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Feminist Perspectives on Technology
January 15, 2008, 7:08 pm
Filed under: 2008

PP: Add Women and Stir?

Excerpted from Gender, Community and the Social Constitution of the Internet, by Leslie Regan Shade, PhD Thesis submitted to McGill University’s Graduate Program in Communication, 1997.

By contrast, feminist theories of technology have always been attentive to Winner’s insistence that social studies of technology instill a sense of the social consequences of technology. Feminist theories and case studies have been preoccupied with ensuring equitable access to technological know-how in the workplace, educational settings, and in domestic contexts; with debunking the dominant masculinist mythos surrounding technology; and with the creation and practice of environmentally-sound communities and technological methods.As Cockburn and Ormrod point out, feminist historical analyses have underscored several conspicuous components missing from mainstream social studies of technology (Cockburn, Ormrod, 1994, 12-13). They point out that a focus on women can highlight the connections between production and consumption, and production and reproduction. It can also pinpoint the relevant social actors and the gendered assumptions in the design, diffusion, and consumptive stages of a technology’s life-cycle. An emphasis on the ‘culture’ of a technology has been brought centre-stage, and “these studies show that technological change is quite capable of transforming detailed tasks and activities without changing the fundamental asymmetry and inequality of the relation between women and men” (Ibid, 13).

Most importantly, feminist analyses of technology have taken an avowedly political stance, with their ongoing concern with the implications of technologies for women, their work, reproduction, and consumption, and in the wider sphere of the feminine domain: nutrition, horticulture, contraception, childbirth, the environment, and equitable educational and workplace sites.

The resurgence of women’s issues in the 1970’s created an opportunity to raise feminist issues related to technology in an institutional context. The professional association for research in the history of technology, the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) sponsored a sub-group in 1976, WITH (Women in Technological History). From this group came panels on gender issues in technology, exploring women as actors in technological innovation and change, subsequently published in Martha Moore Trescott’s 1979 edited collection, Dynamos and Virgins Revisited. [3]

One of the seminal papers regarding women and technological history was published in 1979. In “From Virginia Dare to Virginia Slims”, Ruth Schwartz Cowan articulated four main topical areas of concern to historians of women’s technologies:

Cowan points out that, although many technologies directly affecting women have long histories, they are rarely accorded entry into the standard textbooks of technological history. As she says, “the indices to the standard histories of technology…do not contain a single reference to such a significant cultural artifact as the baby bottle…the history of the uniquely female technologies is yet to be written, with the single exception of the technologies of contraception”…(Cowan, 1979, and 1991, 292-3).

Pervasive facts related to women in the economy include: 1) women have been systematically paid less than men doing the same work; 2) women’s work has been consistently ghettoized; and 3) women are very often considered transient participants in the labor force.

Women’s place has been traditionally thought to reside in the home, and the household has both resisted industrialization and remained decentralized.

Women, Cowan says, have been socially instructed not to consider technology as a viable profession: “We have trained our women to opt out of the technological order as much as we have trained our men to opt into it” (Cowan, 1991, 302).

At the same time as the social constructivist and social shaping methodologies were being elucidated, feminists were developing their own criticisms of science and gender, and expounding new theories, such as feminist standpoint epistemologies, which “ground a distinctive feminist science in a theory of gendered activity and social experience” (Harding, 1986, 141). [4]

Drawing from Cowan’s initial work, feminist sociotechnical perspectives moved away from postulations of technology as either merely oppressive or merely liberating forces, and looked at technology “as a network of forces and relations which affects us differently according to where we are positioned in the production and reproduction of labour” (Karpf, 1987, 159). By refocusing women’s involvement in technology to include, not just the productive side, but the reproductive and consumption angles, women’s involvement in technology has been made more explicit. Steering away from determinist analyses, “feminist scholars have forced their colleagues to consider such difficult questions as sexism in traditional definitions of technology and thus in traditional history of technology; the value-laden nature of our culture’s body of technology; relationships between gender and technology and power; the nature of technological `progress’; real motivations for invention and technological change; and what is appropriate technology” (Stanley, 1992, 467).

Feminist scholarship in technology is by nature inter-and multi-disciplinary, spanning the disciplines of history, anthropology, sociology, communications, psychology, literature, and education. Feminist sociotechnical research then, “can help to create models for interdisciplinary approaches that are academically sound yet cross disciplinary boundaries” (Rothschild, 1983, xxiii). Feminist research often concentrates on the powerless, as well as the powerful, in exploring the interrelated nature of workers, work and technologies, and, as such, often promotes cross-cultural studies. [5]

Judith McGaw (1989) has succinctly suggested what a feminist perspective can be for the history and study of technology. Drawing on the work of Evelyn Fox Keller, who examined the masculinity of science and the constitutive elements of a feminist science (Keller, 1983, 1985, 1992), McGaw expands the notion of feminist theory to include not just attention to the concerns of women in technology, but rather to the wider domain of the ideology of gender, which ascribes particular characteristics to men and women. [6]

McGaw is especially cognizant of both the way that gender assumptions have shaped technology, and the way that gender notions shape the way technological history is written. She therefore has outlined a tripartite change in the scholarly trajectory so that such gender bias will be minimized. First, McGaw wants us to remember that gender is not biologically or behaviorally based, but is rather an ideology. This ideology attributes polarities to the domains of men and women: men are active, rationale, aggressive, and in control; women are passive, irrational, and subordinate. In technological studies, men are typically shown to be producers of technology, women mere consumers.

Several studies have since debunked this myth, most notably Cowan on the effects of industrialization on domestic technologies. In More Work for Mother (1983) she recounts how two different classes of American housewives actively shaped the success of domestic technologies amid burgeoning industrialization. Similarly, recent studies on the technological development of the telephone conducted by Michele Martin (1991) reveal how women’s appropriation of the telephone into the domestic sphere changed the developmental trajectory of the telephone from an instrument of solely business concerns to one that encompassed residential uses, and Lynn Spigel’s (1992) study of the introduction of the television into the American home also reveals that women were active negotiators of the rules and practices that the television assumed in the domestic context.

Secondly, McGaw recommends that any serious study on gender and technology should concentrate not only on the impact of technology on women, but also on the social shaping of the men who were responsible for the design and diffusion of the technology. What notions of masculinity and attendant socialization influenced the technological path? McGaw believes that the doctrine of separate spheres places undue emphasis on looking at history through gender, rather than at gender in history. This socially constructed separation should therefore not be encouraged, as important questions-such as the relationship between the unmechanized work of women to the mechanized work of men-can often be ignored.

And lastly, McGaw emphasizes that the attribution of females to ‘passive’ domains and males to ‘active’ domains needs to be challenged. For instance, consumption is widely held to be a passive activity conducted by women, but as the above studies indicate, such consumption can be a vital and surprising force. For instance, Cowan’s (1989) call for consumer-focused research and her itinerary for the “consumption junction”, which she defines as the “interface where technological diffusion occurs”, and “the place where technologies begin to reorganize social structures”, is an ideal locus for situating various studies on technological systems. Cowan is wary, however, of generalizing the consumer, but feels it is just this variability of the consumer that can “add rather than detract from the usefulness of consumer-focused analysis, because it reminds us that we must define consumers in terms of the artifact about which they are making choices, as well as by other socioeconomic variables” (Ibid, 263-4). What about male consumption? How has this influenced technological development? (Think of the contemporary example of suburban California garage-tinkerers who came up with the Apple computer, and therefore radicalized the computer industry from its mainframe mentality. See Levy, 1993). As well, notions of nurturance are generally thought to reside in the female sphere only, and rarely explored in the male domain. How has paternalism influenced technological design?

Feminist perspectives on technology stress the social context of technology. This is where the importance of the various and heterogeneous social factors in the shaping of technological design, change, and diffusion, and the interrelatedness of the work, lives, and status of the producers and consumers can be explored. This research agenda concentrates on the effects of society on technology, rather than just the effects of technology on society.

Six years after co-editing The Social Shaping of Technology, Judy Wajcman elaborated on the emerging feminist analyses of science and technology by analyzing how both the production and use of technology is shaped by male power and prerogatives, and by broadening the definition of technology to include those devices often relegated to the dustbin of `women’s domains’. Wajcman demonstrated that political choices are integral in the very implementation and design of technologies. For instance, in her discussion of domestic technology, she urged an analysis, not only at the design level of specific technologies, but also at its location within both the public and private spheres. How have the designers of domestic technologies structured their tools around gender assumptions? Regarding the built environment, Wajcman reminded us that it is salient to ask what political interests have motivated the design of modern cities and the transport facilities within them. What sexual divisions are built into the domestic and urban environment that perpetrate the cultural representation of men and women? How have computers and the engineering culture been constructed to disregard and exclude women?

Wajcman rejected essentialist stances which posit that technologies must be based on universal feminine attributes and values. She therefore critiqued the tenets of ecofeminism by writing that “rather than simply going `back to nature’, we need to work from within and without to create another kind of culture.” Forging beyond masculinity and femininity to create technologies that subscribe to new social values and needs is an imperative task. For Wajcman, confronting technology involves contesting technological sites which are in need of change, gaining access to technological institutions in the fields of education and work, and demystifying masculine expert conceits (Wajcman, 1991).

The rejection of technological determinism is implicit in feminist analyses of technology. Exposing the fallacy of technology as a ‘liberating’ factor is of prime consideration for researchers.This has been demonstrated by some of the aforementioned work on domestic technologies, and is a constant theme in analyses of reproductive technologies. As an example, Rothschild (1983) summarizes the debate on explorations of the rise of the typewriter and women’s office employment. Feminist research, while not taking the deterministic view nor completely ignoring the role of the typewriter in the feminization of office work, has sought other variables to explain the growth of the female clerical labor force in the United States in the late-19th to early-20th centuries. These include the distinctiveness of the labor force, employment patterns, demographics, and economic and business connections. By examining these complex characteristics, it was discovered that the growth of changing business practices, coupled with shifting market ideologies and the emergence of a well-educated female populace, as well as the new technology itself, were all instrumental in `creating’ the phenomenal growth in women’s office employment. But, the technology itself did not `cause’ this employment growth.

Some of the trajectories feminist sociotechnical perspectives have taken include: rectifying the historiographical omission of the contributions and participation of women in technological innovation, design, and use; paying attention to technologies that have been ignored or dismissed because they have resided within the ‘women’s sphere’, such as domestic technologies; examining the historical exclusion of women from the domain of technology, particularly in the labor process; and, examining what technologies based on women’s values would encompass.


In A World Without Women, Noble (1992) traces the gendered boundaries of scientific culture from its advent in early monasticism to its 19-th century modern origins, revealing how the world of science has perpetrated a marginal and discriminatory environment for women. As Noble shows, by tracing the Christian clerical culture of science, several characteristics endemic to modern science are illuminated. These include the separation of subject and object; the preference for objectivity over subjectivity; an often depersonalized discourse; the perpetuation of the stereotype of the scientist as asocial; and his alienation and dread of women.

Noble’s quest begins at the dawn of the Christian Era, when androgynous ideals of Christian piety were heralded for both men and women. The Christian intelligensia of the age accepted women as both disciples and patronesses, and double monasteries and didaskaleions (co-ed study circles), were common. However, women’s entry into the cultural mainstream was short-lived. By the 2nd century, clerical asceticism within the church, along with its concomitant acceptance of sexual renunciation and the ideology of virginity, was revived, and heresy was equated with the proximity of women. The culture of science was essentially a religious calling and a medium of Christian devotion. It was centered in the medieval university, a bachelor’s sanctuary adhering to celibate ideals. During the Scientific Revolution, women could be educated at home by their fathers or by male tutors, but marriage and study were mutually exclusive. Although noblewomen hosted scientific salons and entered the mainstream of Western thought in arts and craft circles (medical cookery and midwifery), the scientific priesthood, while expropriating their knowledge, still defined science and discouraged and disqualified women as knowledge-seekers. Educational reforms for women in the 19th century resulted in the establishment of many new universities, with scientific pursuits both a religious and capitalist aspiration. The burgeoning professionalization of science in the mid-20th century, and the resultant revival of an ascetic ideal, Noble feels, once again relegated women to the fringes.

In Mothers of Invention (1993) Stanley has indefatigably documented the achievements of women’s inventions in all aspects of human endeavors, including areas of women’s work and life usually not deemed as significant technology (food, clothing, shelter, menstruation, childbirth, nursing, childcare, and healing apparatuses) to achievements in agriculture, medicine, and computing. Stanley has suggested that “…men have adopted technology-and specifically its creative aspect, invention-as their equivalent for childbearing, have made it taboo for women, and will fight harder, if sometimes unconsciously, than in virtually any other discipline or field of endeavor, to keep it that way” (Stanley, 1992, 459).

Anne Macdonald’s (1992) historical survey of women patentees in U.S. history from the 19th century to the present is, like Stanley’s encompassing research, both a celebration of women’s superb ingenuity and ambition, and a cautionary tale of the rigors of the patenting process, as her survey is replete with the sad cases of latter-day compensatory recognition, stolen ideas, or male expropriations, often settled with costly patent interference suits. MacDonald details a dizzying array of women’s patents, from domestic tools to chemical compounds. Like her predecessor Ida Tarbell, who in the late 1800’s marshalled Patent Office statistics to proclaim the use-value of women’s domestic inventions, Macdonald makes a spirited pitch for continued recognition of women patentees in the public record, and educational reforms to encourage science and mathematics training for young women.


Technologies which were considered marginal or not subject to scholarly scrutiny, such as domestic technologies, are now legitimate and vital venues for research, thanks to the pioneering work of Cowan. In More Work for Mother (1983), Cowan provides a history, not just of housework, but of household technologies. Through her concepts of work process (household work is inextricably linked to other household activities) and technological system (each household appliance is part of a system of implements), Cowan demonstrated how the rising industrialization of the 19th and 20th centuries mediated the availability of tools necessary to fulfill domestic duties. Cowan enquired into how social and economic institutions affected the character and availability of the tools with which housework is done, and concluded that new tools and changing technologies created a rising expectation for American consumers. Ironically, the new tools and technologies also created ‘more work for mother’-between 1920 and 1960, women found that the new ‘labor saving’ devices multiplied their workloads. New technologies did not create more leisure time for mother, because ‘more’ (in terms of cleanliness, a varied cuisine) was expected of her. As well, any semblance of the communality of household chores shifted to an individualized, suburbanized experience. For instance, laundry changed from practices such as neighborhood ‘Blue Monday’ sessions and the widespread availability of commercial services, to individual home appliance ownership. And, the maintenance of many household technologies was simply not feasible unless there was someone at home full-time to operate them. With the increase of women’s participation in the labor force in the 1970’s, women then typically assumed the ‘second shift’ of household duties (Hochschild, 1989). [7]


Cynthia Cockburn has been influential in developing theories of gender and technology, particularly in sites of technological change within the labor process, where gender relations have been challenged in terms of both capitalism and hierarchy (Braverman, 1974). Her study on the history of typesetting technology in Great Britain revealed how male compositors, faced with obsolescence of their craft because of mechanization, fought to exclude unskilled women from their trade. The new computerized technology of photocomposition was an attack on the resolute definition of what constituted an impregnable ‘man’s craft’, and an example “that the gender relations of work and public life, of the factory and the street, are sexual politics too” (Cockburn, 1985, 142). To Cockburn, this was a power struggle involving both gender and class: “The appropriation of muscle, capability, tools, and machinery by men is an important source of women’s subordination, indeed, it is part of the process by which females are constituted as women” (Cockburn, 1985, 129).

Her later work with Susan Ormrod, tracing the developmental trajectory from innovation to consumption of one technology, the microwave oven, was chosen as a research site in order to examine the questions: how are technological outcomes shaped by gender, and how does technology bear on gender relations? Cockburn and Ormrod designated the various social relations they examined technology relations: from the initial conception of the microwave, to the design and manufacturing process, the penetration of the microwave into the retail trade with its requisite advertising and point-of-sale positioning, and finally, its entrance into the household. (Cockburn, Ormrod, 1994).

Barker and Downing (1985) wrote about female office worker’s resistance to the patriarchal order in the workplace at the eve of office mechanization through word processing technology. Rather than lead to de-skilling, proponents of word processing claimed the technology would free secretaries from the drudgery of typing, and allow them to partake in more interesting work. Despite the admitted convenience of word processing, it did not, for the most part, `free’ most secretaries (usually all female) from donkeywork. It did lead many secretaries from assuming varied job duties to only one-and a tedious one at that-of being in the `word processing’ pool. Writing almost a decade later, Webster (1993) has remarked how the mass computerization of offices has led to a loss of women worker’s monopoly of expertise in word processing and more job deskilling, as more skilled male workers (including the managerial class) have learned keyboarding skills. [8]


In the philosophical arena, feminist issues related to the ideology, epistemology, and values of technology are frequently invoked. Are there indeed feminist values in technology, and what would these be? Essentialist analyses assert that there are fixed and unified opposed male and female natures, and these proponents have tried to show how some `female’ qualities such as subjectivity, intuition, creativity, nurturance, and even irrationality can and do play an often positive role in technology. Feminist standpoint epistemologies, as advocated by Sandra Harding, Dorothy Smith, and Hilary Rose, (Harding, 1986; Smith, 1974; Rose, 1983) for instance, claim that women are privileged epistemologically in that their historically under-represented position in society produces more ‘accurate’ and ‘better’ accounts of the ‘real’ world-an integration of “hand, brain, and heart”, as Rose puts it. Ecofeminists (King, 1990; Cox, 1992; Seager, 1993) who celebrate women’s potential to effect environmental change by linking promotion of global awareness, activism, and spirituality, insist that technologies must be based on these `universal’ feminine attributes and values. Wajcman, however, criticizes such tenets, saying that “rather than simply ‘going back to nature’, we need to work from within and without to create another kind of culture” (Wajcman, 1991, 163-4). Harding (1986) questions whether there can be a feminist standpoint when there is a multiplicity of women encompassing a variety of races, classes, and ethnicities; and in support of this goal, she would have us embrace a “successor science”. In response to this proposal, Haraway suggests that the politics of the partial perspective, a notion of objectivity that “privileges contestation, deconstruction, passionate construction, webbed connections, and hope for transformation of systems of knowledge and ways of seeing”, (Haraway, 1991, 191-2) would be an apt maneuver.

Knut Sorenson (1992), in his empirical investigation of whether feminist attributes were to be found amongst a group of Norwegian engineering students and R&D scientists, found that the gendered character of organizational R&D and the “single-minded non-human orientation of technological discourse” was not a “fertile ground” for nurturance of feminine “caring ideals”. He suggested, however, that the presence of more female scientists might rectify both this oversight and create a more hospitable environment for both male and female scientists.

A sensitivity to the nuances of masculinist and feminist impressions and activations of technology can often reveal new definitions and subtleties. Pacey acknowledges that “nearly all women’s work, indeed, falls within the usual definition of technology. What excludes it from recognition is not only the simplicity of the equipment used, but the fact that it implies a different concept of what technology is about” (Pacey, 1993, 104). And, Kramarae has written that: “Technological processes have been studied from the (usually implicit) vantage of men’s experiences. When one puts women at the center of analysis, male biases and masculinist ideologies become clearer, and one discovers new questions as well as fresh approaches to old questions. Women and men share some social processes, and there are other lines of differences (e.g. social class) which divide women from women and men from men, and which at times may unite working-class women and men. The challenge is to develop a more inclusive understanding of the social relations and ideologies of technological processes” (Kramarae, 1988, 7).

Confronting technological sites that are in need of change has been elaborated in both the global and local spheres. It can run the gamut from women protesting against nuclear technology (to include local protests such as women in Sellafield, England protesting their neighborhood nuclear reprocessing plant), and to the scholarly work by physicists such as Rosalie Bertell (1985), to women boycotting sanitary products and challenging the disposable paper industry because of their continued use of questionable organic chemical compounds (Armstrong, Scott, 1992; Cox, 1992). Challenging technology can mean questioning the design of urban transportation technologies which are typically not hospitable to women and small children (Weisman, 1992). It can also mean trying to redesign computer interface systems so that they are more user-friendly and amenable to women (Benston, 1989; Benston and Balka, 1993).

Gaining access to technological institutions in the field of education and work is a key ingredient in technological equality and an ongoing struggle. In the present technological work system, Ursula Franklin (1985) encourages women, in order to effectuate change, to strengthen their notion of community. This idealized community would provide “non-judgemental, non-pressuring support of all women by all women”, and would serve to counteract the occupational segregation that Franklin feels is endemic to women in technical professions (she doesn’t mention, however, that the playground and the daycare are often the common, albeit often rushed, meeting grounds for many women of diverse occupations). Franklin’s point, nevertheless, is that women’s greatest contribution to the current technological landscape lies in their potential to change the present structure by “understanding, critiquing, and changing the very parameters that have kept women away from technology” (Franklin, 1990, 104).

Integrating females into the new technological landscape and recognizing gender differences in educational environments is also of prime importance. Recent studies on the integration of the computer into schools reveals how new technologies perpetuate and reinforce the masculine cultural system. In spite of equity legislation in first world countries, the ratio of females to males in computer science courses, and the number of professional female computer workers in the corporate and academic world, is quite dismal (Clarke, 1992). Feminist analyses of technology should strive to uncover both the dimensions of these inequities and highlight the very real success stories of technological integration and empowerment that are available.

Morgall (1993) advocates a feminist technology assessment, whose aim is to integrate technological social processes with other social processes. Technology assessment (TA) is the process of identifying and evaluating the impact of technological change. It has traditionally been a way to provide industry and government with methods to examine the health and safety, efficiency, economic feasibility, and regulatory measures necessary to bring new products to the marketplace. This type of technology assessment, which Morgall dubs the policy orientation TA, acts more like a type of quality control, as it tends to support and encourage innovations, rather than cast them in a more critical light. Research-oriented TA, on the other hand, is more often carried out by social movements and groups seeking to control or influence the trajectory of technological development. Feminist TA subscribes to this alignment of TA, and is concerned with the everyday consequences of technology, including the effects of power, control and knowledge interests on women.

Morgall sees as a more urgent priority, not just getting more young girls and women into technology streams in education and the workplace, but rather to get women involved in decision-making. She advocates that women take a pro-active stance towards technology, and get actively involved in the policy process:

A TA that is appropriate for women would attempt to make women’s contributions and women’s needs visible to society-not only to the male members of society but to the female as well. It is not enough for policy-makers to be made aware of women’s needs; women must look out for their own interests, and making their needs visible is a means of making all women aware of the role technology plays in their lives. It is important for women to understand how technology affects them and their lives, and how they can affect technology. The very definition of TA links it to policy-making. It is important that women, as a potential influence in directing technological development, play a part in policy-making (Morgall, 1993, 127).

Morgall’s outline (Ibid, 199-208) of constitutive elements for a feminist TA consists of the following elements:


Theoretical Considerations:
…Interdisciplinary in nature
…Assessments must be appropriate for the specific technology
…Explore social relations of technology, including economic components, within an actual social context
…Explore all the relevant social actors and interests in the technological design, development, and diffusion
…Analyse systems of domination; labor division by sex; values
…Analyse the alternatives to the technology under question
…Democratic approach: allow for public participation by interested individuals, public interest groups, and others

Research Questions:
…Origins: Who developed this technology? (military, industry, university, private or public R&D)
…Use: What human or mechanical function does this technology replace, or enhance
…Potential for change: What social organizations and social relations will it affect?
…Potential for action: What procedures or modes of work will accompany and follow the use of this technology?
…Interests: What does this technology mean for women and how will they use it (if at all)?
…Needs Analysis: What are the potentially liberatory or unempowering aspects of this technology?

…Retroactive studies and historical analysis
…Trend Analysis


[3] Until the 1990’s the number of edited collections dealing with issues relevant to gender and technology had been small. These included Jan Zimmerman’s The Technological Woman (N.Y.: Praeger, 1983), Joan Rothschild’s Machina Ex Dea (N.Y.: Pergamon, 1983), Wendy Faulkner’s and Eric Arnold’s Smothered by Invention (London: Pluto Press, 1985), Cynthia Cockburn’s Machinery of Dominance: Women, Men and Technological Know-How (London: Pluto Press, 1985), and Cheris Kramarae’s Technology and Women’s Voices (N.Y.: Routledge, 1988).

[4] Harding later examined the intersection of race, gender, and science. In her edited collection The “Racial” Economy of Science: Toward a Democratic Future (Bloomington; Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993), she focuses on the `racial’ economy of Western sciences and its prevailing ‘Eurocentrism’. Harding defines ‘racial’ economy as “those institutions, assumptions, and practices that are responsible for disproportionately distributing along ‘racial’ lines the benefits of Western sciences to the haves and the bad consequences to the have-nots, thereby enlarging the gap between them”; and “Eurocentrism” as referring to “the assumption that Europe functions autonomously from other parts of the world; that Europe is its own origin, final end, and agent; and that Europe and people of European descent in the Americas and elsewhere owe nothing to the rest of the world” (Ibid, 2).

Such a narrow Eurocentric perspective, Harding contends, breeds a different form of scientific illiteracy and erodes any semblance of democratic commitment. One of the aims of her collection is to provide valuable resources so that a more objective understanding of the nature and consequences of Western science can be examined. Resources that Harding’s collection investigates are anti-Eurocentric movements which have been increasingly in the vanguard, challenging prevailing assumptions about the efficacy and results of Western science; as well as methodological concepts as evidenced in the social studies of science and technology formulated by constructivists and feminist theoreticians, which have added immensely to our knowledge about how racist, sexist, and colonialistic platforms come to the fore. These agendas, increasingly recognizing changing notions of scientific value and objectivity, are having an impact on both institutional practices and diversity concerns in educational institutions, boding well for global democracy.

Four conceptual challenges in analyzing Western science’s implications with racism and Eurocentrism are identified by Harding. She first elaborates the position that “‘race’, class, and gender form a matrix of privilege” (Ibid, 11), so our understanding of race policies must necessarily encompass both class and gender policies. Second, she reminds us, as many of the authors in this collection so energetically do, that science is a contested zone, and that “the goal of critics of racism and Eurocentrism is to make more democratic the political discussion of the sciences” (Ibid, 14). Can we believe anymore in ‘pure science’? Harding thinks not and instead advocates the need to develop stronger standards of objectivity and a more rigorous methodological research agenda: a ‘strong objectivity’ would be able to conscientiously examine the heterogeneous social values that shape scientific research.

Like Harding, Londa Schiebinger asks “who gets to do science?” and finds that eighteenth century culture systematically discouraged all non-white peoples and women from becoming integrated into scientific and educational endeavors. Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1993) is an investigation of the impact of natural history in the eighteenth century and how gender relations and perceptions shaped this discourse. Through several case studies, Schiebinger uncovers the often hilarious yet politically saturated beliefs regarding racial and sexual differences that were concocted to justify scientific privilege. As Schiebinger points out, today we take the ideas of natural history for granted, but in the eighteenth century, the study of botany and the cultivation of botanical gardens, the fascination with apes and other non-human mammals, and the dissection and measurement of racial differences was a continual source of amazement and a popular attraction in both everyday culture and studious endeavors.

[5] As an example of this, consider the work done on female migrant farm workers in the high technology electronics manufacturing industry in the Silicon Valley by Aihwa Ong, “Disassembling Gender in the Electronics Age”, Feminist Studies 13:609-626. See also Dennis Hayes, Behind the Silicon Curtain: The Seductions of Work in a Lonely Era (Montreal, NY: Black Rose Books, 1990).

[6] As Evelyn Fox Keller documents:
From an original focus on gender as a cultural norm guiding the psychosocial development of individual men and women, the attention of feminists soon turned to gender as a cultural structure organizing social (and sexual) relations between men and women, and finally, to gender as the basis of a sexual division of cognitive and emotional labor that brackets women, their work, and the values associated with that work from culturally normative delineations of categories intended as ‘human’-objectivity, morality, citizenship, power, often even `human nature’ itself (Keller, 1992, 16). See Evelyn Fox Keller, “Gender and Science: an update”, pp. 15-36 in Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death: Essays on Language, Gender and Science (N.Y.: Routledge, 1992).

[7] A decade after Cowan’s work was published, the household was inundated with a variety of new digitized domestic appliances, and her admonishments were still apt: “we can best solve the problems that beset many working wives and their families by not returning to the way things used to be (since that is probably impossible and, in view of the way things really used to be, hardly attractive), not by destroying the technological systems that have provided many benefits (and that much of the rest of the world is trying, for fairly good reasons, to emulate), and not by calling for the death of the family as a social institution (a call that the vast majority of people are unlikely to heed)-but by helping the next generation to neutralize both the sexual connotation of washing machines and vacuum cleaners and the senseless tyranny of spotless shirts and immaculate floors” (Cowan, 1983, 216).

[8] Years later, the health and safety risks of excessive keyboarding-repetitive stress syndrome and carpal tunnel syndrome-were directly attributable to poor ergonomic design and constant keyboarding. Resistance to the irksome nature of clerical work and office automation in the 1980’s led to the diabolically humorous San Francisco-based magazine, Processed World, which, true to its Situationist origins, featured the technique of detournement (appropriating the images and tools of the `ruling class’ into montages and cartoons), along with fictional accounts of office workers with ‘bad attitudes’ (Carlsson, 1990). This `bad attitude’- “the indignant and undying creative spirit in workers that refuses to conform altogether to the absurd demands of the job….walk[ing] a tightrope between the persistent effort to preserve one’s psychic integrity and the necessity of participating at least minimally in the worker form” (Carlsson, 1990, 12) featured stories entitled “Kelly Call Girl”, or those commenting on the hypocrisy of corporate feminism, and included, not just female, but male workers (this was perhaps reflective of the San Francisco Bay Area workforce at that time, constituted by over-educated and under-employed non-yuppies).

[9] For Harding, “an adequate successor science will have to be grounded on the resources provided by differences in women’s social experiences and emancipatory political projects”. See Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986, 244).


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