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Laundry’s dirty little secret? It’s still (mostly) women’s work

Erin Hubert, 15, does laundry as part of her chores.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Laundry may be the most reviled chore in history. It's also a revealing example of how money, technology, class and gender have led to the current chore debate.

Women's diaries going back centuries are filled with complaints about their laundry load; writing in the mid-1800s, Nevada housewife Rachel Haskell spoke for her peers when she dubbed it "the great domestic dread of the household."

Of course, back then, laundry was a full-scale operation: building fires, lugging water and rubbing clothes with lye soap that burned your skin – a back-breaking task that puts our complaints about endless folding in front of Game of Thrones to shame.

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By the mid-1900s, the modern automatic washing machine had arrived to save the day, or at least a few hours of it. For working-class women, the washer was indeed a time-saver that freed them up to go to work, as Jan Paul Heisig at Berlin's Social Science Research Centre wrote in a recent paper, while upper-income women were left holding the hamper, and their chores increased.

One economic analysis suggested that the washer, the dryer and the freezer combined increase the likelihood that a woman would work outside the home by 25 per cent in the 1960s. Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang has argued that the washing machine changed society more than the Internet because of its impact on women's labour.

The downside of the domestic washing machine is that cleanliness standards went up, helped along by advertisers keen to sell detergent. Plus, as the exponential growth in home closets demonstrates, we have developed a near-insatiable appetite for mall discounts.

"Washing machines meant more special treatment for clothes, more clothes, more washes every week," says Kathleen Brown, the author of Foul Bodies, a historical take on cleanliness.

Today, Canadians do almost four billion loads of laundry each year, according to Euromonitor's 2012 laundry care report. An international comparison across 32 countries found that, in every one, men were least likely to take on the laundry load. A full 46 per cent of the husbands surveyed reported never doing laundry. Around the world, the dirty socks are still women's work.

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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