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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 549-557

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The Dexter Prize

Since 1968 the Society for the History of Technology has annually awarded the Dexter Prize to the author of an outstanding book in the history of technology published in any of the preceding three years. The prize is funded by the Dexter Chemical Corporation of New York City, manufacturers of industrial chemicals. The 1999 prize was awarded to Francesca Bray for Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997). The citation read:

In 1999 the Society for the History of Technology awards its Dexter Prize to Francesca Bray for Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China. Not only does Bray's book meet the Dexter's desiderata as an outstanding book in the history of technology, but it also illuminates three topics often ignored in the field: non-Western history, the medieval and early modern period, and the history of women.

Fabrics of Power explores the complex and subtly shifting relations between women and technology in the years from about 1000 to 1800, that is, from the Song to the late Qing dynasties. Bray focuses on three areas of "gynotechnics," as she calls sets of technologies implicated in ideas about women: the material culture of the Chinese home, the household production of textiles, and reproductive technologies. Richly weaving documentation, analysis, and argument, Bray shows us how, despite few of the dramatic innovations that traditionally attract historians of technology, women's relationship to material life as well as the ideological ties of women to family, economy, and state underwent gradual but significant change. At the beginning of Bray's period, the proverb that "men till, women weave," accurately characterized the lives of most Chinese. Men performed agricultural tasks while women, based in the home, spun yarn, set up looms (and on occasion constructed them), wove, and did everything else related to textile production. Because imperial taxes were levied in specific [End Page 549] yardages of silk, and because silk and other textiles were exchanged both in private rituals, such as funerals and weddings, and in economic transactions, household production lent power and respect to women. Indeed, women's work largely supported the state. By the end of the Qing, however, and well before the advent of Western-style factories or significant innovations in machinery, a new division of labor emerged. Men took over weaving while women, progressively more isolated in the separate quarters favored by neo-Confucian moralism, centered their energy on reproduction and the raising of children. Yet domestic isolation was never total. Even in the late imperial years the Chinese house continued to form "a political and moral continuum with community and state," though women's contributions to the polity were now more moral than economic.

Bray's work offers a corrective to a view of Chinese history that begins and ends with the few centuries of brilliant technical innovation around the turn of the second millennium, a story admirably recovered by Joseph Needham and his colleagues, one of whom was Bray herself. Yet she moves well beyond Needham's pioneering work by suggesting that historians have been too preoccupied with dramatic inventions and with technology's role in creating the instabilities which precipitate social change. Historians, she argues, have largely ignored stories about technological continuity and the often crucial part technology can play in reproducing social systems and facilitating cultural resilience.

Fabrics of Power tells one such a story in rich detail and with penetrating intelligence. It is also beautifully written, providing a welcome demonstration that theoretical sophistication and accessible prose need not be mutually exclusive.

The Sally Hacker Prize

The Sally Hacker Prize was established in 1999 to recognize the best popular book written in the history of technology in the three years preceding the award. The prize recognizes books in the history of technology that are directed to a broad audience of readers, including students and the interested public. For the premiere Sally Hacker Prize, the committee recommended Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson's Crystal Fire: The Birth of the...


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