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Gender and the Telephone
January 28, 2008, 6:49 pm
Filed under: 2008


The impact of the telephone on women, and their role as both consumers and producers had, until the mid-1980s, received little consideration from the academic community…

Excerpt from Gender and Community in the Social Construction of the Internet by Moi (Peter Lang, 2002).

Brenda Maddox recognized the importance of examining the role gender played both in women’s use of the telephone, particularly as a site of women’s labour. In “Women and the Switchboard,” she focused on the employment opportunities created for women by the telephone, and the ghettoization of this job as a female occupation. Maddox pointed out how in North America and Europe women were recruited to be operators for the new telephone systems because it was felt that they had the necessary patient temperament, dexterity, and willingness to work for cheap wages that this occupation necessitated.

See: Maddox, Brenda. 1977. Women and the switchboard. In The social impact of the telephone, ed. Ithiel de Sola Pool. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 262–280.

See also: Hacker, Sally. 1979. Sex stratification and organizational change: A longitudinal study of AT&T. Social Problems 26:539–57.

And, Rakow, Lana. 1988b. Women and the telephone: The gendering of a communications technology. In Technology and women’s voices: Keeping in touch, ed. Cheris Kramarae. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 207–228.

In When Old Technologies Were New, Carolyn Marvin studied the formation of a community of experts and technicians around the electronic media of the 19th century—the telegraph, the telephone, and the electric light. She concentrated not on the technological artifacts themselves, but rather on the way those different social groups interpreted and negotiated the new media. Among the social groups she explored were women.

See Marvin, Carolyn. 1987. When old technologies were new: Thinking about electric communication in the late nineteenth century. New York: Oxford University Press.

In Hello Central, Michèle Martin integrated feminist analyses of technology, with their emphasis on the class and gender orientation of technology, and political-economic analyses, by looking at the creation of cultural and social practices in the development of the telephone system. Her account offers a fascinating glimpse of the unintended consequences of women’s use of a specific technology, and how their use influenced its trajectory. Martin suggests that if women had restricted their telephone usage to the business-oriented imperatives of Bell Telephone, this inconspicuous domestic technology that we take for granted today would not be as ubiquitous as it is now.

See: Martin, Michele. 1991. ‘Hello Central?’: Gender, technology, and culture in the formation of telephone systems. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Gender on the Line recounts Lana Rakow’s 1985 ethnographic field study of women’s use of the telephone in a small mid-Western American community she named Prospect. In this work she explored the multifaceted role the telephone assumed in her informants’ lives, and argued that the telephone functions, not as a neutral technology, but rather as a gendered technology: “The telephone is a site on which the meanings of gender are expressed and practiced. Use of the telephone by women is both gendered work—work delegated to women—and gender work—work that confirms the community’s beliefs about what are women’s natural tendencies and abilities” (Rakow 1992, 33).

See: Rakow, Lana F. 1992. Gender on the line: Women, the telephone, and community life. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Ann Moyal, at the Communications Research Institute of Australia in Canberra, reported on a national Australian study she managed in the late 1980s, whose aims were to survey women’s telephone use. The study originated when the Australian Federal Government was going through a period of prospective competitive change in their telecommunications environment, and they wished to ascertain whether the introduction of timed local calls would effect women differently than men.

See: Moyal, Ann. 1989. Women and the telephone in Australia. Study prepared for Telecom Australia, Strategic Analysis Unit, Corporate Directorate, Telecom Australia, Melbourne.

Moyal, Ann. 1992. The gendered use of the telephone: A Australian case study. Media, Culture and Society 14:51–72.


See: Rakow, Lana and Vija Navarro. Winter 1993. Remote mothering and the parallel shift: Women meet the cellular telephone. Critical Studies in Mass Communication 10:144–157.

and also:
Flowers, Amy. 1998. The fantasy factory: An insider’s view of the phone sex industry. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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