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The Feminine Mystique of the Microwave Oven

Over the course of its lifetime, the microwave has undergone a shift from being a super-masculine piece of complicated technology to an innocuous appliance relegated to that ultra-feminine realm: The kitchen.

If you want to take the next step with your often-ignored microwave, then look no further than the internet-proclaimed "world's saddest cookbook," Microwave Cooking for One. The crab casserole actually sounds pretty damn good.

It's no coincidence that this cookbook was authored by a woman; there are "sad single lady" references plastered all over the book's reviews section on Amazon. Over the course of its lifetime—from its accidental invention by an engineer in 1945 to to its rapid adoption in the home kitchens of the 1960s to its worldwide dominance today—the microwave has undergone a shift from being a super-masculine piece of complicated technology to an innocuous appliance relegated to that ultra-feminine realm: The kitchen.

That's the theory put forth by Cynthia Cockburn, a UK-based feminist researcher and writer. Back in the 90s in Britain, she and her colleague Susan Ormrod examined the use of the microwave in homes and schools, as well as its design by appliance companies, its production in factories, and its sale in shops. The researchers called this sphere the "microwave world," and they found that it was clearly divided along gender lines. In 1993, Cockburn and Ormrod published a book, Gender and Technology in the Making, in which they traced the microwave's beginnings as a complicated, "manly" piece of equipment to one that was largely ignored—except by women, still the primary cook in most households today and even more so in the 90s.

"In the microwave world we saw a fairly recent technological innovation meeting an age-old woman's technology: Cooking," Cockburn told me by email.

As the microwave became more widely disseminated, it 'fell' to a more feminine sphere, along with the humble washing machine and tumble dryer.

Like popsicles and corn flakes (supposedly), the beginnings of microwave technology were discovered by accident. One day in 1945, the story goes, Dr. Percy Lebaron Spencer, a radar expert contracted by the Department of Defense, was working on building the magnetrons that were then used to produce the microwave radio signals used in radar technologies. When he noticed that the candy bar that was in his pocket had melted, Spencer began applying magnetrons to food.

Raytheon, the company Spencer worked for, eventually developed the first microwave available to home cooks, but not until 1967. Even by then, the appliance was still bulky and cost an astronomical $500. Later versions would go down in both size and price.

Because potential consumers were put off by microwave technology, which seemed complicated and potentially dangerous, early producers of the microwave invested heavily in marketing to their target customers: women, the ones who would be using the appliances to get dinner on the table. Early advertisements for microwaves show well-coiffed, well-heeled housewives happily pulling burnished roasts from their fancy new ovens of the future. So even as the microwave started out as a wartime technology, it eventually became the most domestic of appliances.

Early ads for microwaves assured housewives and harried working mothers that the appliance would streamline the laborious process of getting dinner on the table.

Cynthia Cockburn explained the division this way:

"Men are managers, engineers, designers; they use their physical strength, and also have authority with regard to technology in selling to customers. Thus, they also repair and service microwave ovens."

"Women are valued for home economics knowledge," she continued, "as friendly sales assistants women customers—not over-awing them with technology. As the microwave became popularized and more widely disseminated, it 'fell' to a more feminine sphere, along with the humble washing machine and tumble dryer," she and Ormond note on page 15 on their book.

Early ads for microwaves assured housewives—and, increasingly, in the late 60s and early 70s, harried working mothers who suddenly had a lot less time to cook—that the appliance would completely streamline the laborious process of getting dinner on the table, cutting time in the kitchen to mere minutes. "Bake a potato in five minutes," one such ad promises. "The greatest cooking discovery since fire," a particularly ambitious one proclaims. But did the increased adoption of microwaves in American homes actually have any effect on the quality of life of women?

"No. Zero," said Ruth Schwartz Cowan, a historian and professor at the University of Pennsylvania who is also the author of the book More Work for Mother: the Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. Cowan's book was published even earlier than Cockburn's—in 1985—and as a result, Cowan said, she lived through much of the changes that she also studied academically in order to produce her book. When I spoke to her by phone, Cowan recalled attending a trade show of manufacturers of household appliances sometime in the 70s. At the back of the room, she said, she encountered a microwave salesman who promised that, along with the increased popularity of frozen food, his product would "totally revolutionize the American kitchen."

"You've gotta be kidding me," Cowan said she thought to herself.

"The prediction couldn't have been wronger," she said. Though a multitude of microwave cookery cookbooks were circulated at the time—often by the microwave manufacturers themselves—no one used them, Cowan said.

"In part because it was a pain in the butt to take the food out, stir it, put it back in, etcetera," she said, "and in part because many of the things tasted terrible. So mostly it got used for what it's used for today, which is reheating," she said.