|Women Encounter Technology: Changing Patterns of Employment in the Third World (UNU, 1995, 356 p.)|
|3. Feminist approaches to technology|
Women's values or a gender lens?
Confronted by the leek of women technologists and scientists, feminists in Europe and North America in the 1970s were inclined to focus on the impediments of a male-dominated capitalism; male prejudice, attitudes and relations within families, schools or work, leek of places in higher education, job segregation and the sexual division of labour. Like an earlier generation of feminists, they were preoccupied with the obstacles preventing women's access. The campaign for abortion and a growing awareness of reproductive rights brought an added incentive to break down the male bastion of science and technology. Women's entry was seen not only as a matter of individual advance but as a means of gaining control for women collectively. Opposition to arguments that women were essentially unscientific or untechnological initially engaged with the wider social relations which constrained women's choices and opportunities.
Feminist ideas develop partly within their own area of debate, acquiring their own momentum. They also, however, interact with other intellectual currents. The changing paradigms in scientific thought are sites for just such a crossover. Indeed sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish social critiques of science from strands of feminism which assume that 'feminism' by definition is to be equated with a rejection of science, technology and indeed reason.
The recognition that values are embedded within the social processes of scientific study and technological innovation has challenged the assumption that these are neutral forces. This has an obvious relevance for understanding the peculiar difficulty women have confronted in gaining access to the theoretical and practical scientific and technological worlds. Feminist writers on science and technology, in the words of Evelyn Fox Keller, have detected the presence of gender markings in the root categories of the natural sciences and their use in the hierarchical ordering of such categories for example, mind and nature; reason and feeling; objective and subjective (Keller, 1992: pp. 18-19).
This awareness of gender has contributed to new insights into the history of science and technology in western thought and society. Instead of wondering what is wrong with women, with capitalism, or with 'patriarchy', feminist enquiry has shifted during the last decade to what is wrong with the tradition of modern western science.
This approach has converged with a broader questioning of the automatic benefits which western science has brought. The view that technological discoveries and their application inevitably represent incontestable progress has been extensively critiqued, and the social reasons for certain kinds of technologies being developed rather than others have been explored.
Of course wariness about the powers of science, technology and reason is not entirely new within western culture. Intense faith in reason, progress and objectivity generated its opposites. The Enlightenment has various and contradictory currents, one being the elevation of nature. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein evoked a fear common within romanticism of an unbridled human scientific intellect. Throughout the nineteenth century, thinkers in the West sought alternatives to industry and modernity in several versions of nature, ranging from idealizations of the folk, the working class, black people, the Orient or women. In our own times, anxiety about science, technology and indeed reason, has become especially acute as the grim consequences of both capitalism's and state socialism's visions of progress have become apparent. For better or worse, the zeitgeist of the late twentieth century appears to be a profound scepticism about the possibility of applying reason for social progress and a tendency to dismiss the value of western science and technology.
This has made the feminist claim for entry in order to gain control somewhat problematic. For how can we demand access to forms of knowledge which we are defining as inherently flawed?
The hidden perils of alternatives amidst the critique of existing male dominated science
Some strands of feminism have taken hope from the view that women will necessarily 'do' science differently and will develop alternative forms of technology. Among eco-feminists in particular, this conviction has stimulated a literature of opposition which ranges from a claim that women are essentially different to a proposal that women might bring a socially-based experience of alternative values: caring and reciprocity versus control and objective detachment. The advantage of this utopianism is that it opens the possibility for a culture of science and technology which is different to the perspective which has prevailed in the West from the seventeenth century.
There are however some unforeseen consequences of positing a distinct set of existing women's values which are in opposition to the existing forms of science and technology. For a start, there is the question, where have they come from? Essentially female values are formed in cultures in which gender inequality prevails. They are not apart from social relations. An obvious danger is that we enclose ourselves within definitions which are just as much part of a 'male' culture and which confine rather than emancipate. For example, identifying with nature is problematical: it has, after all, also been used to justify the subordination of women, as Janet Sayers shows (1982). Moreover, how nature is regarded is itself historical and cultural and has changed over time (Thomas, 1984). It is hardly firm ground for resistance to masculine hegemony.
In challenging a narrow technological determinism and false optimism about the inherently 'progressive' aspects of technology, feminists who have sought to argue that existing cultural stereotypes of feminine identity should be embraced as an alternative to male definitions of technology ignore the fact that many of these social interpretations of 'nature' are as restrictive as mechanical versions of reason. The argument for women's closeness to nature:
has involved confinement to activities such as reproduction and denial to them of capacities for reason, intelligence and control of life conditions, that is, of their exclusion from the valued features of human life and culture.
(Plumwood, 1990: p. 232)
These exclusions are of particular significance for women in third world countries where the question of access to modern technology or the creation of alternatives is far from abstract. By embracing a position of absolute opposition to the practical achievements of western science, some strands of eco-feminism have begun to display a strategic weakness in their incapacity to grapple with the actual impact of existing science and technology. The utopian desire for an alternative can close up and become a denial of the contradictory possibilities present within the realities facing women.
The feminist critique of the tradition of western science has come from several perspectives, anti-utopian as well as utopian. Scepticism about essential female values, utopias and grand plans has combined in 'postmodernism' to undermine the very possibility of objectivity. This too has had an unforeseen effect in paralysing any effort at strategic resistance. Postmodernism, as Kate Soper observes, is the obverse of liberal and Marxist teleologies of inevitable progress. It has now shifted from a challenge to the 'technical-fix' approach to human happiness into a collapse of any hope in gaining even approximate understanding of the world (Soper, 1992: p. 45). This 'postmodernist "over-drive"' has, in Kate Soper's words, 'pushed on to question the very possibility of objectivity or of making reference in language to what itself is not the effect of discourse' (ibid.).
Consequently it fails to engage with the actual work of scientists and technologists, for it occludes the tangible results of particular modes of enquiry. Scepticism about scientific objectivity, as Evelyn Fox Keller points out, has to reckon with degrees of approximation to reality - 'not all metaphors are equally effective for the production of further knowledge' (Keller, 1992: p. 33). The dilemma really is how far the questioning of reason and objectivity is to be pushed. When taken to extremes this line of thought, which originally had the intention of emancipation, ends by actually disempowering those who are already vulnerable by making exploration, analysis and comparison impossible. As Kate Soper says, the momentum of postmodernism
now invites us to disown the very aspiration to truth as something unattainable in principle, no longer even a regulative idea; and in doing so, it has also disallowed us any reference to a common sensibility or consensus about what is wrong with our times and hence any reference to the idea of collective political endeavour.
(Soper, 1992: p. 45)
Curiously the impulse to reject a technocratic certainty can actually turn into its opposite, through the denial of the possibility of conscious human agents acting in specific social relations and circumstance upon the world. and one another to improve their lives together (Varikas). Applying a gender lens1 then is a more risky business than many feminists envisaged. In the words of Barbara Drygulski Wright: 'the ideological problem women face in gaining full access to science and technology is perhaps more complex than we have heretofore acknowledged' (Wright, 1987: p. 17).
A useful counter to the utopian desire for women to incarnate an absolute alternative, or the complete rejection of any reality outside of discourse, has been a philosophical and historical endeavour to dig beneath dichotomies of mind and nature, reason and feeling, objective and subjective. Evelyn Fox Keller summarizes this extensive process of reframing the questions about Western science.
How is it that the scientific mind can be seen at one and the same time as both male and disembodied? How is it that thinking 'objectively', that is thinking that is defined as self-detached, impersonal, and transcendent, is also understood as 'thinking like a man'?
(Keller, 1992; p. 19)
A growing body of feminist historical work has taken off from this set of conundrums, overturning en route not only the view that invention has been exclusively male but also over-simple feminist propositions. For example, one line of enquiry has begun to question the idea that women's alienation from modern Western science can be explained simply in terms of exclusion through the development of a rationalism which emphasized objectivity. The impact of rationalism has to be regarded more dialectically. Londa Schiebinger reminds us of the historical context not only of what came after but of what came before. It is misleading to project our contemporary disenchantment uncritically upon the past, for this obscures how access to reason through education was seen as the key to emancipation by many advocates of women's rights in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. She shows that the dictum 'the mind has no sex', was popularly regarded as a defence of female aspirations (Schiebinger, 1989a: pp. 172-175; see also Harth, 1992).
It is important to recognize that while women grounded their critiques of male bias within the existing structures of knowledge, they also subverted these in the process. For example, Elisabeth of Bohemia, the Princess Palatine, who influenced Descartes, was a sceptical disciple from the 1640s through the 1660s. She and other Cartesian women embraced and used Cartesian dualism, 'the radical disassociation of mind from body', critically.2 So the argument that the masculinist characteristics of modern western science are traceable to the mechanistic methodologies of the seventeenth century is an over-simplification (Merchant, 1980). These ingenious Cartesian women used rational objectivity as a means of insinuating themselves into the intellectual space it opened. The epistemological claim to transcend difference provided a social context for women of rank to enter the world of science. As Londa Schiebinger observes:
Elisabeth of Bohemia insisted that the thinking subject be grounded in the materiality of the body. Catherine Descartes reinfused her uncle's vision of mechanical 'dead' nature with soul and moral value. Madeleine de Scudery pointed to the necessity of incorporating ethics into science.
(Schiebinger, 1992: p. 9)
The advantage of several hundred years hindsight of course is that we can now remark on the disadvantages of being disembodied on male terms.3 Nonetheless the traces of this ambiguous route to freedom reveal that the aspiration to reason had several propensities. The Cartesian women were not the first upper class women to make sallies against masculine cultural hegemony. Renaissance humanism, which, from the fifteenth century, had, as Londa Schiebinger says, 'chipped away at the oppressive Aristotelian dictate about the nature of women' (Schiebinger, 1989a: p. 165), had already presented women with a mixed legacy well before Descartes. Though inclined, like the scholastic clergy they criticized, to dwell in male fraternal networks, humanist academics were in some cases beholden to women patrons. Juan Luis Vives and Thomas More advocated female education and were influenced by Catherine of Aragon. However, More believed instruction was necessary because women were by nature inferior intellectually (Noble, 1992: pp. 171-174).
Humanism thus argued for only a limited admission of women into the institutions of learning. Yet it nonetheless made the demand for women's entrance into the academy possible. Similarly the Enlightenment was to open a corridor into culture while making sure that its route was restricted. So when women in aristocratic intellectual circles through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries sought admission not on the basis of a suppressed experiential understanding but as equals in rational learning, they encountered an ironic acceptance which disassociated them from their gender. Voltaire wrote of his friend, collaborator and lover, the Marquise Emilie du Chlet, a leading advocate of Newtonian physics, 'Never was a woman so learned as she. She was a great man whose only fault was in being the woman' (cited in Noble, 1992: p. 199). However, women have not necessarily accepted cultural definitions which excluded and denied their knowledge and experience. Du Chlet wrote to Frederick of Prussia, 'Do not look upon me as a mere appendage. I am in my own right a whole person, responsible to myself alone for all that I am, all that I say, all that I do' (ibid.). So the very notions of individual control over nature which imposed restrictive concepts of women's essential character were also used by women to question custom and prejudice. No body of thought, then, can be regarded as containing a single inclination. Very different theoretical approaches to science can be seen as containing women's potential while also presenting certain possibilities which women have manipulated to the best of their abilities.
Science and heterodoxy
The recognition that 'science is not a cumulative enterprise', and that consequently 'the history of science is as much about the loss of traditions as it is about the creation of new ones' (Schiebinger, 1992: p. 2), has been influential in bringing into focus opposing intellectual currents. For instance, the mind-body split was contested but not overcome in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when neo-Platonists, cabalists and alchemists emphasized the union of male and female principles as the basis of creativity. In the case of alchemy the iconoclastic character of its adherents in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led some of its exponents to defy clerical misogyny. Cornelius Agrippa even argued the superiority of women. While dependence on learned women patrons might have made such advocacy opportune, their intellectual and social defiance could also reach out beyond women of the upper classes to present a democratic approach to learning (Noble, 1992: pp. 175-183). Paracelsus declared:
The universities do not teach all things so a doctor must seek out old wives, gypsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers, and such outlaws and take lessons from them. A doctor must be a traveller because he must enquire of the world. Experiment is not sufficient. Experience must verify what can be accepted or not accepted.
(cited in Noble, 1992: p. 181)
Paracelsus also revived ancient ideas within alchemy about oneness; instead of regarding the existing form of masculinity as a perfect model for humanity, he saw masculinity as an incompleteness seeking union with its opposite.
Man having become separated from the woman in him, lost his true light. He now seeks for the woman outside of his true self, and wanders about among shadows, being misled by the will of the wisps of external illusions.
(cited in Noble, 1992: p. 177)
There was an ambiguity within this subordinated approach towards knowledge in relation to gender and power. The space for the woman as other was still marked out on male terms. The alchemist's desire for androgynous union, 'entailed less a primordial reunification of the sexes than an appropriation of the one by the other' (Noble, 1992: p. 178). Moreover the alchemists were safeguarding an occult tradition in the manner of a sect, even while legitimating practical understandings against scolasticism. Their challenge to the existing intellectual hierarchy was driven by two impulses; the elitism of a knowledge apart from the mainstream and the democratic potential of experience.
The significance of submerged heterodoxies is not simply how they regarded women but how they saw the aims and constitution of science. A gender lens can bring into view not only women's relation to men but wider questions about an extended terrain. Buried within alchemical tradition was a vision of social purpose. It was not simply about the dream of wealth but the quest for the elixir of life. For Paracelsus this meant that 'the business of alchemy is not to make gold, but to prepare remedies for human ills' (cited in Needham, 1981: p. 6).
Such a view placed him in a direct line of descent, according to Joseph Needham, with the Chinese alchemy of disinterested Taoists which predates the pre-Christian era. The idea of the elixir and the social value of its pursuit reached Europe through Arab culture. So alchemy provides us with a clue about the loss of tradition not simply as a subordinated culture within western science but of other histories of science. It opens another window of remembering.
Joseph Needham quotes an Arab scholar from the ninth century musing upon the migration of learning.
I, Muhammad ibn Ishag, have lastly only to add that the books on this subject of alchemy are too numerous and extensive to be recorded in full, and besides the authors keep repeating themselves. The Egyptians especially have many alchemical writers and scholars, and some say that that was the country where the science was born. The temples with their laboratories were there, and that was where Mary the Jewess worked. But others say that the discussion on the art originated with the Persians, while according to others the Greeks were the first who dealt with it.
(cited in Needham, 1981: p. 70)
Alchemy probably reached Egypt from ancient Mesopotamia. It flourished in Alexandria when the Greco-Roman world was in decline, AD 85-165. It drew, as Margaret Alic tells us in her account of women in science, Hypatia's Heritage, upon
several sources: the formulation and manufacture of cosmetics, perfumes and imitation jewellery - major Egyptian industries; the artistic tradition - the mixing of dyes and the theories of colour; and gnosticism, an esoteric mixture of Jewish, Chaldean and Egyptian mysticism, neo-Platonism, and Christianity, centred in Alexandria. In the gnostic tradition, as in ancient Taoism, the male and female were equal - a precept which became the cornerstone of alchemical theory.
(Alic, 1986: pp. 20-22)
The gnostic belief in the transcendence of all divisions, including that between the sexes, as a sign of redemption meant that they strove to make the two one. This could be an absorption and reduction of the female to the male or it could be a symbolic reunification of male and female. Small study circles provided 'a close spiritual companionship between men and women in which sexual identity had all but lost its significance' (Noble, 1991: p. 16). By claiming to have overcome sexual desire, the gnostics were able to accept women as equals.
Diverse strands of scientific heterodoxy can be found exercising their influence long before the emergence of modern western scientific paradigms. Not only does western science have its opposing heterodoxies, there are all the other scientific traditions with their various histories. If Evelyn Fox Keller's 'lens of feminist inquiry' (Keller, 1992: p. 18) were to be applied to this wider spectrum, it would undoubtedly reveal a more complex picture of the scientific mind than the present western feminist history of science has yet uncovered.
Space to manoeuvre
Instead of conceiving masculine-oriented science as an unchanging block, it is apparent that there have been significant shifts and considerable variations. This recognition has enabled historians to re-examine the argument that women have been completely absent. Women as historical actors have begun to be restored to the history of western science, they have come into view, in Londa Schiebinger's phrase 'manoeuvring within the gender boundaries prescribed by society' (1989a: p. 7). Such manoeuvring surely also existed outside western science, for even in very ancient times women can be found studying science in many cultures. Margaret Alic describes women doctors in Egypt before 3000 BC, while ancient Babylonian women perfumers developed the chemical techniques used among alchemists in Alexandria in the first century AD (Alic, 1986: pp. 20-22). She observes that the Dark Ages,
were not as bleak a time for women as one might expect. In the Byzantine Empire a succession of women rulers pursued scientific interests. In China women engineers and Taoist adepts pushed science and technology forward at a steady rate. With the rise of Islam and the subsequent conquest and unification of the Arab regions, translations and elaborations of ancient Greek works formed the basis of Arab science. A diverse and tolerant culture, the early Moslem empire preserved and expanded upon the knowledge of antiquity. Women studied at the medical school in Baghdad and female alchemists followed the teachings of Maria the Jewess. If Moslem women scholars are not recorded in the historical text, their existence is at least testified to by stories from the Arabian Nights.
(ibid.: p. 47)
She goes on to tell the legend of the Arab slave girl Tawaddud, who outwitted readers of the Koran, doctors of law and medicine, scientists and philosophers with her wisdom and learning.
Rather than viewing history in terms of an undifferentiated structure of patriarchy, it is possible to see women emerging intellectually in some periods and forced into retreat in others. Historians have begun to examine what David Noble has described as differences within the 'recurring fact' of female subordination. As he says, 'There have been significant variations of experience, variations that have shaped particular cultures and lives' (Noble, 1992: p. 4).
This nuanced view of history makes it possible to enquire into the actual social circumstances which have enabled women to enter the world of science and technology, for it has not simply been an ideological struggle but a practical one. Several broad features can be outlined. Firstly it has certainly been an advantage to be a member of the upper classes. Class has created a certain space for gender manoeuvring. For example, one of the most celebrated Byzantine women scholars, Anna Comnena (1083-1148), was the daughter of Emperor Alexius. Her father's many wars provided her with material for her favourite subject, military technology, and her book The Alexiad, contains 'detailed descriptions of weapons and military tactics' (Alic, 1986: p. 48). In medieval Europe the 'ladies of Salerno' contributed to the eleventh-century revival based on translating ancient Greek medical writing from Arabic into Latin. They were a group of noble Italian women who were able to enter the universities in this period.
According to legend an upper class scholar called Trotula wrote on medicine, dealing with subjects such as skin diseases and cosmetics, birth control, gynaecology, lice, toothache, and even slimming. In a work attributed to her this advice was given: 'The obese person was to be smeared with cow dung and wine and placed in a steam cabinet or in heated sand four times per week' (Alic, 1986: p. 53).
The patronage of royal and aristocratic women, which played a significant part in scientific innovation in early modern Western science, can be observed elsewhere. An early example is to be found in Japan, where the Empress Shotoku-Tenno ordered the printing of one million charms in 767. These were distributed in 770, the earliest printed documents produced in any country (Sarton, 1927: p.529).
Science and daily life
There were, however, other ways of entering science for women from less privileged backgrounds. An important influence upon science has been the tradition of practical experiments associated with craft skills, and women have contributed both through the workshop and through the household. Way back in the second millennium BC, cuneiform tablets name two women chemists Tapputi-Belatekallim and Ninu. Although women had a low status in ancient Sumerian culture, they could engage in business. Margaret Alic writes:
The perfume industry was very important in ancient Babylon since aromatic substances were used in medicine and religion as well as for cosmetics. The apparatus and recipes of perfumery were similar to those used in cooking. Women perfumers developed the chemical techniques of distillation, extraction and sublimation.
(Alic, 1986: p. 21)
The textile crafts, where women are to be found in many cultures spinning wool, silk and linen, are also female trades closely linked to household duties. Irfan Habib describes how, in 1301-2, Amir Khusrau advised his daughter in Delhi to be content with the needle and spindle which he compared to her spear and arrow, a source of wealth and a means of hiding one's body (Habib, 1992: p. 12).4 Nearly fifty years later another poet, 'Isami, was grumbling at Raziyya's presumption on becoming Sultan though a woman, and urging women to sit with the charka rather than assuming sovereignty (ibid.: p. 13). Irfan Habib comments,
To these two poets one feels truly grateful in spite of their unacceptably reactionary views on the place of woman: their admonitions have enabled us to fix the generalization of the spinning wheel at least in India in the first half of the 14th century.
Unfortunately the poets were not concerned with a gendered account of technological innovation or implementation.
In China the memory has survived of Huang Tao P'o, a famous woman textile technologist of the thirteenth century who brought knowledge of cotton growing, spinning and weaving from Hainan to the Yangtze (Needham, 1981: p. 111). In Hainan she is remembered still as the inventor of the loom.5
Who is remembered and revered is not a matter of chance but bound up with how science is defined and what model of the relationship between science and technology is adopted; it indeed depends on how knowledge is constituted. The recognition that 'technology' means much more than applied science, that it is itself a creative area of culture which involves the tacit know-how based on doing, has opened up a much broader approach to the history and sociology of science and technology, which has enabled feminists to redefine the parameters of women's contribution to technology. This understanding is by no means new: the fifteenth-century French writer and defender of women, Christine de Pisan, located women's technological creativity in precisely these areas of human culture. The rediscovery of how the domestic sphere has interacted historically with certain kinds of technological and scientific know-how has recently begun to blur the boundaries between formal and informal knowledge. Women's cultural traditions have been passed on orally or through household manuals rather than through the academy. Medicine is an obvious example. Long before the invention of penicillin, Elizabeth Stone, in nineteenth-century Wisconsin, specialized in treating lumberjacks' wounds with poultices of mouldy bread in warm milk or water (Stanley, 1983: p. 14).
In medieval Europe women were active in many areas of craft production, but from the sixteenth century they were to be excluded from many trades. Still, Maria Winkelmann, the daughter of a Lutheran minister, born near Leipzig in 1670, was able to receive an advanced training in astronomy by serving as an unofficial apprentice in the house of the self-taught Christopher Arnold. Astronomy in late seventeenth-century Germany was organized partly along guild lines and partly through study at the university. The practical observation work occurred, however, largely outside the university. Maria Winkelmann was able to pursue her work by marrying Germany's leading astronomer, Gottfried Kirch. This enabled her to continue as an assistant to Kirch in Berlin. She became celebrated for her scientific work, which included the discovery of a previously unknown comet in 1702. Together she and her husband worked on astronomy which contributed to the production of an astronomically accurate calendar (Schiebinger, 1989b: pp. 21-38).
Family connections have been important to women entering scientific study from early times. Hypatia of Alexandria, born AD 370 when the city was in turmoil as the Roman Empire was converting to Christianity, was the daughter of the mathematician and astronomer Theon. As well as theoretical writing, Hypatia was interested in mechanics and practical technology. She designed a plane astrolabe for measuring the positions of stars, planets and the sun to calculate time and the ascendant sign of the zodiac, and a graduated brass hydrometer for determining the density of a liquid. She was murdered by fanatical and jealous Christian monks hostile to her learning (Alic, 1986: p. 44).
The persistent appearance of women as practitioners of alchemy was not only because of ideological affinities. Alchemy presents an example of a craft form through which women could be technologically creative. Maria the Jewess was a prominent early alchemist. She invented a water bath in the first century AD which resembled a double boiler and was used to heat a substance slowly or maintain it at a constant temperature. The French still call a double boiler a bain-marie. She also invented distilling apparatus. Maria compared the thickness of the metal in part of the still to a 'pastrycook's copper frying pan' and recommended flour paste for sealing joints (Alic, 1986: p. 37). It is possible to see here the connection between domestic craft and technology, present in much of women's inventiveness, which the hierarchical model of technology as applied science or a narrow definition of technology as physical objects would obliterate. Another creative link has been to the reproduction of life. Cleopatra, a later Alexandrian alchemist, brought imagery of conception and birth into her writing and studied weights and measures in an attempt to quantify experiments. However, in the third century the Roman emperor Diocletian persecuted Alexandrian alchemists. Consequently alchemy was to be culturally rerouted. As Margaret Alic says, 'The Arabs rescued the science and ancient alchemy reached Europe during the Middle Ages, but by that time it had degenerated into mystical mumbo-jumbo' (Alic, 1986: p. 41).
Interest in alchemy was to appear again during the thirteenth-century scientific revival. In fourteenth-century Paris, Perrenelle Lethas married the well-to-do scribe Nicholas Flamnel. Together they discovered an ancient alchemical manuscript. They laboured together experimenting with mercury and silver trying to create gold.
Women can be found studying science and making practical contributions through medicine or technological innovation within the separate space of intellectual or religious communities. An early example was the famous mathematician Pythagoras of Samos, c. 582-500 BC, who formed a community in the Greek colony of Croton in southern Italy between 540 and 520 BC, in which there were at least twenty-eight women teachers and students. The most famous of these was Theano, who married Pythagoras when he was an old man. She and her daughters were renowned as healers and believed that the human body in microcosm reflected the macro universe. When the community was forcibly dispersed she took Pythagoras's philosophical and mathematical ideas with her through Greece into Egypt (Alic, 1986: pp. 22-24).
Some medieval European convents provided women with education in medicine, sanitation and nutrition. Hildegard, born 1098, was a learned abbess in Germany who studied scientific ideas and developed ideas of links between the body and the universe. Hildegard lived in a period when the influence of the ancient Greeks was being translated from Arabic into Latin and her writing indirectly expressed these influences which were to continue to affect scientific thought into the Renaissance (ibid.: pp. 6267).
The Shakers also provided a communal situation in which women were able to contribute to technological inventions. Catherine Greene's contribution to devising the cotton gin is uncertain, though, according to a Shaker writer, Whitney once publicly admitted her help (Shaker Manifesto, 1890: p. 10). One certain breakthrough is the invention of the circular saw, c. 1810, by Sister Tabitha Babbitt of the Harvard Massachusetts Shakers.
After watching the brothers sawing, she concluded that their back and forth motion wasted half their effort, and mounted a notched metal disc on her spinning wheel to demonstrate her proposed improvements.... Sister Tabitha intended the blade to be turned by water power.
(ibid.: p. 19, footnote)
The entry points for women into the world of science and technology in cultures which have been hostile to their participation have thus been through the power of aristocratic wealth and patronage; through learning within a practical craft situation or housewifery; through their family networks; and through groups and communities set apart from society. These social and material circumstances have entwined with ideological factors. Cultures which have respected experience have enabled women to practice skills gained through doing rather than academic knowledge. Oppositional ideologies have also contained a critique of elitist knowledge, which has sometimes been sympathetic to the claims of women, even though these have been subordinated in relation to a hegemonic academy. Nonetheless, given conducive social conditions, women have contributed to invention and drawn on aspects of their experience as well as upon formal learning.
Access and exclusion
It is misleading to present a unified or steady progress for women as a homogenous group even within Western science, for as cultural gates opened through education and the upper-class women's salons, which were to become spaces for exchanging ideas from the seventeenth century, they were also closing. The formal academies created in the late seventeenth century tended to be exclusively male. The Acade Royale des Sciences was founded in 1666 and closed the intellectual paths opened by Cartesian women like Elisabeth of Bohemia, Catherine Descartes, Madeleine de Scudery (Schiebinger, 1992: p. 9). The Berlin Academy of Sciences did admit Maria Winkelmann, but she was denied a post in the observatory. She wrote: 'Now I go through a severe desert, and because . . . water is scarce . . . the taste is bitter' (cited in Schiebinger, 1989b).
The professionalization of science made it harder for women who were practitioners through craft and family connections. However, the popularity of science also inspired upper class European women to take up the study. Many of these gained a reputation for eccentricity, like Mad Madge, the Duchess of Newcastle, who broke into the Royal Society of London in 1667, or Lady Mary Montagu who brought the knowledge of inoculation to Britain from Turkey in the eighteenth century and was described as having 'a tongue like a viper and a pen like a razor' (Alic, 1986: p. 90). Later examples come from an enlightened and radical milieu. Dr James Miranda Stuart Barry, a protege of James Barry who was a follower of Mary Wollstonecraft, dressed as a man to become a doctor at Edinburgh in 1812 and pursued a successful career as an army surgeon (ibid.: p. 105). Ada Byron Lovelace developed a concept for an analytical engine and studied cybernetics in the 1840s, reviving old ideas of microcosm and macrocosm. Unfortunately this early pioneer of the computer imagined that she had found an infallible system for winning at the horse races, and with Charles Babbage lost a great deal of money (ibid.: pp. 157-163).
Professionalization meant that education became of crucial importance. Access to colleges in the nineteenth century was an important demand among women who sought entry into the public sphere of scientific debate. In the early nineteenth century in America, educational ideas which emphasized science with a practical application for industry included women. For example Amos Eaton, founder of RPI, was a proponent of women's education and opposed to 'the monkish policy' of the universities (Noble, 1992: p. 266). Vassar College, Smith College and Wellesley College were established to educate women scientifically as well as in other subjects. Oberlin was the first coeducational school. It modelled itself on manual labour schools, in particular the Oneida Academy which grew out of a community and combined religious instruction with science and practical training in agriculture and mechanical arts. In the 1850s the People's College movement in upstate New York also took a practical approach to education, while Wesleyan University, a Methodist institution, was initially coeducational with an orientation to industrial scientific education. MIT was also coeducational (ibid.: pp 267-270). Women moved into higher education in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in large numbers. However, a reaction became evident in the latter part of the nineteenth century, when arguments about 'women's nature', in terms of physical and psychological difference, were used as reasons to exclude them. Wesleyan College eliminated coeducation, and women's enrolment at MIT fell off. From the institutes of technology a concerted male opposition consolidated akin to that of the academies of the earlier era.
Recent research has then effected a remarkable recovery of women excluded from conventional histories of Western science which has in turn brought about a deeper exploration of the relationship between gender and science. This work can lead us to an examination of both the barriers which have prevented women from gaining access and the circumstances which have made it possible for women to learn about scientific ideas and contribute to technology themselves; questions which have a significant and direct relevance to the contemporary position of women. However such an assessment of the possibility of women gaining power to shape the design and purpose of technology would need to refer not only to the internal tensions within scientific thought but also to the wider social context. This necessary connection has tended to fall into the background in the focus upon the scientific milieu itself which has characterized much of the new gender-sensitive history of science and technology.
It is not only how women do science which matters but what science does to women; not simply women's lack of power to shape technologies but also the effect of existing technologies upon women's lives. Though there is a growing literature on both production and consumption, our focus here is on production. Feminism has had an impact on several relevant disciplines, bringing scholars to ask questions which had been generally ignored. Industrial sociologists, development economists and labour historians have all contributed; engendering their accounts of the effect of technology.
The initial consensus was one of general gloom. Many socialist feminists were influenced by Harry Braverman's Labour and Monopoly Capital ( 1974) which argued that technology tended to intensify the labour process and deskill workers. Feminists writing on the organization of production observed women's lack of power to determine how technology was designed and applied. In development literature too, Ester Boserup's influential Women's Role in Economic Development (1970), was to be the basis for a socialist feminist literature demonstrating how technology and capitalist industrialization was displacing women from production.6
Pessimism has also marked the work of feminists who have prioritized gender as the crucial determinant of the context in which technologies were imposed. For example, Rosemary Pringle in Secretaries Talk (1989) said that new technology enhanced men's power, 'If men are represented as the masters of technology, women are its servants. Technology does not empower them but reinforces their powerlessness and dependence on men'.7
There have been, however, some dissenting voices. In Labour Pains, for example, Pat Armstrong modified the prevailing pessimistic attitude towards new technology with the view that while it did imply increased productivity and control over workers, it also presented new possibilities for women workers (Armstrong, 1984: p. 139).
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, absolute positions, whether optimistic or pessimistic, about the impact of the development process upon women's employment patterns came to be questioned (Acevedo, 1992: pp. 223-225). With this came an awareness that 'a new theoretical perspective on the relationship between women and technology' (Bhaskar, 1987: p. 14) was needed. This does not mean an unquestioning acceptance of the extreme anti-modernist critique of science and technology. For as B.N. Bhaskar observes, 'the Achilles heel of this perspective is in translating its ideas into concrete reality' (ibid.). On the other hand it does not return us to viewing technology as a neutral force completely apart from culture. A valuable starting point is the growth of concrete studies of technology and gender in recent feminist historiography, particularly in the United States.
Contemporary debates have generated historical enquiry into the actual consequences of the impact of technology. These question the original hypothesis of a uniform debasement of labour and skill. Feminist work has revealed many examples of the introduction of technology which is accompanied by the exclusion of women from the new skills required, and the displacement of their labour and reclassification of their jobs as low-skilled. However, evidence has also been found of benefits because of a general expansion of employment. Sometimes a mixed situation of loss and benefit has occurred. For instance, the typewriter helped to establish secretarial work as a female domain, which saw a loss of status for secretaries from the 1880s. However, Carole Scrole argues that it did not instigate women's entry into offices but accelerated their numerical domination (Scrole, 1987: p.96). Frieda S. Rozen (1987) describes how the increasing size of airplanes contributed to the organization of women flight attendants in the period 1974 to 1978.
Moreover, recent historical work is demonstrating that women are not all affected by technology in the same way. Mary H. Blewett (1988), for example found that in the New England shoe industry, mechanics tried to train women homeworkers to use the new sewing machines introduced to factories in the middle of the century, but the women resisted the transition from hand to machine work. Interestingly, it was not until sewing machines were made for home use and a new generation of young women were familiar with them that women began displacing men in factories as sewing machine operators.
Not only differences between generations but ethnic, racial and class segregation are being shown to have interacted with gender to produce hierarchies among women. Gender cannot be regarded as a distinct unchanging category. Examining the American printing industry's response to technology between 1850 and 1930, Ava Baron has argued that 'we need to scrutinize how class and gender are constructed simultaneously' (Baron, 1987: p. 62). Gender itself is shaped by circumstances of class, race, and ethnicity. She also cautions against an undifferentiated concept of 'patriarchy' as an unchanging structure.
The view that men shape work to protect their gender interests assumes that gender is monolithic, rather than multidimensional and internally inconsistent. It also assumes that men are omnipotent, that they know what their gender interests are and have power to construct the world the way they want. Feminist research needs both to question male power rather than assume its existence, and to examine what its limitations are.
This recent historical examination of gender and technology has been mainly concerned with the first world, not the third. However, there has been a growing awareness of the need to extend the boundaries of women's labour history through exploring the social histories of work and community in the third world. A picture is beginning to emerge of a gendered class experience in, for example, Japan, India and China from the late nineteenth century (see, for example, Hershatter, 1986; Kumar, 1993). The specific structures of the family, the dynamics of class struggle and ideas in the workplace or in communities, as well as state policies have all affected the impact of technology upon third world women. For example, in Japan women's work in the coal mines was affected by recession after World War I, when more women became redundant than men. Protective legislation introduced after World War I left women working above ground. However, in 1939 these labour laws were set aside because of the intense demand for labour and women again worked underground. The prohibition of women's work in the mines was restored in 1947 but they continued to sift the coal until mechanization of this process in the 1960s. In this example the interplay of political, economic and cultural factors can be seen technology has an effect but within a specific social context (Mathias, 1993: pp. 101-105; Saso, 1990: pp. 25-26). An exclusive focus on gender and technology could run the risk of artificially abstracting the impact of technology from the wider circumstances of work and life and ignore how state policy affects women's position, so this more comprehensive approach is particularly valuable.
Theorists of industrial relations and welfare
Technology is developed and applied within wider social relationships, which involve assumptions about how people should live and work. Women have certainly had much less influence upon shaping their social contexts and intellectual frameworks than men. However, even here they have not been entirely absent. For instance, several notable figures are to be found developing the theory and practice of modern technological environments.
Lillian Gilbreth was a theorist of industrial engineering in the 1920s. She analysed the effect of Taylor's standardizing of managerial practices in the United States, including improved lighting, reduced pollution, rest intervals and breaks, incentives for workers, greater control by workers over their own speed and tasks. She studied the chairs and positions in which women worked in order to prevent fatigue and backache. Rationalization of production was extended into housework by several women impressed by Taylorism, an approach which profoundly influenced the construction of the welfare state (Trescott, 1983: pp. 29-32). One advocate of efficient house management was the American Christine Frederick who promoted Taylorism. Along with Emmy Wolder in the early 1920s she pioneered works canteens which were adopted by supporters in Europe concerned about welfare (Tanner, 1992: pp. 67-70).8
These liberal proponents of the rationalization of production and reproduction were concerned to increase productivity. The maximization of profit which benefitted employers was assumed to accord with workers' interests. It was seen as the means of promoting industrial harmony. Women workers were likely to be less enthusiastic about the reason for the Tayloristic time and motion studies. However, by formalizing and reforming the organization and conditions of work they inadvertently provided possibilities for struggles for workers' control which would not have existed under completely informal and sweated working arrangements. Consequently it could be argued that instrumental reason in its Tayloristic form was not simply a coercive ploy to extract labour from workers. The regulation of wages, despite gender inequalities, marked a certain advance over the personal whim and sexual power of a coercive foreman or employer, which could decide pay in a small clothing shop for instance.
It would be a mistake to assume that all women theorists, simply because of their gender, have thought in the same way or that they have concurred over what kind of organization of production best serves workers' interests. Helen Marot, for example, opposed the reshaping of American industry in the early twentieth century, through wage incentives and rationalization. She accused the methodology of scientific management of plucking out some of [the worker's] faculties and discarding the rest of the man as valueless (Polanski, 1987: p. 253). Marot believed instead in 'the creative impulse . . . a strong emotional impulse, a real intellectual interest in the adventure of productive enterprise'. Unlike Gilbreth's emphasis on instinct, in which human beings were passive, she presents human character as dynamic and self-motivating. Against competition she argued for a cooperative emphasis upon giving.
Helen Marot also developed a vision of a transformed educative workplace in which technical skills were balanced with the humanities and social sciences. For example, in running a toyshop, students would deal not only with the technical problems or work, keeping financial accounts and estimating costs, maintaining the workplace and health of the workforce, but also study economics, aesthetics, literature and history. These were to be integrated into the industrial process, transforming the mechanical and the human. This approach to industrial education was to be important in influencing the work of Lewis Mumford later. Helen Marot refused to accept a technological cancellation of human beings by reducing them to passive objects, not because of her gender but because of her political and intellectual stance. She had spotted at a very early stage the fatal weakness of Taylorism - its inability to enhance human creativity (ibid.: pp. 254, 250).
Helen Marot's approach has obvious relevance for modern attempts to question authoritarian modes of management. The prevailing orthodoxies of management theory themselves have recently changed gear to emphasize participation as a means of incorporating workers' knowledge. An unintended consequence of this apparent appropriation of the ideas of their opponents could be the possibility of a renewed critique of the meaning of work, not only by theorists of industrial relations but by workers themselves (Binns, 1991: p. 54). It is within this potential for democratizing work and social existence that alternative feminist approaches to technology might lose an abstract and purely utopian quality and become an element in shaping a new reality.
The feminist movement has presented new questions about the relationship of women to technology. These have stimulated interest in the manner in which women have been excluded by the social construction of science and technology. Historical studies of the western scientific tradition have revealed how the process of exclusion has not simply been a matter of external obstacles but has been embedded within the cultural assumptions of mainstream science. These approaches within feminist scholarship have converged with a powerful current of disillusionment, not simply with the results of technology, but with science, reason and the claim that objective assessment is possible. There have been two strands to this wholesale rejection of science: the assertion that in women's alienation an alternative can be found and the denial of the value of applying reason.
While the resulting challenge to the hidden presumptions of western science, and the recognition of its gender bias, have provided important correctives to over-estimates of the virtues of objective scientific methods and neutral technology, it has nonetheless contained snags. It denies an important aspect of women's claim to emancipation through equal access to reason. Also the absolute dismissal of science and technology fails to engage with their application; the actuality which so manifestly affects people in their daily lives. Thus neither the postmodernist nor the eco-feminist rejection of modern science have much to offer women seeking to manoeuvre within gender boundaries or attempting to shift them to establish better terms. Studies of women's complex relation with science and technology in earlier times suggest that a more nuanced approach could indicate how certain groups of women made gains or contrived to turn technology to their advantage.
Recent historical work has shown that women have not been excluded completely from science and technology. It also questions the idea that technological transformations simply happen to women, showing them instead as struggling to shape and exercise some control over these. Rather than a monolithic interpretation of gender, male/female relationships have been, to use Ava Baron's phrase, 'multi-dimensional and internally inconsistent' (Baron, 1987). The historical evidence suggests that men are not omnipotent nor indeed completely concerted in their effort to exclude women from scientific and technological knowledge. Nor have women acted from a unity of interests or aims.
The theoretical engagement of women with western science moreover has been philosophically varied, ranging from gnosticism and alchemy through to Cartesianism and Newtonian theory. It has also been affected by their social position. Aristocrats and crafts women have entered scientific worlds through differing entrances. Quite contrary philosophies and strategies have been employed. A history of gender and science which extended to include non-western traditions would make for an even more variegated picture.
Thus women have questioned the prevailing assumptions of science from very different vantage points, rather than presenting a single set of alternative values. They have not only claimed entry but sometimes critiqued and sought to reshape the ideas around science. Moreover, they can be seen not only reacting to scientific invention and the application of technology, but conceiving ways in which technology could be applied. Again, these have come from differing political and social perspectives. Values cannot be read off from gender. There has been a continuing tension between gaining a foothold in a social and cultural environment outside the mainstream and demanding access to the prevailing social organization of the scientific and technological world. It is within this contrary pull between heterodox oppositional strands in science such as alchemy, and the claim to enter the academy, that a gender lens leads to wider questions about the purposes of scientific and technological knowledge. At this point a gender lens alone becomes insufficient: other forms of social exclusions, other groups' subordinated experience, have to be considered. While the most obvious fact has been the marginalization of women, the historical entry-points through which, against the odds, women have still gained access to knowledge and invention provide pointers towards the forms of social organization which would enable women to participate in scientific and technological cultures. Examination of the wider social, material and intellectual conditions in which women have been able to overcome marginalization and the contradictory histories of the impact of technology upon them could then connect with some of the questions being raised by contemporary feminist writers about the purposes of production and the democratic uses of technology (e.g. Cockburn, 1985; Huws 1991; Biehl, 1991; Mellor, 1992). In Judy Wajcman's words: 'Feminist debates about political strategy concerning technology posit forms of action that break with conventional politics. They are about making interventions in every sphere of life' (Wajcman, 1991: p. 166). A new relationship between technology and gender cannot be devised only in the seminar, it has to be created, by users and workers internationally, from the experiences of daily life.
1 I am grateful to Ruth Pearson for the phrase 'gender lens'.
2 They were reviving an early Christian theme: 'the mind has no sex' (Schiebinger, 1992).
3 I am grateful to Roy Bhaskar for discussion which helped to clarify this point.
4 I am grateful to Navsharan G. Singh for this reference.
5 I am grateful to Tongjiang Long for this information.
6 See Acevedo, 1992. On Harry Braverman see for example Baxandall et al., 1976: p. I and Armstrong and Armstrong, 1990: pp. 88-96.
7 See also Cockburn, 1983 and 1985.
8 I am grateful to Eleni Varikas for this reference.
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