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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 788-789
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Making Technology Masculine: Men, Women, and Modern Machines in America, 1870-1945
Making Technology Masculine: Men, Women, and Modern Machines in America, 1870-1945. By Ruth Oldenziel. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1999; distributed by the University of Michigan Press. Pp. 271; illustrations, notes/references, bibliography, index. $24.95.
Feminists have long argued that the culture of technology is profoundly gendered. Men's monopoly of technology remains a key source of their power and is integral to the constitution of male gender identity. The engineering profession has been pivotal to this gendering process, continuing even now to exclude and marginalize women despite decades of campaigning for equal access. In this pioneering and fascinating cultural history, Ruth Oldenziel demonstrates precisely how technology was made masculine and how technological change and gender relations have shaped each other.
The term "technology" acquired its current meaning relatively recently, and engineers' appropriation of it is a recent development as well. It was only after a century-long contest that engineers came to be seen as the sole bearers of technology. During and through this process the word took on its modern meaning. Whereas the earlier concept of the useful arts had included needlework as well as metalwork, spinning as well as mining, by the 1930s this had been supplanted by the idea of technology as applied science. Oldenziel draws on an impressive range of sources, from engineering journals to autobiographies and modernist art, to trace how machines became the markers of technology and the measure of men. Capturing the complex interweaving of intellectual constructs and material practices, her book provides an exemplary study of the relationship between technology and culture.
In a beautifully written narrative, Oldenziel reveals the presence of women throughout the history of engineering. Over the course of the nineteenth century, women activists targeted an array of male institutions that increasingly represented technology as a male preserve. An intriguing example was the Woman's Pavilion set up at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 to demonstrate women's skills and display their products [End Page 788] and inventions. As Oldenziel comments, it was one skirmish in a century-long contest over which images were to be the true objects of technology: fabrics or machines, bridges or corsets.
The core of the book focuses on how engineering became a middle-class, white-male preserve. With the rise of industrial capitalism, engineering was being transformed from an elite profession to a mass occupation, and intense pressures for inclusion came from skilled labor, women, and African-Americans. Entrenched engineers employed several strategies to protect their status. Crucially, this involved the creation of a male professional identity, based on schooling and the promise of managerial positions, sharply distinguished from shop-floor engineering and blue-collar unionism. It also involved an ideal of manliness that located manly characteristics in the body and in individual achievement. Ironically, just as engineers in the guise of managers were increasingly separated from blue-collar workers, the romance of the shop floor and its cultivation of stamina and physical prowess gained ideological expression. This new discourse about manliness was mobilized in an attempt to shore up class, race, and gender boundaries at a time when American education was providing some opportunities for marginalized groups to enter the engineering bastion. By the turn of the century, technology had been redefined as something founded on science rather than art, and the field of engineering had been sanitized of any working-class associations. At the same time, femininity was being defined as incompatible with technological pursuits.
In her final chapter, Oldenziel records the stories of the women who did enter the engineering profession. Facing a hostile and competitive environment, these women tried to emulate and assimilate to the male models of professionalism. But even though many of them could claim superior ability and knowledge of their field, they were increasingly relegated to sex-segregated offices and blocked from advancing to management positions. The same division between the production floor and the drafting office...