Women's Studies 30

Claire Feldman-Riordan '01

Women's Studies 30: Women and Technology

Professor Carr Everbach

September 18, 1998


When I was in middle school, my grandmother bought her first computer -- a Macintosh Performa, equipped with all the basics she needed to catapult her restless energy into the twenty first century. Since my grandfather's death in 1990, Bubby has prided herself on her adeptness with matters electronic, from her copier to the CD player to the VCR. Of course her children and grandchildren cringe every time she's in the kitchen for fear that she'll leave a pot of boiling water unattended when struck by the urge to look up an Italian word in the dictionary, but scatterbrainedness aside, it's true that Bubby is about as modern a matriarch as they come.

No one was surprised, however, when she left the computer in its box for six months, nor when she finally unpacked it only to leave it unplugged and lifeless on her desk for another year or so. The Mac traveled north with her when she moved from Tennessee to a retirement home in suburban Boston in 1994, but true to Bubby's procrastinatory character, its plight didn't change. Occasionally we would hear a determined announcement over the phone: "This nice man is running a class on 'Macintosh for dummies' for some of the old folks here, and this time, I'm gonna take it and set up my computer so I can do e-mail." She even wrote down the e-mail addresses of a few of us, insisting that we'd hear from her soon. Needless to say, I only get phone calls.

This summer I visited Bubby on my way home from a summer job in New Hampshire, and I decided I would hook up her computer for her, once and for all. Mind you, the poor old Mac has had a few, fleeting moments in the spotlight, but the hard drive is so impossibly small and the modem so aggravatingly slow that the Great Computer Project never really got off the ground. So I, the product of a high school and early college career that owed a great deal of its success to the very machine in question, pushed up my sleeves and plugged the cables in place. I was an expert at dealing with this ridiculously obsolete contraption that didn't have enough memory for a word processing application, let alone a web browser. She hasn't touched it, of course.

What I didn't realize at first was how the tables had turned so sharply as to place me in a position of expertise over a person to whom I owed much more than I ever would to a machine ofany variety. My grandmother taught me to play "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" on the piano, to burn a hole in a leaf with the sun and a magnifying glass, and to make my own greeting cards by ironing crayon shavings onto plain white paper. She also taught me how to be a good person, which for her didn't necessarily include being ladylike. When Bubby underwent a single mastectomy to remove a malignant tumor in 1987, she willingly accepted the "prosthetic" breast that mastectomy patients often use as bra-fillers, gleefully christening it her "bosom friend." She doesn't always use it, though; when my grandfather was still alive, she used to quote his remark that she had never owed her beauty to her mammary glands. Seven years after his death, Bubby still walks around single-breasted much of the time. I know I have internalized this anecdote and the lesson it offers -- that beauty has nothing to do with technological artifice. And at seventy-six, my grandmother is still beautiful.

So Bubby is a hip old lady who taught me everything a well-adjusted young woman needs to know about the arts, academics, inter-personal relations, and what constitutes real beauty. She can set the clock on a VCR with the best of them, men or women, and she knows her copier like the back of her hand. Furthermore, she came about as close to bra-burning as a child of the Depression could get. It's not that Bubby can't do the computer thing; it's just that she doesn't want to.

What immediately comes to mind, of course, is the pervasive, almost neurotic academic obsession with the mechanisms and social factors that still lead many women to choose non scientific, "soft" career paths. When Bubby attended Girls' High in Philadelphia in the mid 1930s, she was inducted into the math honor society and went on to receive an award from the city for her outstanding academic performance. In high school her passion was romantic poetry. Acting on the influence of some inspiring high school science teachers, Bubby decided to pursue a career in chemistry when she enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania (thanks to a full scholarship from the Board of Education of Philadelphia for her outstanding academic performance). It took a fight, however, to get her degree. Women were not allowed to take courses in the men's college, so Bubby had to take pre-med chemistry courses that were not as specific to her area of interest. In fact, she and other women students protested during Bubby's sophomore year and were finally granted the right to take organic chemistry with the engineering students in the general college, although they were forbidden to enter the laboratory with men.

In the meantime, she met my grandfather. They were married after my grandmother had graduated, and Bubby soon began a demanding and highly successful career as a child-bearer, mother, and homemaker in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where my grandfather had been sent by the military to work on the Manhattan Project. She moonlighted as a Sunday School teacher, Brownie Scout troop leader, and costume maker for the community playhouse. Once the babies had stopped coming and had grown into grade schoolers, she decided to take on an additional vocation. At my grandfather's insistence (and to the dismay of a biologist who told her, "women don't belong in laboratories; why don't you go on over to the school of education?"), Bubby went back to college, studying biochemistry for a year at the University of Tennessee before accepting a job doing medical research at Oak Ridge National Laboratories. She worked there for twenty-two years before retiring in 1983.

Bubby has often told me in our heart-to-hearts about personal and career decisions that she wouldn't pick chemistry if she had the chance to choose again. She likes chemistry and views it as something she can do, but it's not as appealing to her as are more humanistic endeavors, such as psychology and language. Similarly, she takes tremendous pride in her math performance in high school, but she insists she doesn't understand or particularly enjoy calculus. I confess that I find Bubby's achievements in math and science, including her technological prowess, particularly remarkable because she's the product of an era that subverted the possibility of a woman succeeding in those areas, indeed, of her having a career at all. (Of course, there was a transitory hint of what was to come when women went to work as part of the war effort in the 1940s, but the following decade saw a nearly absolute return to the housewife ethic.) But I don't think Bubby sees herself that way, or at least, that is not her primary outlook. What matters to Bubby is that she chose to dedicate herself to academic excellence in the areas that were most meaningful to her, just as she chose to become a VCR-fixing wonderwoman. She has also chosen not to learn a thing about her Macintosh.

I am pretty good at math because I have worked diligently at it, but I don't like it very much. In high school I had a very inspiring and rewarding experience in AP Calculus, but the blessing came too late. Perhaps I would have chosen to pursue math if the smart boys had kept their mouths shut a little more often, and if, in the sixth grade, Mrs. Horton (whose name still makes me cringe) had taught me percentages instead of yelling at me for talking when the boys were the ones acting up all along. Eight years later, I have chosen to pursue cultural anthropology, education, and women's studies in college, but I can't say that I owe my avoidance of math courses to a lack of math ability. I am simply not fond of mathematical problem solving, and while the gender implications of that preference are indeed worth examining, why suffer through courses I don't like as an act of defiance? Quite honestly, I would rather write a paper about my grandmother.

It may be the case that I have fallen prey to the social sciences' obsession with the insidious gender bias that ironically led me, in some ways, to choose such a "soft" discipline in the first place. But I have made a well-informed and respectable choice; this is my commitment to women's success in an increasingly technological world. After all, here I am, a successful young woman, navigating my way through cyberspace and virtual thingimabobs of every shape and size - and I owe it all to a woman who doesn't know how to work a mouse. She has better things to do.

Return to Women's Studies Homepage

Send message to Swarthmore College Women's Studies

last updated 9/17/98