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Virginia Postrel

How Job-Killing Technologies Liberated Women

Inventors of labor-saving devices rarely set out to lighten the burdens of domestic work, but that’s what they ended up doing.

The single professional woman started here.

The single professional woman started here.

Source: Kean Collection/Getty Images

As the many mothers who’ve left their jobs to cope with pandemic remote schooling can testify, “free” household labor isn’t really free. It always entails the opportunity cost of what you could otherwise be doing.

But women’s domestic tasks get short shrift in the history of labor-saving technology because historically much of that work received no direct monetary compensation. “We are all familiar with our grandmothers’ adage, ‘A woman’s time is nothing,’” wrote an essayist in 1870, lamenting how little inventive effort was going toward easing women’s domestic burdens. Whether by unpaid housewives or poorly paid servants, the work still had to be done.