Why the course "Women and Technology?"
by Erich Carr Everbach

Associate Professor, Swarthmore Engineering Department

When I was a kid growing up in a middle-class suburb of Louisville, Kentucky, my mother was a homemaker and "perfect" PTA housewife, while my father went off to work in an office each day, returning for dinner and an evening of T.V. watching. It was the early 1960s, and our life seemingly mirrored the nightly episodes of "Leave It To Beaver." Technology existed for me in the form of radios to be tinkered with, plastic models to be built, and chemistry sets to be explored. My father's hobby was to rebuild classic sports cars in the garage, into which he disappeared most weekends wearing grease-spattered overalls. I disliked getting my hands dirty and was not much interested in automotive hardware.

I was a white male in a white male's world, but I soon developed an outsider's view as I became the target of bullies (I was not large or athletic, and I tended toward the intellectual). The most common insult preferred by bullies was to call someone a homosexual (using the usual slurs). I began to wonder whether I was the one with a problem, or whether society was out of whack.

My interest in science and technology was kindled by a friend who loved amateur astronomy, photography, and dangerous chemistry (e.g., making gunpowder or sulfuric acid). I viewed technology as inherently a force for bettering peoples' lives, but I also knew that it could cause world annihilation, pollution, and economic dependency. The upheavals of the Sixties I watched through the pages of Mad Magazine, and I found myself agreeing with the goals of pacifism, racial integration, women's liberation, and economic liberalism.

Many years later, as an Engineering professor in Swarthmore's unique engineering program, I was asked why more women and girls do not avail themselves of a technical education. I began a quest to find out, and of course there are many answers: past exclusion; lack of role models; current exclusion; lack of opportunity; etc.. Perhaps the most fundamental reason, however, why there are not more women engineers is that many women just can't imagine themselves as engineers.

So in the end the matter may boil down to this: "what is an engineer, and is that a desirable thing to be?" If engineering is synonymous with domination, control, and enforcing a macho world order, it is easy for me to see why women (and men) would hate being a part of it. But if engineering is viewed as a fundamentally humanistic activity, as I believe it should be, then its only goal should be the bettering of lives through the application of scientific truths (yes, I know science is biased and not a guarantor of truth, but I still believe in the existence of an objective reality whose properties we can infer from experiment). There are many problems to be solved, on behalf of many entities (consumers, poor people, the Northern Spotted Owl, etc.). Engineering and science provide useful frameworks for solving problems.

So might there be a feminist form of engineering? I have grown to believe that the old engineering models must give way to more environmentally sustainable, humanistic, non-military ones if technology is to progress. It has been said that western industrial society is built upon the domination and control of nature, native peoples, and the poor. It is time to envision a semi-industrial society in which technologies exist that are appropriate for their humanistic goals of empowerment (but not at another's expense), communication, and support. The relationship of engineering and technology to all people, especially women and the marginalized, must be reformulated.

During a sabbatical at Boston University in Fall, 1996, I began reading articles addressing the relationships between women and technology in western industrial society. I found the material fascinating, and summarized it in a guest lecture for Swarthmore's introductory Women's Studies course the following semester. Student interest in the topic prompted my offering two independent study projects the following year.

My department allowed me time away from some of my regular courses to teach Women and Technology as a lecture course during the Fall, 1998, semester. This website is the result of projects and readings we undertook as a class, and provides both a means of communicating our experience to others and a means of sharing with each other. If you have comments or suggestions about any of the material on this site, please contact me via the webmaster link below or call (610) 328-8079.

I hope to be able to offer the course again sometime, and any suggestions for improvement will be gratefully acknowledged.

Oh, in case you were wondering, these images are from a product catalog I found in a drawer of a house built in 1962. They show one company's attempts to link women with the (household) technologies the company was selling. How much has really changed since then?

Return to Women's Studies Homepage

last updated 1/5/99