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Feminist Technology

Feminist Technology

by Linda Layne (Editor), Sharra Vostral (Editor), Kate Boyer (Editor)

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Is there such a thing as a "feminist technology"? If so, what makes a technology feminist? Is it in the design process, in the thing itself, in the way it is marketed, or in the way it is used by women (or by men)?

In this collection, feminist scholars trained in diverse fields consider these questions by examining a range of products, tools, and


Is there such a thing as a "feminist technology"? If so, what makes a technology feminist? Is it in the design process, in the thing itself, in the way it is marketed, or in the way it is used by women (or by men)?

In this collection, feminist scholars trained in diverse fields consider these questions by examining a range of products, tools, and technologies that were specifically designed for and marketed to women. Evaluating the claims that such products are liberating for women, the contributors focus on case studies of menstrual-suppressing birth control pills, home pregnancy tests, tampons, breast pumps, Norplant, anti-fertility vaccines, and microbicides. In examining these various products, this volume explores ways of actively intervening to develop better tools for designing, promoting, and evaluating feminist technologies. Recognizing the different needs and desires of women and acknowledging the multiplicity of feminist approaches, Feminist Technology offers a sustained debate on existing and emergent technologies that share the goal of improving women's lives.

Contributors are Jennifer Aengst, Maia Boswell-Penc, Kate Boyer, Frances Bronet, Shirley Gorenstein, Anita Hardon, Deborah G. Johnson, Linda L. Layne, Deana McDonagh, and Sharra L. Vostral.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This coherent and integrated collection lays out the issues and questions of feminist technology, crossing a true range of disciplinary boundaries including science and technology studies, architecture, biology, and the social sciences."—Barbara Katz Rothman, author of Recreating Motherhood: Ideology and Technology in a Patriarchal Society

Product Details

University of Illinois Press
Publication date:
Women Gender and Technology
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.90(d)

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Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03532-6



"FEMINIST TECHNOLOGY"-what a powerful and provocative concept; both immediately comprehensible and puzzling, simple on the face of it, yet complex. Both elements of this term are familiar, part of common language, yet combined in this way they form something new. In 2007 I began a talk to the Women's Studies Department at Union College by asking the audience of mostly female undergraduates if they had ever heard the term, knowing full well that they had not. To my amazement, nearly three-quarters of the audience raised their hands and nodded, yes, they knew the term. I have had this experience with colleagues in the gender and technology field too. The reason for this, I believe, is that it is a term whose time has come.

The earliest use of "feminist technology" I have found is in a 1983 essay by Corlann Gee Bush. She does not define the term, which appears in her final sentence, but simply asserts that "A feminist technology should, indeed, be something else again" (1983, 168). She does give a good example earlier in the essay when she discusses how feminists were able to "unthink rape as a crime of passion and rethink it as a crime of violence, insights which led to the establishment of rape crisis and victim advocacy services. But a good feminist shelter home-crisis service is something else again: it is a place where women are responsible for the safety and security of other women, where women teach self-defense and self-esteem to each other" (Bush 1983, 151).

The term "feminist technology" did not catch on though, and an explanation for this might be found in the linked history of the term "feminist," which has had a spotty presence in what is commonly, and tellingly, known as "gender and technology studies." In the course of working on our book, we reviewed much of the gender and technology literature. As we anticipated, we found many insightful explanations and illustrations of how gender at once shapes and is shaped by science and technology but were struck by the fact that a feminist agenda (i.e., what we can/should do about these configurations) was strangely muted, even in those rare volumes that contain feminism in the title.

In 1989 Joan Rothschild traced the change from sex to gender in the history of technology. She observed that "when feminist perspectives began to be applied to technology studies ... the body of work was known as 'women and technology'" but that by the late 1980s, the term "gender and technology" was more frequently used. At first I thought our volume marked a third phase in the development of this field (from women/sex, to gender, to feminism) but the story is more complex. Feminism has been present throughout the development of this subfield but was more evident in pioneering works. In the 1990s, "feminism" made fewer appearances, perhaps in response to the backlash against feminism and/or the institutionalization of the subfield. In her foreword to a 2001 volume that boldly places "feminism" in the title, Stimpson observes that many scholars avoid using "the F-word" and keep their feminism "covert" because they fear that since feminism is a political agenda, it might undermine the credibility (scientific validity) of their scholarship (2001, ix).

Johnson (this volume) also notes the subterranean position feminism tends to occupy in this literature. "Lurking in the background of much of the literature on gender and technology is an interest in social change, social change that will improve the circumstances of women and create more equitable gender relations." Both the term "feminist technology" and our eponymous volume bring this agenda to the fore.

I first used the term in 2004 when I wrote "The Home Pregnancy Test: A Feminist Technology?" for presentation at the annual meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science in Paris. After years of probing the relationship of gender, science, and technology, and working with young designers-in-training at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) to inculcate "the social" into every step of the design process, I was struck by the idea of "feminist technology" as a design goal. Why not encourage technological innovations that would enhance women's lives? This is our ambition.

Throughout this project we have found useful analogies with the environmental movement and the disability rights movement. Designing for differently abled people has become common in undergraduate engineering projects, and environmental concerns have permeated design curricula and popular consciousness. Our aim is to make feminism as pervasive in engineering, product, and architectural design curricula and practice as these other sociopolitical agendas.

Once we agreed to make "feminist technologies" a goal, we started with a series of definitional questions: Do any exist? If so, what makes a technology feminist? What criteria must feminist technology fulfill? Indeed, initially our intellectual project was framed as a question: "Feminist Technology?"

"Feminism" is a political movement that seeks to empower women. "Feminist" is a noun, referring to a person who works to empower women, and an adjective, which can be used to modify other nouns; for example, theory, organization, policy, or, in our case, technology. I define "technology" as tools plus knowledge that enhance and extend our human capacities. Hence, a working definition of "feminist technology" would be those tools plus knowledge that enhance women's ability to develop, expand, and express their capacities.

Feminist technologies must "empower women," but we soon realized this was not as simple a criterion as it first seemed. Women are not the same. Must a feminist technology empower all women? Most women? What if a technology empowers some women and disempowers others? Furthermore, to "empower," a technology must give women more power over their lives. But lives are complex and we know that the introduction of new technologies always entails multiple consequences, some of which may be contradictory, many of which will be unintended. Given this, in order to determine whether a technology is empowering (for women, or particular groups of women, or some individual women), one would have to consider all the consequences of using (or not using) a technology. What benefits does this new technology bring? What costs? Then one would have to determine whether the costs outweigh the benefits, or vice versa. Should certain types of costs/benefits be weighted more than other types? For instance, in the case of a new reproductive technology, should physical costs/benefits count more than psychological or emotional ones? Who should decide: individuals, professionals, the state?

Next we invited people to think with us about these questions using their own case material and disciplinary backgrounds. In 2005, feminist scholars trained in cultural anthropology, archaeology, history, philosophy, geography, women's studies, architectural design and pedagogy, comparative literature, and art history presented their work at panels we organized at the Social Studies of Science Society (4S) in Pasadena and the Society for Literature, Science, and Art meeting (SLSA) in Chicago. Some of the participants developed their case studies for this book. In each case, the product or products we studied are ones not only designed for and used by women, but also touted as liberating for women. As it happened, all of these products (menstrual-suppressing birth control pills, home pregnancy tests, tampons, breast pumps, Norplant, anti-fertility vaccines, and microbicides) are intended to help women control their distinctly female reproductive systems. As such, they qualify as "feminine technologies," which McGaw defines as "technologies associated with women by virtue of their biology" (McGaw 2003/1996, 15). By no means do we equate "feminine technologies" with "feminist" ones. However, as we began the process of querying feminist technologies, we found these technologies to be "good to think" with. They are in some ways, the simplest test cases and yet, as we quickly found, not simple at all.

By the time we presented our papers in 2005, we had come to some preliminary conclusions. At this point we knew that marketing a product as liberatory for women does not make it so. Efforts to use the language of women's liberation to sell products, including ones that are harmful to women, are not new. Faludi (2006, xiv) gives the example of a 1929 Easter "Freedom March" down Fifth Avenue "organized by a prominent ad man ... to honor suffrage-by encouraging women to smoke. The American Tobacco Company's publicist persuaded 'a leading feminist' to head up the procession of women, who were all puffing on their 'torches of freedom.'" Johnson (this volume) describes a similar marketing strategy for Virginia Slims cigarettes. More recently, Hanes apparently "persuaded a NOW official to endorse its 'liberating' pantyhose" (Faludi 2006, xiv). These might be considered examples of "feminist washing," akin to "green washing," the common practice of marketing an unsafe product as environmentally friendly in order to attract consumers with environmental concerns. Each of our case studies brings a critical lens to the way the rhetoric of feminism has been used to promote consumer products.

Another conclusion we reached at this point was that feminizing an existing technology did not make it feminist, but often just the opposite. In response to Wosk's presentation on new electronics such as pink, rhinestone-encrusted cell phones being designed for and marketed to women, Gorenstein observed, "while recognizing the utilitarian benefit of the phone to women, making them more mobile and less housebound," such phones appear to be an example of manufacturers realizing that they had designed their product in the first place for men, not for people. They now had to alter the design so that the product, or a version of the product, was feminine. The next question they had to ask is how are women different from men? A common answer-the most common-is that women have a different aesthetic sense from men.

The changes they made based on their understanding of "women's aesthetic" ("brighter colors, curved lines, and surface adornment") raised for Gorenstein "the question of whether these were actually women's choices or men's choices for women." Gorenstein concluded that

if Sex and the City is right and the powder-compact color-drenched jewel-adorned cell phone is what women want and reinforce women's goals and interests, then I would venture to say that the manufacturers are producing a feminist technology. However, if this technology reinforces a gender system in which women's aesthetic has been defined by men to suit men's interests and are antithetical to women's interest and goals, then the designers and manufacturers have certainly not produced a feminist technology, and indeed may have produced an anti-feminist technology. (Gorenstein 2005)

Much of the innovation recently directed toward women has been of this kind: based on a "shrink it and pink it" approach that, as cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell of Intel observes, is "profoundly misguided" (National Public Radio 2008b). The Gadgettes podcast on Cnet.com has a "pink watch" segment that focuses on gadgets that are "gratuitously pink." "Bubble-gum pink stun guns" would certainly be a candidate. According to a saleswoman for the product, these guns are "all about girl power" because they "fit in purses." They are being sold at "Tupperware-esque 'Taser parties'" even though "there's a lot of evidence that stun guns could be used against the owner" (S. W. 2008, 116).

Another notable example of this type of product is a Samsung cell phone that has a "pink exterior, built-in shopping list, fat calculator, ... conception calendar, favorite fragrance list and biorhythms." In addition, according to Jenny Goodridge, the marketing manager for this product, "You can put in your birth date and it will tell you if you are intelligent, attractive or emotionally stable. You can't be all three." As one commentator observed, this "begs the question, do women really need an ovulation calendar on their mobile?" (Manktelow 2005).

More promising technological innovations are those that enable women to enter and do their best in professions that had traditionally been held by men and for which the necessary equipment had been designed to fit men's bodies. Johnson (this volume) discusses the case of the fighter pilot cockpit that was redesigned in order to allow for the integration of women into this part of the military. Other examples include construction, auto repair, firefighting, and law enforcement in which "poorly proportioned tools, uniforms and other gear can affect performance and safety" (Melendez 2006). For instance, traditionally designed police duty belts, from which the gun, handcuffs, and other gear hang, do not fit comfortably on a woman's hips and may cause bruising, and firefighting gear was designed for "fairly tall, well-built, muscular men" (Melendez 2006). Designs that address women's toilet needs like the race-car driver's suit for women described in Bronet and Layne (this volume) also facilitate women's entrée and success into traditionally male-dominated professions and leisure pursuits. Medical technologies that take into account anatomical differences are also valuable improvements. For example, Stryker Orthopedics developed a special line of knee replacements for women because women's knees tend to be smaller than men's and proportionally narrower (Melendez 2006).

Yet we also realized that designing for "equality" is not an adequate goal. In Gorenstein's comments on the SLSA papers, she made this point, "Suppose men are using a factory technology that is dangerous. [Should] women ... strive to earn the right to use that technology in order to be equal to men?" The answer is clearly "no" (Gorenstein 2005).

We also refined our understanding of the limitations of a definition based on "improving the conditions of women" without linking this with inequities based on gender (Johnson, this volume). A good illustration of this can be found in research on barriers to advancement of women faculty at RPI. Geisler et al. (2007) created a new information technology, the "13+ Club Index," which is an easy-to-use tool by which patterns of inequality in men's and women's rate of promotion can be determined and displayed. In 2001, the index revealed that many professors at RPI (both men and women) were still associate professors more than thirteen years past their terminal degree (the point at which one would normally expect to be promoted to full professor) but that women were more than twice as likely as men to be stuck in rank. The results of using this technology were dramatic. Five of the eleven women in the 13+ Club were promoted to full professor (two of whom had been previously denied), an unprecedented number and rate of promotion for women at RPI. Yet a follow-up study in 2004 found that although the index had benefited some women, it had also benefited some men (Geisler et al. 2007). This, combined with other aspects of the hiring and promoting system, like the pattern of senior hires going to men (35 percent of the male hires between 2001-4 were at the full professor rank; none of the female hires were), meant that the inequality in promotion rates remained virtually the same. It is worth noting that when women faculty representatives met with the provost in 2001, we "discussed changes in policy and procedure that could improve the advancement picture for both men and women" (Geisler et al. 2007; emphasis added) because we assumed that this innovative technology would more readily be accepted if it could be shown to benefit men too. The pitfalls of such a strategy are apparent.

To summarize, marketing claims do not make a product feminist, nor does the dressing up of an existing technology to conform to a male-defined "feminine aesthetic." More promising are innovations that adapt a technology designed for and used by men so that women may also use it. However, in these cases, the overall effects on women must be considered. Even a technology that improves things for some women may not qualify as feminist if it does so in a way that perpetuates a gender gap.


Excerpted from FEMINIST TECHNOLOGY Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Linda L. Layne is the Hale Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences and a professor of anthropology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her books include Motherhood Lost: A Feminist Perspective on Pregnancy Loss and Consuming Motherhood.Sharra L. Vostral is an associate professor of Gender and Women's Studies and History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of Under Wraps: Menstrual Hygiene and Technologies of Passing.Kate Boyer is a lecturer in the School of Geography at the University of Southampton. She has published works in Gender, Place and Culture; Progress in Human Geography; and elsewhere.

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