Breaking The (Wash) Cycle?

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Words: Devlin Thunder (He/Him)

The modern home is filled with appliances: from heated showers to vegetable cubers (who knew there was such a demand). But some have an impact that goes beyond the home, bringing about more than just a time saving convenience. Nestled in kitchens, cupboards and under stairs, the washing machine has accomplished what your average blender or toaster could only dream of, a small part in the liberation of women everywhere. 

In 2010, Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician who studied public health at St John’s Medical college in Bangalore, gave a TED talk on the washing machine. Rosling spoke of how his grandmother would work tirelessly for hours every week, making sure his mother and he had clean clothes and sheets. It wasn’t until Rosling was four that he saw his mother load the washing machine. With much heart touching sentiment, the audience is told how his grandmother and mother were ecstatic about the machine. Although most likely only a small improvement in their labour intensive lives, patriarchal expectations still reigning supreme, Rosling shares their small victory with his listeners. 

Beyond this small example, however, Rosling makes a fascinating point. That the washing machine quelled some of women’s domestic hardships. His grandmother’s excitement is likely representative of many stories of women, at least in the western sphere, all of sudden gifted hours of free time that would have otherwise been spent labouring over a tub of boiling river water. Rosling enlightens the audience as to how his own mother spent this time reading, Rosling stating that this was ‘when I started my career as professor, when my mother started to read to me’. Although a slightly humorous exaggeration, the sentiment of this story rings true. Time saved by the washing machine does allow for opportunities such as education and development of personal interests. 

 Aside from Rosling’s endearing message, Ha Joon Chang, an economist based at SOAS, comments on the washing machine’s benefits and economic impact, specifically, women’s financial liberation. In an Guardian interview, also 2010 (washing machine discourse was clearly at its peak), Ha Joon Chang supports his comment made in his book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism that ‘the washing machine changed the world more than the internet’. In his economic comparison of the World Wide Web and the washing machine he states how the internet has not increased productivity that much, especially not when paralleled with the washing machine. Chang justifies his claim expressing how the washing machine was ‘liberating women from household work’ and goes on to say that it has ‘completely revolutionised the structure of society’. 

Chang makes an insightful point: productivity in the working world directly correlates to the mass use of the washing machine. This freeing of time allowed for women to work and have an income, giving them the chance to escape the home but also financial freedom. Chang elaborates on this, stating in the interview how women can credibly threaten their partners that if they don’t treat them well, they will leave. This angle shows one cultural impact of the washing machine for women. Chang is correct that economically it lightens the load for women, albeit only partially, from the patriarchal expectation of being housekeepers. Yet, women are still expected to maintain the home alongside their new ‘freedom’. Is this true liberation or just an addition to the patriarchal oppression of the contemporary woman?

Going back to Rosling, a good point is made, aside from the sweet anecdote of his grandma and diligent mother. Globally speaking, only a small amount of people actually benefit from these cultural ramifications. Just two billion of the world’s eight billion own a washing machine, the rest live below ‘the washing line’ (aptly named by Rosling), bringing into question, whose culture does it improve? Yes, in the western world, women operate with agency outside of the home, but only because the washing machine Is relatively affordable. In some global south nations such as India, ownership is only 13%. Chang makes another valuable point – what kind of women can afford this agency outside the home? If given a washing machine, would women in more socially conservative countries be able to gain their own autonomy outside of their houses and flats? Does the washing machine’s impact rely solely on external factors, such as Chang points out, such as the opportunity for economic growth?

Whatever the answer, the washing machine has truly proved itself an agent for change. And although this impact may not spread globally for some time, and it does not completely free working women from societal expectation, its cultural and economic effect on the western world has been undeniably positive, especially in improving the autonomy of many women, giving them small pockets of agency where there were once very few. 


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