The 30-minute 1952 film Mother Takes a Holiday was produced by the Whirlpool Corporation to sell washers and dryers. Whether it achieved this goal or not I really don’t know, but it’s a fascinating artifact of post-war techno-utopian thinking, slathered with a healthy dose of sexism.
“What does the emancipation of American women mean to you?” the young protagonist of our story asks in front of her typewriter. The young lady struggles with what to write for her school paper but insists, “There’s only one thing I’m sure of — for Ms. Heckshaw it’s got to be the modern approach.”
In this case the “modern approach” isn’t about something like equal pay for equal work but rather a tale of how to get the most out of midcentury appliances, and trick men into buying them for you.
“Let’s look around the kitchen. Something about new freedom in our own home,” says the young woman.
“Electricity…” she says pointing at the refrigerator. “Gas…” she says pointing at the stove. “Mechanical service, y’know. Something about, um, oh… freedom from drudgery!”
“Talk about emancipation! Take the family wash, for instance!” And we’re off and running. The emancipation of women as told through the lens of household technology. This was a common story from the 20th century — the co-opting of feminist language to sell more household appliances.
“No more clotheslines, no more dark basements, no more blue mondays. Boy, here’s real emancipation from old fashioned chores! Just set a dial and walk away! That’s the kind of emancipation any woman can understand!”
The tricky thing about all of this rhetoric? Even if you see technology as a liberating force in a woman’s life, the scholarly studies don’t back up the idea that women did less work in the home after World War II. Research by people like Ruth Schwartz Cowan in the 1980s showed that with the rise of automation in the home, the work of the average housewife didn’t actually decrease by very much, but rather standards of cleanliness changed.
“Emancipation, I could use a little,” the friend says as she talks about how she doesn’t have the wondrous modern appliances at home that her friend does. And then comes the idea. Our protagonist will conspire to make the men in their life do the laundry for once. And then they will all learn how great Whirlpool™ washers and dryers are.
The women go away for the weekend, intentionally leaving behind the laundry. One of the men has a Whirlpool washer and dryer, while the other two don’t. For the men who won’t buy their wives Whirlpool appliances, they have perfectly reasoned explanations.
“Well, we men keep making it easier for women to do their work. And the next thing you know, we’re doing it!” one of the men whines after being fooled into doing “women’s work.”
I’ll let you watch the film in its entirety to see how everything shakes out for the men and women of this TV-stylised ideal of Middle America. But needless to say, “progress” is achieved in ways that only technology can assist.
The middle section of the film is actually a neat explainer on the engineering behind midcentury washing machines. But, of course, the underlying story is horrifyingly sexist to say the least. Whirlpool was a pioneer in selling the future, like they did in the late 1950s with their Cold War Roomba. But it’s artifacts like this film that remind us just how shallow those futuristic promises could be.