Gender, Science and Technology in Latin America Conference Discussion (April 1998)


>From Arwen Palmer Mohun mohun@udel.edu 21 April 1998

It's exciting to see this kind of transnational conference taking place. However, as a historian of technology I'd like to point out the virtual absence of categories dealing with the history of technology (other than medicine and engineering).

Since the publication of Ruth Cowan's _More Work for Mother_ in 1983, feminist historians of technology have argued against a narrow definition of technology (usually as engineering) that privileges male-centered technological activities. They have pointed out that defining "technology" as planes, trains, and automobiles, etc., implies that the technologies women make and use are uninteresting and irrelevant to understanding the larger role of technology in society. In the same way, defining technological actors as people who invent, make, patent those same large objects made out of metal renders women (and other peoples without access to these activities) invisible. Including users as well as shapers of technology in our scholarship and by defining technology to include cooking, sewing, agriculture, etc., can help remedy some of these problems of invisibility. It can also help reveal the power relationships inherent in technological activities (and in the symbolic meanings of technology).

Right now, this feminist scholarship in the history of technology tends to focus almost exclusively on the United States and Western Europe in the last two centuries. However, a lot of us involved in this work hope that historians with expertise in other parts of the world will take up some of these tools and join the conversation.

From Tom Jepsen tjepsen@mindspring.com 05 May 1998

Arwen Mohun's comments on the Gender, Science and Technology in Latin America conference were thought-provoking and worthy of a expanded discussion; my comments are below.

At 01:37 PM 4/21/98 -0400, you wrote:
>From: Arwen Palmer Mohun <mohun@UDel.Edu> >It's exciting to see this kind of transnational conference taking place. However, as a historian of technology I'd like to point out that the >virtual absence of categories dealing with the history of technology >(other than medicine and engineering).

The history of technology is one in which the role of women is vastly under represented, due in part to the largely male-centered historiography. Women played an important role in the development of nineteenth century technologies, including the railroads and communications, and there is a large amount of primary material to support this; yet there is little in print on the subject. In the twentieth century, women played a major role in the development of computer technology, yet in spite of increased awareness of their role, there is still relatively little in print. Shirley Burman's traveling exhibition on "Women and the American Railroad" is a good example of a nontraditional look at women and technology which illustrates the little-known work of women as brakemen, telegraphers, and engineers on the railroads.

>Since the publication of Ruth Cowan's *More Work for Mother* in 1983, >feminist historians of technology have argued against a narrow definition of technology (usually as engineering) that privileges male-centered >technological activities.

I agree that the definition of technology needs to be expanded to include the entire spectrum of activities from design and invention to usage and social construction, and that such an expansion is much more inclusive of women's roles. For example, much research could be done on the effects of electrification on the lives of rural women through the promotion of electrical appliances by rural electrical cooperatives and home extension services. And conversely, it would be interesting to know how the expressed needs and wants of these women consumers affected the design of electrical appliances in the early twentieth century; i.e. how did women consumers "appropriate" the new electrical technologies into their existing technologies for washing, cleaning, cooking, etc.?

They have pointed out that defining
>"technology" as planes, trains, automobiles, etc. implies that the >technologies women make and use are uninteresting and irrelevant to >understanding the larger role of technology in society. In the same >way,defining technological actors as people who invent, make, patent those >same large objects made out of metal renders women (and others peoples >without access to these activities) invisible.

However, we should not overlook the role that women and minorities played in invention and development of technologies, which have been largely overlooked by the writers of the history of technology. Edison is well remembered as an inventor; Clara Brinkerhoff, who invented a telegraph key and received a patent on it, is not.(Nor is Granville T. Woods, an African-American inventor who patented one of the earliest "multimedia" communications devices.) Their "invisibility" results more from incomplete and/or ideologically based history than from the definition of technology.

Including users as well
>as shapers of technology in our scholarship and by defining technology >to include cooking, sewing, agriculture, etc. can help remedy some of >these problems of invisibility. It can also help reveal the power >relationships inherent in technological activities (and in the symbolic meanings of >technology).

It is important to note that users "shape" technologies by the way in which they appropriate and use them. As Mohun notes, women have long possessed technologies for domestic work; how these were affected by the introduction of electricity and other technologies makes an interesting study.

>Right now, this feminist scholarship in the history of technology tends >to focus almost exclusively on the United States and Western Europe in the >last two centuries. However, a lot of us involved in this work hope >that historians with expertise in other parts of the world will take up some >of these tools and join the conversation.

For example - in my own area of research (women in 19th century communications technologies), the fact that women worked as telegraphers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America by 1900 is still largely undocumented, as is the impact that this area of women's work had on those societies. In Latin America, for example, Chile opened a school to train women as telegraph operators as early as 1870; yet there is little in print on the subject. In short - the story of women's participation in building the "global village" is still largely untold.

From Nina Lerman lermanne@whitman.edu 06 May 1998

Thanks, Tom Jepsen, for responding to Arwen Mohun's comments about technology in the wake of the conference announcement ("Gender, Science and Technology in Latin America"). Just to underscore the general point, we may draw an analogy with politics:

Both "politics" and "technology" are difficult to define; viewed narrowly, they seem to exclude women. When the historical record is examined more closely, as Tom suggests, we can restore a surprising number of women to the traditional story, often in important places.

But in both cases the real revolution comes when the traditional definition is re-examined: just what constitutes political activity? what constitutes technological activity? Suddenly women are active, and, further, attention to gender analysis becomes crucial in our vision not only of what women have done at points in the past, but also of the ways in which the most basic categories of our understandings are fundamentally gendered. In turn, this means that attention to different cultural contexts will require attention to what any of these categories-- politics,technology, gender, and more--mean in each setting.

From Jana Vogt jvogt@ou.edu 07 May 1998

Tom Jepsen's discussion of the role of rural women in the development of technology particularly interests me. In a grad seminar at the U of Oklahoma last fall, I prepared a research paper on rural women circa 1914 which included their outspoken desires for technological development to improve their lives. Although I've not yet had an opportunity to further my research, it is an area I intend to explore. Many questions arose during this research along the lines suggested by Mr. Jepsen. I would be happy to hear from anyone interested in this area.