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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 485-515

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Women Walking through Plans: Technology, Democracy, and Gender Identity

Wiebe E. Bijker and Karin Bijsterveld


"Every house plan I will continue to see as a VAC woman: walking through a plan, in my mind slamming doors and placing cupboards, figuring out where and how I would sleep, wash, cook, relax, and play with children in this situation." So wrote the outgoing chairwoman of one of the Netherlands' Vrouwen Adviescommissies voor de Woningbouw (Women's Advisory Committees on Housing, VACs) in her farewell statement. 1 The quotation captures many ideas that fascinate us: female self-identity, expertise in reading plans, a focus on practical household problems. How did the women of the advisory committees contribute to shaping living space in the Netherlands? This history of women's participation in public housing in the Netherlands is empirically rather modest, but we hope to show its theoretical and political relevance to a variety of issues.

One basic question relates to the political relevance of the history of technology. The thrust of the constructivist research program in the history and sociology of technology has been to identify processes of the mutual shaping of society and technology, rather than to explain the social shaping [End Page 485] of technology and the technical building of society as the result of the conscious strategies of various actors. 2 This article will begin to address the issue of strategies for changing our technological culture, and thus will focus on normative choice. All sorts of social groups continuously try to shape society and technology, from advertising tycoons to managers, from politicians to environmental action groups. Here we will focus on what are often called "nonexpert groups." How do citizens influence the technological building of society? More specifically, we will concentrate on women and their relation to public housing, architecture, and city planning. Considerable attention has been given to the role of women in planning and housing, but we hope that our particular perspective of constructivist technology studies can add something new. 3 [End Page 486]

We will explore these issues by drawing on the case of the Dutch VACs. The first of these advisory committees were established immediately after World War II, and they presently number some three hundred, in almost half of the municipalities in the Netherlands. Though geographically widespread, they are not very conspicuous and generally do not seek the limelight. Nevertheless, many politicians, architects, and building contractors hold the VACs to be quite effective. This seeming paradox is one of the issues we will discuss. The women who serve on the committees are not paid, they are self-appointed, and they are not officially accountable to anyone. Although some VAC women have received professional training as architects or town planners, that is untypical. This raises the interesting question of expertise: how do VAC women acquire their expertise, and how do they make others listen to them? The advisory committees do not hoist the flag of feminism, though their members have sometimes explicitly reflected upon their role as women in a male-dominated building world. The identity of VAC women, their self-image, and the image that other relevant social groups have of them, is another theme that we want to address.

We will first argue that it is helpful to view the house as a socially constructed technology and, as such, a strategic research site in which to study the relationships between technology, gender, and power. We will then sketch the recent history of women's involvement in housing in the Netherlands--the VACs did not fall out of thin air in 1946, but can be traced back to the beginning of this century--and describe the institutional history and organizational structure of the VACs. Our analysis next will focus on the success of the committees and on how it relates to issues of power. We will show that their gender identity plays a specific role in their strategies to exert power in the male-dominated building world. We conclude by drawing some...


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