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3. Feminist approaches to technology

Reframing the question
The impact of technology

Women's values or a gender lens?

Sheila Rowbotham


Confronted by the leek of women technologists and scientists, feminists in Europe and North America in the 1970s were inclined to focus on the impediments of a male-dominated capitalism; male prejudice, attitudes and relations within families, schools or work, leek of places in higher education, job segregation and the sexual division of labour. Like an earlier generation of feminists, they were preoccupied with the obstacles preventing women's access. The campaign for abortion and a growing awareness of reproductive rights brought an added incentive to break down the male bastion of science and technology. Women's entry was seen not only as a matter of individual advance but as a means of gaining control for women collectively. Opposition to arguments that women were essentially unscientific or untechnological initially engaged with the wider social relations which constrained women's choices and opportunities.

Feminist ideas develop partly within their own area of debate, acquiring their own momentum. They also, however, interact with other intellectual currents. The changing paradigms in scientific thought are sites for just such a crossover. Indeed sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish social critiques of science from strands of feminism which assume that 'feminism' by definition is to be equated with a rejection of science, technology and indeed reason.

The recognition that values are embedded within the social processes of scientific study and technological innovation has challenged the assumption that these are neutral forces. This has an obvious relevance for understanding the peculiar difficulty women have confronted in gaining access to the theoretical and practical scientific and technological worlds. Feminist writers on science and technology, in the words of Evelyn Fox Keller, have detected the presence of gender markings in the root categories of the natural sciences and their use in the hierarchical ordering of such categories for example, mind and nature; reason and feeling; objective and subjective (Keller, 1992: pp. 18-19).

This awareness of gender has contributed to new insights into the history of science and technology in western thought and society. Instead of wondering what is wrong with women, with capitalism, or with 'patriarchy', feminist enquiry has shifted during the last decade to what is wrong with the tradition of modern western science.

This approach has converged with a broader questioning of the automatic benefits which western science has brought. The view that technological discoveries and their application inevitably represent incontestable progress has been extensively critiqued, and the social reasons for certain kinds of technologies being developed rather than others have been explored.

Of course wariness about the powers of science, technology and reason is not entirely new within western culture. Intense faith in reason, progress and objectivity generated its opposites. The Enlightenment has various and contradictory currents, one being the elevation of nature. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein evoked a fear common within romanticism of an unbridled human scientific intellect. Throughout the nineteenth century, thinkers in the West sought alternatives to industry and modernity in several versions of nature, ranging from idealizations of the folk, the working class, black people, the Orient or women. In our own times, anxiety about science, technology and indeed reason, has become especially acute as the grim consequences of both capitalism's and state socialism's visions of progress have become apparent. For better or worse, the zeitgeist of the late twentieth century appears to be a profound scepticism about the possibility of applying reason for social progress and a tendency to dismiss the value of western science and technology.

This has made the feminist claim for entry in order to gain control somewhat problematic. For how can we demand access to forms of knowledge which we are defining as inherently flawed?

The hidden perils of alternatives amidst the critique of existing male dominated science

Some strands of feminism have taken hope from the view that women will necessarily 'do' science differently and will develop alternative forms of technology. Among eco-feminists in particular, this conviction has stimulated a literature of opposition which ranges from a claim that women are essentially different to a proposal that women might bring a socially-based experience of alternative values: caring and reciprocity versus control and objective detachment. The advantage of this utopianism is that it opens the possibility for a culture of science and technology which is different to the perspective which has prevailed in the West from the seventeenth century.

There are however some unforeseen consequences of positing a distinct set of existing women's values which are in opposition to the existing forms of science and technology. For a start, there is the question, where have they come from? Essentially female values are formed in cultures in which gender inequality prevails. They are not apart from social relations. An obvious danger is that we enclose ourselves within definitions which are just as much part of a 'male' culture and which confine rather than emancipate. For example, identifying with nature is problematical: it has, after all, also been used to justify the subordination of women, as Janet Sayers shows (1982). Moreover, how nature is regarded is itself historical and cultural and has changed over time (Thomas, 1984). It is hardly firm ground for resistance to masculine hegemony.

In challenging a narrow technological determinism and false optimism about the inherently 'progressive' aspects of technology, feminists who have sought to argue that existing cultural stereotypes of feminine identity should be embraced as an alternative to male definitions of technology ignore the fact that many of these social interpretations of 'nature' are as restrictive as mechanical versions of reason. The argument for women's closeness to nature:

has involved confinement to activities such as reproduction and denial to them of capacities for reason, intelligence and control of life conditions, that is, of their exclusion from the valued features of human life and culture.

(Plumwood, 1990: p. 232)

These exclusions are of particular significance for women in third world countries where the question of access to modern technology or the creation of alternatives is far from abstract. By embracing a position of absolute opposition to the practical achievements of western science, some strands of eco-feminism have begun to display a strategic weakness in their incapacity to grapple with the actual impact of existing science and technology. The utopian desire for an alternative can close up and become a denial of the contradictory possibilities present within the realities facing women.

The feminist critique of the tradition of western science has come from several perspectives, anti-utopian as well as utopian. Scepticism about essential female values, utopias and grand plans has combined in 'postmodernism' to undermine the very possibility of objectivity. This too has had an unforeseen effect in paralysing any effort at strategic resistance. Postmodernism, as Kate Soper observes, is the obverse of liberal and Marxist teleologies of inevitable progress. It has now shifted from a challenge to the 'technical-fix' approach to human happiness into a collapse of any hope in gaining even approximate understanding of the world (Soper, 1992: p. 45). This 'postmodernist "over-drive"' has, in Kate Soper's words, 'pushed on to question the very possibility of objectivity or of making reference in language to what itself is not the effect of discourse' (ibid.).

Consequently it fails to engage with the actual work of scientists and technologists, for it occludes the tangible results of particular modes of enquiry. Scepticism about scientific objectivity, as Evelyn Fox Keller points out, has to reckon with degrees of approximation to reality - 'not all metaphors are equally effective for the production of further knowledge' (Keller, 1992: p. 33). The dilemma really is how far the questioning of reason and objectivity is to be pushed. When taken to extremes this line of thought, which originally had the intention of emancipation, ends by actually disempowering those who are already vulnerable by making exploration, analysis and comparison impossible. As Kate Soper says, the momentum of postmodernism

now invites us to disown the very aspiration to truth as something unattainable in principle, no longer even a regulative idea; and in doing so, it has also disallowed us any reference to a common sensibility or consensus about what is wrong with our times and hence any reference to the idea of collective political endeavour.

(Soper, 1992: p. 45)

Curiously the impulse to reject a technocratic certainty can actually turn into its opposite, through the denial of the possibility of conscious human agents acting in specific social relations and circumstance upon the world. and one another to improve their lives together (Varikas). Applying a gender lens1 then is a more risky business than many feminists envisaged. In the words of Barbara Drygulski Wright: 'the ideological problem women face in gaining full access to science and technology is perhaps more complex than we have heretofore acknowledged' (Wright, 1987: p. 17).

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