Are you a female person who hates doing chores? Don't worry. As a multitude of women know, There's an app for that. From Seamless to Handy, TaskRabbit to Instacart, at any minute of the day, in almost any major city in America, a 25-year-old with a credit card can assemble a fleet of service industry workers that would make the servant structure at Downton Abbey look like a rinky-dink operation. And these apps are only getting more popular. A 2016 Pew Research study found that 72 percent of Americans surveyed have used some type of shared or on-demand services and high-earning college graduates under 45 are particularly likely to opt-in to apps that supposedly make their lives more convenient.
There's also some indication these apps can, at least momentarily, make us happier. A July 2017 study found that spending money to save precious free time actually reduces stress and increases happiness. According to the findings, which surveyed the habits of 1,800 Americans, regardless of income, people mentally benefited from buying services that saved time, like hiring a maid or ordering takeout.
Apps have also become a popular strategy to split the household chores between couples, particularly heterosexual couples who want to share domestic responsibilities, rather than have them broken down along traditional gender lines. Instead of putting together a chore wheel or having endless arguments about the state of the bathtub or who needs to pick up milk for coffee, couples can outsource their work to a third party. And there is evidence to suggest that saving that time for things other than scrubbing the tub can contribute to your quality of life. But Seamless, Handy, and the galaxy of other apps haven't actually stopped women from doing the majority of housework, or helped male partners understand how they casually enjoy the benefits of sexism in relationships. The world of iPhone-enabled help is different than the one our mothers grew up in — but are delivery apps breaking down the connection between women and domestic labor, or just further entrenching it?
Women have long known that domestic labor can feel like a prison. In her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, feminist writer Betty Friedan coined the term “the problem that has no name” to describe the societal obligation women have to chores — laundry, cooking, cleaning, and raising children. Since then, generations of feminist thinkers have spent countless woman-hours protesting, legislating, and sometimes even abandoning this work in search of a brighter day when we won't solely be responsible for Windexing. For millennial women, who track, analyze, and aim to simplify everything, apps have offered at least some semblance of a solution.
Gracie Goodrich, an arts administrator in New Orleans, says she uses UberEATS once or twice a week to feed herself and her boyfriend, and finds that the time she saves by not cooking makes her daily life much more enjoyable — partly because she doesn't have to be the provider.
"Even though my partner is pretty ‘woke,’ I find myself doing a lot of the mental work."
“I’d much rather be lying on my couch trolling some Trump supporter I went to highschool with [than cooking,]” Goodrich told me. “In all seriousness, it has made my life as a girlfriend to a man a lot simpler.”
Beth Stebner, who works in human resources and lives with her husband in Brooklyn, told me she sees the apps she uses to manage her household — Foodkick and Instacart for groceries, Wag to walk their dog, Cleanly for laundry and Handy for housecleaning — as a way not just to manage her life, but to streamline those typically gendered divisions. “Household chores are a point of contention between me and my partner,” she said. “I’m happy to do my share, but only as equals.”
But it’s not quite as equal as she’d like. Stebner says even when she’s outsourcing the chores, she’s still the one in her relationship scheduling the app services and keeping a mental log of what needs doing around the house. “Even though my partner is pretty ‘woke,’ I find myself doing a lot of the mental work. I keep tabs on how big the laundry pile is getting, when we’re running low on yogurt, etc.," she said.
Two 2016 studies from Australia’s University of New South Wales back up this experience. The studies looked at the way outsourcing affected division of housework — and found that women still feel pressure around domestic chores, and men do not. And even when women outsource some of the household chores traditionally done by women, they still continue to do the majority of it themselves.
This merry-go-round of emotions is perhaps the most complicated to address. “Part [of me] feels resentful that it falls on me because I've worked hard to get where I am in my career," Stebner says. "But if I don't order laundry pickup or groceries on the app or get the house cleaned, it just doesn't get done.”
Whatever stress that using these app services relieves is often replaced by the logistics of using the app services — scheduling the laundry pick-up, planning for someone to be home to get the FoodKick order, or even keeping tabs on the budget to see when the household can afford those expenses. In heterosexual relationships, women still often pick up the responsibility for the maintenance of the house, even when it’s not them doing the maintenance.
The apps seem like an escape from the expectations of domesticity, but so often they’re simply reshaping the same gendered expectations. There might be a third-party gig economy worker who is doing these services instead of the woman of the house, but the woman of the house is still hiring that domestic labor. Though these apps claim to be a disruption of the same old ways of doing chores, in many ways, the model is extremely traditional: A person of means hiring service workers to do the housework for them. There’s not much that’s revolutionary about it, and not much that’s helping women break free of the constraints of the “problem that has no name.”
And yet, because apps put distance between women and household tasks, it's easy to think that they are a bigger tool for equality than they actually are.
“The idea that we live in these self-contained units where every single person has to provide for themselves every single day is really inefficient.”
“Obviously women have been imprisoned by domesticity,” said Jessa Crispin, author of Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, which examines the shortcomings in the current feminist movement. “But the idea that anything you do to escape domesticity is somehow profoundly feminist without looking at the consequences of that is somewhat misguided. You have decades and decades of feminist theorists writing about unpaid domestic labor, and how women have been oppressed by these domestic needs that they’re providing to a husband who isn’t compensating the wife in any way. Then there’s a logical leap that, well, if I can just free myself from this domesticity, then that’s a feminist act, not realizing that you’re then essentially behaving like the patriarch, in the sense that you’re taking someone’s domestic labor without adequately compensating them.”
Crispin contends that while the convenience of service apps is undeniably tempting, a long-term solution to our gendered division of labor actually resides in how we think about labor in the first place. By using these apps, women are avoiding the complicated negotiation around gender roles by employing the labor of gig economy workers, not actually working to dismantle gendered assumptions about domesticity. In the meantime, domestic needs don’t go away, and, generally, the woman in each household is quietly charged with either doing the chore herself, or hiring someone else to do it for her.
“The idea that we live in these self-contained units where every single person has to provide for themselves every single day is really inefficient,” she says.
“I’m coming to this point where I think that the only actual feminist solution to the domestic problem is to somehow share domestic labor,” Crispin continues. “And I don’t mean within a [partnered] couple, I mean within a city. Communal kitchens, communal bakeries, communal laundry services, where everybody chips in and helps everybody else.”
The idea that delivery or service apps are "feminism at the push of the button," that they could free us from the domestic hang-ups of previous generations of women, isn't working out in practice. There will always be bathrooms to clean, mouths to feed, and laundry in the hamper. A solution to "the problem that has no name" isn't walking away from these responsibilities, but rather, addressing how they became our responsibilities in the first place and figuring out how we can realistically get others to share them.
For our lives to be better than previous generations of women, everyone (of every gender) is going to have to look up from our phones and have an honest conversation about dividing and conquering all the stuff we need to do. Otherwise, women are still going to be doing most of, if not all of, the work.