How technology enabled women’s rights, and changed the institution of marriage

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Innovation has driven social change for centuries; the wheel, the steam engine, and the printing press all ushered consequential changes for human civilization. But equally transformative and consequential to our human relationships were the washing machine, the refrigerator and the horse drawn plough.

In a new book  “Work Mate Marry Love; How Machines Shape Our Human Destiny,”  Harvard Business professor Deborah Spar makes a very bold claim: that some of our most basic family structures — like a monogamous marriage — are not the result of religious institutions, but of changes in technology. She says innovations continuously reformulate our sense of relationships, and even though we think the human story is built upon timeless traditions, the real story is actually much more fluid. 

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with Spar about her latest book.

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: With the switch to an agrarian lifestyle thousands of years ago, how did the plough impact the family structure? 

Deborah Spar: If you go way back in history, which is of course, hundreds of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of years, people lived in tribal bands. We were the hunters and gatherers, we lived in groups of 20 - 30 people. We only started to develop marriage, as we now think of it now, around 1000 BC, which was critically when small groups of people began to develop the plough, but more broadly, we began to develop agriculture. 

From our vantage point the plough hardly seems like a technological revolution but it was arguably the first great technological revolution that humans faced. And as we moved away from the older habits of foraging for our food to actually growing our food, everything changed. Governments emerge, towns emerged, sadly, war and slavery emerge, but crucially, marriage emerged. The kind of marriage that we now think of as natural was a societal creation, really about making sure that families had children to farm the land and crucially, children to inherit the land.

KCRW: With the invention of the plow and a transition to an agrarian based society, was there a shift in gender roles? 

Spar: What happens when you move to agriculture is that children for the first time in history have real economic value. If you're a hunter gatherer, children, much as we must have loved them back then, were kind of a burden; they had to be carried, they might attract animals and they weren't very useful. Once you move to agriculture, children become valuable. The early agricultural societies needed to produce children as back then, the only ways to produce labor is either by stealing it from other people, which is why slavery sadly emerges at this moment as well, or by producing it on your own, which is reproduction. 

So you might have imagined that women's roles and  power would have grown because women were the ones who produced the children. And yet what happened was the reverse. In virtually every society that we’ve either studied or can trace, women's reproductive powers became so valuable, that the men of the tribe controlled women's fertility. So initially women produced the children for the trie and then it became much more for their own nuclear family. 

So women's value was increasingly seen not as producers of food, as had been the case in the pre-agricultural societies, but it's the producers of children. Their reproductive powers became guarded and preserved, which is why you see this, the adoration of the virgin. Women are celebrated as virgins and then as soon as they produce children with the given man, or they're only allowed to produce children with a given man,  they are already bound and monogamous. In the traditional marriage ceremony, you can still see those vestiges; the woman is given away by her father, she has given to a man and she promises to be faithful to him forever and to be fruitful and multiply. So it's not a very romantic view of marriage but it is what the historical record indicates.

KCRW: Another major period of history is industrialization and there are different major pieces of technology that would change how we understand the family; the automobile, household appliances and the pill. Why were they so important?

Spar: So these are what I consider to be the most important technologies of the 20th century, especially in terms of how they reshaped family life. The automobile is the first as this really reshaped our notions of suburbs. It reshaped how we lived and crucially, it gave physical freedom and gave mobility to many people who didn't have it before and it gave a lot of mobility to women, who for the first time or certainly a more amplified way could leave the farm or could leave the village and go to town. They could be alone in their cars. It also created in many ways the whole notion of a teenager. Teenagers now had the freedom to go alone in their cars and be with their dates, whereas before they had to stay home on their parents' front porches. So I think the car is really an instrument of freedom for many people. 

The second one, I think it's often overlooked in our history of technology, is that household appliances were a huge deal. Now they were helped, by electricity, which is also a huge deal, but we know electricity was super important. I think people tend to forget that the washing machine and the refrigerator were really technologies of liberation. Because even though people complain nowadays about how hard it is to do the laundry, it's nothing compared to what it took a housewife in the 1920s to do her family's laundry. Laundry is heavy, it's wet and it needs to be dragged and dried. And it took hours and hours and hours every week for a woman to do her family's laundry. Once you have a washing machine, a woman gets those hours back. I wouldn't go nearly so far as to say that it was the washing machine that liberated women but it certainly paved the way because once women had washing machines and refrigerators; they didn't have to can and preserve and go shopping every day, so they gave women extra hours in their weeks. 

Now, some of those women had also to work for wage labor and many times they were doing housework and other women's homes. Some of those women chose to use their new hours to stay at home and make the house cleaner and cook more often. But many women took the opportunity to go into the paid labor force. So I argue that it was these appliances that really enabled feminism and the move towards women working. 

Finally, and crucially and many people have already made this argument, that the contraceptive pill was a major technology of liberation for women as reliable contraception. Women had to spend the vast bulk of their lives either pregnant or trying to become pregnant or trying not to become pregnant or nursing and they were bound to their childbearing role. Once you have the pill, women can separate sex from reproduction. It was not for everyone but it was a quantum leap forward to be able to control their reproductive lives in a way that would have been unimaginable before the pill.

KCRW: So now in the present day what are some of the newer technologies like IVF doing to our sense of family. 

Spar: I've been writing about reproductive technologies for nearly 20 years now and am fascinated by them. For many years, people saw assisted reproduction as something that shouldn't be talked about, and certainly it wasn't seen as technology. But people have been making babies one way since the beginning of time. And now in the span of less than 50 years, we now have a variety of ways to make babies that don't involve sex at all. And that's a huge deal as what is it separates reproduction from sex. So it is the flip side of the pill. The pill separated sex from procreation and now with assisted reproduction, we separate reproduction from sex entirely. People can have sex without babies and babies without sex, and in the course of human evolution, this is a really big deal. 

It changes not only women's roles, but much more importantly, it shapes how we think about the family. If we go back to the agricultural revolution, the family emerged as a way to create and protect children. We needed marriage, because we needed to produce those children and know who their parents were. Now, we can produce children through a variety of different ways; a gay men can create children, lesbian couples can create children, single people of either gender of any gender can create children. 

So marriage as an institution is no longer necessary to either create or protect children. And as we continue to evolve, and my argument is that marriage won't disappear, but it will splinter. And we're already seeing this; just the course of my lifetime we've gone from a world where it was impossible to imagine two men or two women being married, to one where it's an everyday occurrence.



  • Deborah Spar - Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, author.


Andrea Brody