What Do Booze & Washing Machines Have In Common?
They both contributed to the “women’s liberation” movement as we know it
Many of us learned in school about the 19th Amendment, which was passed in 1920 and gave women the right to vote across America. We also learned about the 18th Amendment, ratified in 1919, outlawing alcohol and ushering in an era known as “Prohibition.” And, we all learned about the Second Industrial Revolution, which also began in the early 1900s and was characterized by railroads, steel production, manufacturing and machinery, and electricity.
But aside from taking place around the same time, what do these three historical periods have to do with each other? Most American students learn about these three developments - women’s suffrage, Prohibition, and the Second Industrial Revolution - as distinct from one another, simply strung together along the timeline of American history like beads on a string.
The reality is much more complicated - and much more interesting. As it turns out, the development of industrial machinery and the electrification of American homes, as well as the widespread temperance movement that led to Prohibition laws, were instrumental in the rise of “women’s liberation” and the fight for equality between the sexes.
Temperance Movements & Women’s Suffrage
Movements to ban alcohol from American society began in the 1800s, but a fresh wave of anti-liquor sentiment began to bloom in the first decade of the 1900s. This political movement arose in part because of growing urbanization. More people were living in cities, with easier access to places like bars and saloons, where alcohol and other “vices” such as gambling and prostitution were readily available. (What was contributing to this shift to city life? Industrialization, of course!)
Women, especially, were now seeing the destructive effects of alcohol abuse more vividly in their domestic lives. Crowded into urban spaces, with less freedom and closer quarters, women who had the misfortune of being married to “drunkards” suffered terrible violence and abuse. Men who abused alcohol were also likely to drain a family’s finances or be unable to hold down a job, a situation that became even more risky when a family lived as renters in a city. At the mercy of landlords and grocers, rather than on a more self-sustaining farmstead, women were even more vulnerable to the dangers of a drunken husband.
As a result, “temperance societies” and other groups that pushed for a ban on alcohol drew lots of women to them. One such society was the famous Women’s Christian Temperance Union , and another was the Women’s State Temperance Society, founded by famous suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
These women wanted to solve the problems they saw in their communities - problems like violence and poverty - which disproportionately affected them and their children. These societies became places for women to gather and organize, discovering their strength and practicing new ways of wielding the little influence they had.
However, these women soon discovered that without political power, they wouldn’t get very far in their efforts to reform the way state or federal law dealt with alcohol. The push toward Prohibition required a parallel push to enfranchise women. In fact, Susan B. Anthony wrote in 1899 that the only way Prohibition could become law was to put “the ballot into the hands of women.”
Many women started out fighting for one thing - a ban on alcohol in order to reform their cities and communities - and realized that in order to make that happen, they needed the right to vote. Other women were awakened to their capacity for political organizing and their desire for civic power by their participation in well organized temperance leagues. And so the effort to outlaw alcohol became wrapped up in the effort to secure women’s suffrage.
The timeline bears this out - the 18th Amendment, which outlawed alcohol, and the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote, were ratified within one year of each other. As American women fought to free themselves from both legal and domestic oppression, their struggle for a better life contributed to two of the most famous constitutional amendments, one of which still survives to this day.
Industrialization and Women’s Liberation
In addition to urbanization, which allowed “saloon” culture to flourish and brought women together to organize, the Second Industrial Revolution significantly changed the way domestic life functioned.
For much of the 1800s, women at home were raising around six children. The constant needs of a large family meant that most of a mother’s time was taken up by chores like laundry, cooking, and other domestic tasks. Keeping a rowdy group of children well fed and in clean, dry clothes is a challenge even today, but it was significantly more work in a time without electricity or running water.
In fact, when the 20th century began in the year 1900, only two percent of American households had a washing machine. Women washed clothing by hand, using a “scrub board” and water that was hauled in from an outdoor source. Once cleaned, clothes had to be wrung out, hung up on a drying line, and pressed with irons that were heated on a wood burning stove.
All that was about to change.
The Maytag Corporation, founded in 1893, began selling washing machines in 1907, and the Whirlpool Corporation followed close behind, with their first washing machines launching in 1911. It wasn’t just washing machines, either. Refrigerators, electric stoves, and vacuum cleaners became available to American consumers in the 1910s, as the Second Industrial Revolution boomed.
The advent of electrical power and the rise of large scale appliance manufacturing meant that in-home machinery was suddenly available to millions of women. By 1950, nearly every American household had electricity and running water, as well as the various appliances that made use of these new industrialized luxuries. Now, motors and electronics could do the work that mothers and daughters were previously doing by hand, freeing up their time and labor to focus on other things.
And what did they focus on? Well, many women were able to enter the workforce as a result of this industrial boom, since caring for the average family no longer required the equivalent of a full time job. In addition, this extra time gave women the ability to spend more of the energy on thinking and writing, which led to a renewed focus on women’s liberation. No longer distracted and worn down by the never ending litany of household chores, women were realizing how stifling and boring life was without the agency and opportunities afforded to men. And they now had the time and energy to do something about it.
Like the Women’s Suffrage movement of previous decades, the Women’s Liberation movement of the 1950s and 1960s arose, in part, out of a generation’s refusal to be limited to the life of a “homemaker.” This move to reject and transcend the limitations of domestic life, a perspective partly enabled by the advent of home appliances, is best captured by Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique. Published in 1963, this book sparked a new wave of ideas and fights for the women’s liberation movement by challenging the motion that motherhood and housekeeping were the only options women had for fulfilling lives.
Does That Make Washing Machines A Feminist Symbol?
Of course, washing machines and speakeasies are just one small part of the long story of women’s liberation movements in America. The fight to abolish slavery also had a significant role to play in the women’s suffrage movement, and the advocacy of the Civil Rights struggle in the 1950s and 1960s informed much of the women’s liberation fight as well. The war efforts of World War I and World War II also contributed heavily to both industrialization and the surge of women entering the workforce.
Today, a woman’s ability to enter the workforce remains complicated. In households where both the mother and father work, women still do much more of the domestic and child rearing work. Race and class also factor into this complex situation, with poorer women and women of color facing fewer options when it comes to parenting and work-life balance.
America is also facing much worse economic disparity than it did in earlier decades. The relative prosperity of the 1950s isn’t reflected in today’s economy, meaning that we can no longer generalize about who has access to certain technologies. With so many Americans living in poverty, many families don’t actually have access to in-home appliances like dishwashers or washing machines.
Still, it’s important to recognize the ways that different areas of history influences one another. The push for women’s suffrage didn’t simply arise spontaneously because a bunch of women suddenly felt like voting for the first time - it was the result of a long struggle that arose out of other movements that reflected the unique social pressures and cultural attitudes of the day. Similarly, the women’s liberation movement was enabled, in part, by an industrialization that changed the way the average American family lived.
Looking at history through this lens can help us understand the world we live in today. If washing machines had such a powerful impact on the way women thought about themselves and advocated for their rights, how are things like the internet or global pandemics affecting us? What has changed about family and domestic life, and what new ideas do those changes give rise to? What long-held despair or desire might be sitting, unspoken, within us, waiting for an opportunity to be voiced?
What’s your washing machine?