Helen Keller Puts the Smackdown on Mansplaining

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Before writers worried about information overload or robots taking over the economy or social media making us lonely, Helen Keller worried about the implications of highly efficient vacuum cleaners.  

"If the progress of the mechanical age should suddenly cease now, I should say that its disadvantages had outweighed its benefits," she wrote in her 1932 Atlantic article, "Put Your Husband in the Kitchen." At the time, American industry was largely run according to the theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose philosophy of work is often called "Taylorism." The goal was to maximize the efficiency of every worker and assembly line; technological advances were aimed at creating greater productivity. This focus, Keller worried, came at the expense of workers' lives and happiness: "The machine is battering at the very livelihood of our beleaguered people."

As a lifelong socialist, Keller often advocated against this kind of mechanistic work environment, particularly in cases where it resulted in the physical impairment of workers. But "Put Your Husband in the Kitchen" is more than a far-left invective against the scourges of capitalism; it's also a satisfying smackdown against mansplainers.

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Although the term "mansplain" technically post-dates Keller's essay by roughly 76 years, the author nails the concept. She writes about a fictional couple, Mr. and Mrs. Jones, who try a role-reversal experiment: For a short time, he takes on the duties of the household. (Mrs. Jones "persuaded her husband that he owed it to humanity to demonstrate the correctness of his ideas by applying them to the home," Keller notes, recapping a timeless tactic still used by wives and women everywhere in their dealings with men.)

At first, Mr. Jones is infuriatingly smug: Because of "the wonders of science and modern efficiency," including electric mixers and automatically regulated gas stoves, he discovers that he is easily able to bake 10 cakes at once, rather than the measly one cake his wife had been baking for previous dinners. "Ah, the logical, orderly, efficient brain of a man is needed even in the kitchen, that sacred province of woman. In one day I have revolutionized the business of cooking," he nods proudly to himself.

But, as it turns out, regular-sized families don't need 10 cakes for one dinner, and Mr. Jones finds himself offering small William a dime just to eat another big chunk, thereby "stimulating demand and increasing consumption." Mrs. Jones eventually comes to the rescue, giving the extra cakes away to her friends. Mr. Jones isn't impressed; he thinks to himself—and I'm paraphrasing, but not by much—"women, whatever."

His spirits have not been defeated yet, though! Next, he takes on the cleaning, zipping across the living-room carpet with a vacuum.

Mrs. Jones returns home to find that all the tidying had been accomplished in just a few short minutes. In a magnificent troll, she exclaims, "It is really a shame to waste all the time that is saved by this electric sweeper. ... That is not efficiency. ... It must be used more, and the only way to make sure of that is to get a larger house."

"Have you gone completely out of your senses?" asks the astonished Mr. Jones.

"Not at all," you idiot, replies his wife.

Mrs. Jones, you see, was brilliantly mocking the mindset behind efficiency-maximizing market economics. Just because you can produce more stuff doesn't mean you should; just because your technology isn't being used to its highest potential doesn't mean your enterprise should expand. But Mrs. Jones, and Keller, were also mocking the self-satisfied know-it-all-ness that still sometimes characterizes our friends with Y chromosomes—give a man a vacuum, and he'll explain why you've been vacuuming wrong.

What's fascinating in reading Keller's essay today is that, on the whole, women are probably far less likely to claim the household as their distinct domain. In 1930, roughly 10.7 million American women worked, making up about 22 percent of the workforce. In 2010, roughly 72.7 million women were working, making up about 47 percent of the workforce. As women have come to play a nearly equal role to men in the economy, perhaps we, too, have forgotten the lessons of the wisely run household: "In the machine, rightly controlled, lies the hope of reducing human drudgery to the minimum—not merely that we may be free of drudgery, but that every individual may have the opportunity for a happy life, for a leisure which, under wise guidance, may lead to mental and spiritual growth."