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Reviewed by:
  • Women and the Machine: Representations from the Spinning Wheel to the Electronic Age
  • Barbara Crow, associate professor in the graduate programs of Communication and Culture and Women's Studies
Women and the Machine: Representations from the Spinning Wheel to the Electronic Age by Julie Wosk. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001, 294 pp., $39.95 hardcover.

As someone who researches and teaches in the area of technology and popular culture, I eagerly awaited the arrival of this book. I was hoping that it would not only enhance my understanding of these relations, but also provide some much-needed visual content for my classes in this area. Wosk asks whether Western representations of women and machines since industrialization "shape and even change public attitudes toward women and their abilities" (p. xix). Although the book is well written, includes interesting images, and is beautifully designed, it does not, unfortunately, provide us with any new ways to consider representations of women and technology. Moreover, given the substantial feminist scholarship generally and more particularly on technology, Wosk does not adequately address either body of work. For example, there are only four images of women of color in the book. These images are of African-American women only; there are no images of Asian, South Asian, First Nations, or women with disabilities. Why are there only so few images of women of color? What do the predominance of images of white able-bodied women and technology reveal to us about the relations of whiteness, industrialization, femininity, and technology? [End Page 229]

In eight sections, the book does cover an impressive range of representations of women and machines including "Framing Images of Women and Machines," "Wired for Fashion," "The Electric Eve," "Women and the Bicycle," "Women and the Automobile," "Women and Aviation," "Women in Wartime: From Rosie the Riveter to Rosie the Housewife," and "The Electronic Eve and Late-Twentieth-Century Art." In each section, Wosk asks whether the representations of women and machines perpetuate social stereotypes, especially those of "Eve" and "Venus." To illustrate her arguments, Wosk draws on images by artists, photographers, and designers from the United States, Britain, France, Russia, "and other countries as well" (xviii).

It is always difficult to address such a range of machines in one book particularly given the complexity that has developed in the feminist analyses of gender, race, class, sexuality, ability, age, and technology. So while I appreciated Rockwell's "Rosie the Riveter" and Georges Rochegrosse's lithographic poster "Automobile-Club de France," most of the images in the book are familiar to us. Why, I wondered, did she not make use of lesser-known images, especially those made by women? And why did Wosk select the countries she did? Why were there more images from one country than another? How did Wosk determine which images she would use? Why did she select mostly traditional male designers, artists, and photographers in the earlier sections in her book, but mostly feminist ones for the last chapter? Moreover, in the last chapter "Coda," Wosk makes available the ways in which mostly white U.S. feminist artists have represented relations of gender and technology. However, she does not speculate on how representations of women in relations to the machines she selected—bicycles, automobiles, airplanes, war, and computers—get represented today.

In fact, "Coda" is quite different in nature from the other chapters since Wosk examines how mostly white feminist artists have represented the relations of gender and machines. Why did Wosk turn her attention to feminist artists at this point and not in the other chapters? What kind of commentary can we make about how feminist artists have engaged with gender and technology? What do their representations tell us about women and machines in relation to other images presented in the book?

Ultimately, the book is about Western representations of white middle-class women and machines. Wosk's contribution would have been more significant if she had asked what these images reveal to us about whiteness and femininity. Why was it important to represent white women's relations to machines in this way? How are women of color represented in relation to machines? What are...


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pp. 229-231
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