Harvard professor explores how technology shaped the role of women in society

Ideas·Q&A

In her new book Work Mate Marry Love, Harvard professor Debora Spar argues that nearly all the decisions we make in our most intimate lives — whom we marry, how we have children, and how we build families — have always been driven by technology. She explains how these changes in technology have also affected the role of women in society throughout history.

Harvard professor Debora Spa offers a guide to life before — and after —Tinder, IVF, and robots. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Margaret Lampert)

Ideas53:59Women and Machines: How technology has shaped gender roles

The Industrial Revolution of the 18th century paved the way for large-scale mechanization that the world had never seen before.

For the first time, we had steam engines, factories and mass production — a departure from the largely agrarian society of the previous centuries.

But how exactly do periods of great technological innovation shape the nature of human interaction?

This question, among others, is the subject of a new book by Harvard professor Debora Spar titled Work Mate Marry Love: How Machines Shape Our Human Destiny.

In it she examines three major points in history — the agricultural revolution, the Industrial Revolution and our current digital revolution. She explains how the changes they inspired have shaped both the nature of family, and the role of women in society.

From the nomadic societies which didn't recognize the need for a "family unit," to the formation of the Leave It To Beaver nuclear family narrative that developed following the Industrial Revolution, Spar argues that the changing shape of our most intimate lives cannot be separated from the changes in our technology.

She spoke to IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed.

Going back to those three revolutionary moments, could you briefly give us an idea of what those were?

Sure. The first was the development of agriculture, which we today don't think of as a technology. But this was a massively important technology. So the creation of farming implements, and crucially of plows which allow for much more efficient, larger scale farming — that was the first great revolution.

The next great revolutionary moment occurs around 1750, when you get the creation of the steam engine. The steam engine, like the plow before it, turns everything around on its head. It creates modern transportation, it creates the factory, and it really creates the industrial economy as we've come to know it.

James Watt as a young man with his early steam engine invention, circa 1765. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I think most people would agree that we're living through the third great revolution right now — the information revolution. It's the digital revolution. It's the robotics revolution. I think it's so important to understand the first two [revolutions] because if we have some sense of how those played out over time, it should provide some guidance for how we're eventually going to get through safely and happily, one hopes, to the back end of this current moment.

What happens exactly with the invention of the plow? What is it that changed?

Well, kind of everything.

First of all, we settled down. We didn't have towns. We didn't have villages. We certainly didn't have cities until we had the plow. Once you settle down, you also get things like governments. There was no government before agriculture. You didn't need rulers because you didn't have any stuff that needed to be ruled. In Marxist terms, it is the creation of the plow and of agriculture that creates private property.

This 1860 Derby land digger plough is steam-powered by a traction engine. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

You also get families, and particularly marriage coming out of this moment. What happens is that before farming, children are pretty much an inconvenience. If you're hunting and gathering for your food, you don't want a screaming baby. That baby has to be held. That baby has to be nursed. That baby is kind of useless and may well attract predators. Once you become a farmer, though, children have a distinct economic value. I know this sounds somewhat heartless to say, but it's true.

If children have an economic value, then the ones who produce those children, have to be protected in terms of their ability to keep producing children. So women who in the past were food producers become valued overwhelmingly for their ability to produce children. And the men of the village needed to protect women's fertility so that they can maximize the number of children that are produced.

You mentioned a second pivotal point in history, the nature of both work and the family structure, the Industrial Revolution. What major changes do you see occurring with technology then?

If you think about what happened before the Industrial Revolution, there was no division between work and home. And in some ways, we've gone back to that pre-industrial state. Once you get a factory economy, someone has to go to the factory and someone stays home. And in the early days of the revolution, it was women who went to the factories — particularly young women and children. They were the ones who worked in the textile mills.

Textile workers in a British cotton factory, circa 1840.(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Over a period of about 100 years, the women and children were actually pushed out of the factories and the men became the factory workforce, largely because as a result of industrialization, there were far fewer agricultural jobs.

So, again, it sort of echoes what we're going through right now with shifting labour patterns by gender. When the men became the factory workforce, they became the breadwinners. And that is a crucial moment in time that receives less attention than it should.

When we think about the way society is today, the way it functions, the way we know it, when did our notions of the normative Leave it to Beaver nuclear family first emerge?

I think that the notions of this very hetero-normative, upper middle class, procreative family, are really a creation of the Industrial Revolution. And part of it had to do with rising levels of wealth. And then as we get wealthier and move into the 20th century, we start to see the explosion of household conveniences.So being a housewife in the 18th and 19th centuries was just drudgery, doing the laundry alone took 10 to 12 hours a week.

But as you move into the 20th century and certainly by the time you hit the post war period, there is a general level of wealth such that most households in the U.S. and Canada, in Europe, can afford things like refrigerators, washing machines, they have cars so women can go to market.

A woman demonstrating an early electric washing machine, circa 1950. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

And that's when you really get this creation of what I like to think of as the Leave it to Beaver narrative, where every family no longer just has a husband and wife and relatively healthy children, but they have a husband and wife, the children, the two cars, the house in the suburbs and the green yard with the picket fence around it.

When you look at the place we're in now, this digital age, if you had to pick the top two changes to that definition of family in this digital age, what would those be?

There's so many, but certainly the legitimization and embrace of same-sex freedoms, couples and marriage is crucial. It has led to a multiplication of family forms. It doesn't mean the death of the hetero-normative couple, but it means that the hetero-normative couple is no longer the only way to form a family. That, of course, is not due to technology, but with the technology that I think is crucial here — the emergence and growth of assisted reproductive technologies.

So for all of human history, there's only been one way to have a baby — now, by my count, there are 15 or 16 other ways through which a person can create a child.

Can you expand a bit further how you think such reproductive technologies affect the actual role of women in the traditional family structure?

So I think the emergence of these reproductive technologies is mostly giving women more power. Women are no longer tied to their reproductive cycles in the way they once were. And for this, really the most important technology is birth control, which again, is often not seen as technology.

Although the oral contraceptive pill was available by 1960 for 'menstrual regulation' in Canada, it was not legal to discuss contraception or prescribe the pill for the use of contraception until 1969.(Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Birth control was revolutionary because it was birth control that enabled women to seize control of their own reproductive abilities, to plan their pregnancies, to plan their children, to have sex without babies… so birth control was massively liberating.

During the pandemic we've seen that women are carrying the huge load between doing their regular day job, but also the household and children and those kinds of things. What does that tell us about how women's roles have evolved to this moment?

Sadly, COVID is wiping out a lot of gains for women. And I fear that the longer we remain in this horrific limbo, the worse it's going to be for women going forward. We know statistically now that women are the ones who are doing the bulk, not only of childcare, but of schooling. So they're juggling jobs, housework, partners, children, math textbooks, it's kind of killing women's careers and making their jobs and their lives much more precarious.

There's a little bit of good news. We are seeing men pick up more of the work at home. So I think there's some hope that we'll balance in a way that sticks with us as we get out of the pandemic but this has set women back for sure.

My hope is that even if this drags on for another year, I think if we're mindful we can come out of this in a decent place, we might even come out of this in a better place.


*This episode was produced by Tayo Bero.

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