April 2, 2006

A theory: Did the invention of antibiotics bring about Women's Lib?

One commonplace assumption today is that the strong societal pressure before the 1960s against married women having paid jobs outside the home was driven by mindless prejudice. Better informed commentators point out the sheer number of hours of labor that housework involved before the widespread availability of home appliances like driers and dishwashers. But, it also appears to me that expectations of cleanliness have declined as housework became more automated, which is the opposite of what you'd normally expect. If the amount of labor required to reach the desired goal drops in, say, half, you'd expect the desired goal to either remain stable or increase, not fall somewhat.

So, I'm wondering if the availability of sulfas in the 1930s and of penicillin from about 1944 kicked off a social revolution that only became visible about two decades later. My theory is that before antibiotics, household cleanliness was a life-or-death matter. Mothers did everything they could to prevent infections from starting in their children because they couldn't always stop them. (For example, in 1924, President Coolidge's 16-year-old son got a blister playing tennis, it became infected, and soon died.) After a generation of children grew up using antibiotics to cure infections, the obsession with household cleanliness decline.

So, is there any evidence for this theory?

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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