Science - June 24, 2010

The housewife is a dying breed

How have electrical appliances changed households over the past century? That question is the subject of an exhibition at the NEMO in Amsterdam called 'Domestic Paradise'. Much has changed among the users of such appliances too, says Dr. Johan Ophem, lecturer in Consumer and Household Economics. Full-time housewives, for example, are only found nowadays in very rich or strict religious circles.

'The true housewife is a disappearing species. That is because education levels among women have risen. Around 1900, rich women could afford to stay at home and run the household; working-class women envied them. But the fashion for double incomes is coming back. Among young couples, for example, you can see that they need two incomes to get a mortgage. Consumer demands have risen too. It is almost standard practice to own a car, and that is quite costly too.
'Over the past century, a great many household appliances have been introduced that make housekeeping easier. The washing machine was an important one for streamlining the washing process. Monday used to be wash day in most households, but since the arrival of the washing machine, washing is done more often. It used to be quite normal to wear underwear for several days, but now most people think that is dirty. Standards have certainly gone up, but there is more pressure too.
'What used to be a luxury is a necessity now, the norm. Almost every household has a washing machine; most have a microwave as well. The only groups where you still find housewives are strict religious groups of Christians and Muslims. There is a belief that children are becoming more difficult because they get less attention, but that is nonsense. The Netherlands is in the lead on part-time work, which means that parents are often at home when the children are. And then the arrival of the internet has had a huge impact on the household. You can do your shopping on the internet, budget with the Nibud and keep up with the children's school grades. So we really can combine the household with paid work. It used to be a privilege to stay at home. Now it is an achievement to be able to use your capacities on various fronts.'

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