Women's Studies 30

It should be obvious to everyone that the twentieth century has witnessed a virtual explosion in technology and every aspect of our lives has changed as a result. So when faced with an essay topic so broad as the connection between women and technology, I am forced to personalize my response only because of the sheer volume of associations which exist. I could focus on those women who are the scientists and engineers credited with specific and outstanding achievements, however this type of examination would be counterproductive because these women would be depicted as merely aberrations from the norm. Women are half of the population--it makes far more sense to examine the role of all women as the consumers and producers of technology, because it is as a collective (rather than as individuals) that women have most greatly influenced the recent technological history of western industrialized society.

I can honestly say that as a white male growing up in the Southern United States (although in a more progressive community than the South is typically known for) I had virtually no knowledge of any technological achievements of women, either as individuals or as a group, in the past century. It was quite by accident that I ended up in a pilot class in high school which sought to bring women's issues to the forefront of the classroom. It was there that I first encountered "Rosie the Riveter," the label given to women who filled positions typically occupied by men (who had left the work force to join the armed forces) during World War II. I was amazed to learn of "Rosie" because World War II had never been explained to me from the perspective of those still in America. I was outraged to find that women had played a pivotal role in the allied victory of World War II, yet their accomplishments, for the most part, have gone unheralded.

Even though "Rosie" had more than amply filled those positions vacated by men, these women were made to leave the workplace at the end of the war and return to their "proper" social functions as housewives and mothers. This forced exodus from the workplace, coupled with the widespread prosperity of middle class America brought by the G.I. Bill, strengthened the nuclear family in which the male earned a living and the female took care of the home and children. With increased prosperity for the middle class, new technologies became both more economically feasible than ever before as well as items of status--necessary signifiers of a family's (and therefore the man's) newfound opulence. Many of these technologies were developed for use in the home and, not surprisingly, most of these products were marketed towards women.

Although women have begun to move into the work place in far greater numbers as we approach the millennium, the way certain innovations are marketed towards women is still indicative of their expected social role. Commercials for nearly any item used for the upkeep of the home, from cleaning solutions to dishwashers, are still directed toward the female gender. Popular culture tends to portray men, particularly father figures, as helpless when it comes to the day to-day skills necessary for child-rearing, etc. Therefore, society expects women to raise children, maintain the home and balance a career--popularly referred to as being a "supermom."

Despite the fact that expectations for these "supermoms" seem herculean, many believe that they can be met through the combination of a disciplined routine and modern conveniences. Nearly every household item represents America's obsession with making life more comfortable (or even feasible) through technology. Thus women can theoretically "have it all" because of such inventions as the microwave oven, dishwasher and cellular telephone. Unfortunately, this belief tends to be more myth than reality--women, despite having careers spend about the same amount of time working in the home as they did a generation ago.

Although the "tech-fix" may not lead directly to equality amongst the sexes, certain reproductive technologies have undoubtedly allowed modern women to pursue careers that for most of recorded history have been specifically limited to the male gender. If it were not for birth control pills and other such means of contraception, it would be almost impossible for women to have moved into the workplace in large numbers. Many who have had children would probably agree with the saying, "there is no 'right' time to have a baby"--but at least with modern methods of family planning, women have control (at least to some degree) of at what time and how often they bear children.

In closing, most Americans would agree that women are better off now than they were a hundred years ago. Although we don't live in a perfect world, equality amongst the sexes has at least become a goal for a larger segment of the population than ever before. I personally believe that we are presently in a transition period both in the social and technological realms. The circular nature of invention is both confusing and obvious--we seem to be developing new technologies, while at the same time, our social structures vie to keep up with these innovations, which, as a society, we demand. It is critical, therefore, to examine the interplay between women and technology because it can serve as a gauge telling us how far we've come, and subsequently, how far we still have to go to attain gender equality.

Return to Women's Studies Homepage

Send message to Swarthmore College Women's Studies

last updated 9/8/98