Few people question the idea that technology has simplified housework and, by extension, the housewife's job. Yet a 1965 study showed that the average American woman spends some 55 hours a week on housework and child care, roughly the same amount of time her counterpart spent in 1912. Just what have our dishwashers and toaster-broiler ovens accomplished for us? These new technologies have changed woman's work, says Ruth Schwartz Cowan, but they haven't reduced her workload - and, in some instances, they may even have increased it. This intriguing theory is explored in ''More Work for Mother,'' a provocative and somewhat aggravating book.
Cowan, who teaches history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook , takes her discussion of household technology back to the Industrial Revolution. She points out that scholars have extensively analyzed the industrialization of the workplace but ignored the industrialization of the home , which was occurring at the same time. Housework, like factory work, makes use of tools - whether pots and pans or vacuum cleaners - and Cowan shows how the introduction of new tools and their products led to the entire reorganization of household labor.
In preindustrial times, Cowan says, what we call housework was shared among women, men, and children. Cooking, cleaning, and child care were considered women's work, but related tasks fell to men. Women baked bread, for example, but men ground the flour. Women washed floors, but men made the lye with which they scrubbed them.
In an interesting analysis, Cowan shows that new household technologies were indeed labor saving - but the time and labor they saved was consistently that of men. The stove, for example, reduced the amount of fuel a household required, but gathering fuel was men's work. Industrialized flour eliminated the need for home grinding, which was also men's work.
For women, says Cowan, stove cooking was not that much easier than hearth cooking. The stove's main advantage was that it allowed for cooking several things at different temperatures simultaneously, an advantage that resulted in a varied diet replacing the one-pot meal - and in more work for mother. Industrialized flour, much finer than the home-ground variety that lent itself only to easy-to-make quick breads, led to the complicated baking of delicious yeast breads and angel cakes - also more work for mother.
An important aspect of this book is that Cowan effectively challenges the widely held theory that technology has so transformed the American household that housewives no longer have anything especially time consuming to do: Household machinery freed men for outside labor, reinforcing the separation of men's and women's work spheres, and this machinery also made it difficult to justify the hiring of domestic help. These two trends left housewives solely responsible for maintaining the household at increasingly high standards of living. As Cowan says, ''Modern technology enabled the American housewife of 1950 to produce singlehandedly what her counterpart of 1850 needed a staff of three or four to produce: a middle-class standard of health and cleanliness for herself, her spouse, and her children.''
Cowan has brought forth material that is useful for understanding some of our contemporary mores and problems. But unfortunately, analytical weaknesses permeate her book and undermine its credibility. Large social changes just seem to ''happen'' - as when, without explanation, after World War I, housework shifts from being perceived as a chore to being perceived as ''an expression of the housewife's personality and her affection for her family''; or when, in more recent years, ''American housewives discovered that, for one reason or another, they needed full-time employment.''
A chapter on alternative approaches to housework, concludes lamely that Americans simply didn't want alternatives but opted for home and family - a conclusion that shirks the major issues.
Cowan's notes and bibliographic essays indicate extensive research, and it may be that in trying to write a popular rather than a scholarly book she has fallen between two stools. I think Cowan has tried to cover too much territory. She would have done far better to eliminate the discussion of subjects that, either for reasons of space or lack of expertise, she couldn't treat in depth. This would have enabled the book, and its readers, to focus more fully on her original contributions, which are sure to add a new dimension to the growing research on household technology.