Good old days? At least better than the earlier days.

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Kitchen Design Isn't Sexist. It Liberated Women.

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Kitchens should not be the domain of only women. But at some point, a writer at Quartz argues, they were tailored to be female friendly -- meaning the design of American kitchens is sexist to this day.

This plaint is strange for several reasons, starting with the fact that, as the writer, Rachel Arndt, points out, kitchen counters were actually standardized a touch too high for the average woman. Alas, still too low for your 6’2" correspondent. I am going to ruthlessly destroy the resale value of my home by raising the counters when I redo my kitchen.

Actually what Arndt is complaining about is the standardization of the kitchen: counters too high for some, too low for others, made for an “ideal woman” rather than the actual women and men who labor there. Again: 6'2". I'm keenly aware of this problem. And yet.…

Standardization is the inevitable byproduct of industrialization. Yes, mass-market frocks do not fit as well as custom-made ones; yes, cabinets rolled out of factories by the thousands do not fit their owners as well as ones hand-made by your friendly local carpenter. That’s because the amount of additional labor required to customize handmade cabinets and sink installations to the height of the chef is trivial, and adds little to the cost of the job. On the other hand, stopping your assembly line and retooling to produce a different size adds quite a lot of cost. So does carrying multiple sizes of cabinets in inventory.

Arndt lightheartedly suggests going to customized kitchens, perhaps do-it-yourself ones. I suggest that Arndt price the tool kit that would be needed to make your own reasonably functional and attractive kitchen cabinets. Be sure to add in, too, the hours of labor that would be needed to do this, and the space you’d need in your home to build said cabinets. Go price custom cabinets, versus the one-size-fits-most available from Ikea or your local big box retailer. Compare these numbers. Suddenly you see why women happily embraced mass-produced kitchens that weren’t quite the ideal height.

Of course, trade and modern manufacturing techniques have made it easier to customize things at lower cost (though still not as low as mass-produced versions). However, kitchens offer another conundrum: you might want to sell the house to someone who isn’t the same height as you, or doesn’t want the sink slung extra low. The standardized cabinet was born at the beginning of the era of the “fitted kitchen” , with its copious cabinets bolted to the walls. Look into an early-20th-century kitchen and you see a hodgepodge of freestanding furniture, from stove to the Hoosier cabinets which were the forerunner of modern kitchen storage. You also notice that unless the home was very rich, there was shockingly little stuff in that kitchen. Our proliferation of ingredients, dishes, pots and pans, and appliances was made possible in part because we suddenly had a place to put all that stuff.

All that stuff in our kitchens is, of course, why were able to leave them. Women in the 1920s spent about 30 hours every week preparing meals. Thanks to food processing technology and labor-saving appliances, that number has dropped into the single digits. Men have taken up some of the slack -- and it seems worth noting that standardizing kitchens too high for the average woman has probably made them more attractive to the average man. But even if you add in the culinary labors of our male partners, Americans are still spending less than a third as much time cooking dinner as our great-grandmothers did.

Women could never have gone into the workforce in the numbers they did if they had still been expected to spend 30 hours a week feeding their families. They were propelled into careers by the mass-produced modern kitchen, which, with all its flaws, remains one of the greatest feminist advances the world has ever seen. The occasional twinge in our backs or crick in our necks seems a relatively small price to pay.

  1. In some European countries, kitchen fixtures are moved from house to house along with the rest of your kit. However, this approach has some limitations. It means you can’t customize the cabinets to your space, or can do so only by spending extra money. American kitchens are built to the house -- which means they also have to be built to suit both the current occupants and those who might move in next.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net