Wednesday, November 7, 2001

Technology and Gender

Writing in a bygone age, Lewis Mumford and Dora Russell characterized technologies as "masculine" and "feminine". Russell claimed that people paid more attention to the "masculine" technologies than the "feminine" ones.

I am citing their work NOT because I want to restore or reinforce gender stereotypes, but merely to bring to the surface the continuing possibility of distortion and bias in our perceptions and valuations of different kinds of technology.

A considerable degree of androgeny can be found in technology, regarded by some people as an entirely male domain. In his book, The Myth of the Machine (pp 139-140), Lewis Mumford argues that technology can bear both masculine and feminine characteristics. "The tool and the utensil, like the sexes themselves, perform complementary functions. One moves, manipulates, assaults; the other remains in place, to hold and protect and preserve." The palaeolithic [i.e hunting/nomadic] inventions were more masculine than feminine: fire, spears, arrows, etc. "The radical neolithic [i.e. farming] inventions were in the realm of containers.... The creation of moisture-proof, leak-proof, vermin-proof clay vessels to store grain, oil, wine, and beer was essential to the whole 'neolithic' economy."

Mumford doesn't ask us to classify technology simply by the shape of the tool/utensil (pointed tools are phallic; rounded or concave utensils symbolize breast or womb) but by the processes they are intended for. "In general, the mobile, dynamic processes are of male origin: they overcome the resistance of matter, push, pull, tear, penetrate, chip, macerate, move, transport, destroy; while the static processes are female ... and they remain largely in place, undergoing qualitative changes, from raw meat to cooked meat, from fermenting grain to beer, from planted seed to seeding plant.... Cooking, milking, dyeing, tanning, brewing, gardening are, historically, female occupations.... All these functions necessarily enlarge the role of containers: indeed are inconceivable without baskets, pots, bins, vats, barns".

In her book The Religion of the Machine Age, Dora Russell builds upon Mumford's division of technology into masculine and feminine. She suggests that most people, when asked to think about technology, typically think about the masculine technologies and ignore the feminine ones. An intriguing idea.

Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development (London, Secker and Warburg, 1967)

Dora Russell, The Religion of the Machine Age (1983)

Originally written 1987, updated November 2001. Relocated from my website to this blog in August 2016, so that I could add the following tweet.

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