In an advertisement for home appliances from the 1940s, a smiling boy is pictured on a yellow background, with a text bubble saying: "Leave it to me and there'll be more free time for mothers!"
From a 1940s Westinghouse advertisement for home appliances

Reading Beyond Health: Automation

The Feminist Research Institute is hosting a Collaboratory throughout the year focused on this year’s annual theme “Beyond Health.” The Collaboratory brings together our Visiting Scholars and members of the UC Davis community to engage in timely conversations organized around keywords related to the theme.

Our January Collaboratory featured the work of Visiting Scholar Hannah Zeavin and her examination of automation and the home. Zeavin’s manuscript in progress, “Mother's Little Helpers: Technology in the American Family” interrogates how “technologized parenting interacts with moral and psychiatric concepts of parental fitness, presence, and absence across the 20th century and into our present.”

Zeavin’s work is certainly timely. This past year, many parents have found themselves struggling to balance work with childcare as schools and other supports have had to shut down. Fears quickly spread that parents were relying on screens to help make it work, with a flurry of articles in the press issuing warnings about the short and long-term impacts on the health of children. As so much of parenting still disproportionately falls on women, the conversation took a familiar turn. Anxieties resurfaced over questions of mothering and children’s well-being. Central to these anxieties are fantasies of what role mothering plays in not only the health of children, but in the health of children as proxies for the health of the nation. Zeavin’s work demonstrates that while the specificities of the current crisis and the debates over parenting that it engenders may feel new, these underlying anxieties are not. From the introduction of cradles, to baby monitors, to Sesame Street, technology and media has long fostered concerns over what proper parenting should look like.

Fundamental to Zeavin’s work are questions regarding how we understand the labor of parenting and how that has shifted historically. Which aspects of parenting do we understand as amenable to automation or augmentation? Which are in need of protection from technology? If we view technology as “freeing” us from the labors of parenting, what does that freedom supposedly afford us? What are the measures by which we gauge the health of children and how do these influence how we understand the influence of technology on parenting?

We can’t wait to see how Zeavin’s work-in-progress on this topic unfolds. In the meantime, keep an eye out for Zeavin’s forthcoming book The Distance Cure: A History of Teletherapy (MIT Press, Aug 2021) and follow her on Twitter @HZeavin.


Interested in exploring more about technology, the home, and mothering? Here are some recommended books and articles to check out:

The Smart Wife: Why Siri, Alexa, and Other Smart Home Devices Need a Feminist Reboot by Yolande Strengers and Jenny Kennedy (2020)

Playful Visions: Optical Toys and the Emergence of. Children’s Media Culture by Meredith Bak (2020)

Feminism, Labor, and Digital Media: The Digital Housewife by Kylie Jarret (2017)

Mothering through Precarity: Women’s Work and Digital Media by Julie A. Wilson and Emily Chivers Yochim (2017)

Redesigning the American Dream: The Future of Housing, Work and Family Life by Dolores Hayden (2002)

Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs by Lynn Spigel (2001)

More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from The Open Hearth to the Microwave by Ruth Cowan (1983)


Thanks to all of our Visiting Scholars for joining us at our January Collaboratory. The next Collaboratory will take place in February and focus on reproductive justice. Want more information? Email us.

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