherine McCormick to work with endocrinologist Gregory Pincus to develop a birth control pill.
But in the 70s, the side effects of the pill came to light and pill usage started to plummet. Women taking this form of contraception came to learn that they were susceptible to blood clots, heart attacks, strokes, depression, weight gain and loss of libido.
These revelations led many women to question why birth control should fall solely on the shoulders of women.
However, despite these setbacks, the pill is still widely prescribed and used by women across the country today. And it has been instrumental in changing how women view sexual relations and their ability to control reproduction.
In the End
Many of the inventions I’ve covered seem so commonplace today that we rarely give them a second thought.
But they are anything but common. They have afforded women like me, a better quality of life and the ability to explore, work and live more freely than ever before. Of course, we still have a long way to go. But it’s because of these inventions that we can now focus on critical issues like equal pay, equal access and sexual assault.
So, the next time you jump in your hot shower, take a moment to soak it all in. Throw on some pants, give your vacuum a pat and take your bicycle for a spin. Then revel in the fact that all of these things have made our lives as women that much better.
Velosource, The road to women’s suffrage was ridden on a bicycle
Wikipedia, The bicycle
NBC News, North Carolina Charter School rule that girls wear skirts struck down
Unwoman.org, Innovations in woman’s rights
aceee.org, Lest we forget a short history of housing in the United States
Science Daily, Fridges and washing machines liberated women, study says
Statista, Women’s employment rate in the United States since 1990
PBS.org, A brief history of the birth control pill
© Courtney Burry 2021