Public meeting – Gender and the Politics of Technology – Sept 2013 – report

The third Breaking the Frame meeting again generated a very lively debate.

Well-known author and campaigner, Cynthia Cockburn, introduced the discussion, focusing on technology and work, and how it creates not only social class but also gender roles. Typically women have been excluded from jobs requiring a high degree of technical knowledge, and are placed in the role of operators of machinery. Cynthia’s research showed that this pattern persisted during the introduction of electronic machinery, with male engineers typically being responsible for managing systems and hardware, even though women have to some degree been able to get involved in designing software. As a result, men still occupy the higher status and better-paid jobs in nearly all industries. Cynthia’s talk can be found here.

David King of Human Genetics Alert talked about the inherent gender politics of the technocratic society of the last 400 years and the way in which that is played out in reproductive technologies. The Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century marked a shift from a medieval cosmology that saw the world as a living organism, and nature as female, to the modern world-view which sees nature as mechanical. The key philosophers and scientists of the Scientific Revolution wrote of the need to dominate and control nature through technology, and their language was full of gendered metaphors about the need to pacify the unruly female. This attempt to repress and control the female can also be seen in the contemporaneous witch persecutions.

In the 20th Century, technocracy began to get to grips with human reproduction, and its first step was the eugenics movement. Again, the fundamental idea was to control the randomness and mess involved in the mixing of genes in sexual reproduction, in order to create a better-planned and more efficient society. The eugenics movement tended to target women rather than men, for example in the sterilization of unwed mothers and the classic eugenic texts, such as the study of the Jukes family, focused on pointing out how all the descendants of a particular woman were criminals, prostitutes, and supposedly of low intelligence. However, eugenics movement also had a benign face for women; pioneers of birth control such as Marie Stopes in Britain and Margaret Sanger in the US were committed eugenicists. This double-edged nature of technocratic progress continued throughout the 20th Century, for example, in the population control movement, which was again closely connected to the eugenics movement. Of course, when not being coercive, the availability of contraception created genuine benefits to women in allowing them to control their own fertility.

A series of technological interventions in reproduction, including contraception, pre-natal testing, the general medicalisation and hospitalisation of childbirth and IVF and other reproductive technologies, continued throughout the 20th Century, with positive and negative aspects for women. Reproductive technologies use strong hormonal drugs with major side-effects for women, the long-term health effects of which have been poorly studied. In the last 15 years, the demand for donor eggs for infertile women led to the creation of a commercial egg trade in which Eastern European women were subjected to extremely high doses of hormones in order to maximise egg production, with some cases of major health problems. Surrogacy has also created an international trade with poor Indian women often being forced into the role of surrogates by their families, while Western couples simply fly in and pick up the baby that they commissioned. Finally, throughout much of Asia, pre-natal testing and the abortion of female foetuses has led to a deficit of over 100 million women. In the UK, there has recently been controversy over a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service not to prosecute two doctors who agreed to perform abortions on women who stated that the reason for the abortion was that the child was a girl.

Connie Hunter of the Women’s Environmental Network intended to speak about GM technology and its impact on Third World women farmers, but was unfortunately unable to attend, so her talk was read out by the facilitator of the meeting, Gail Chester. Connie pointed out that GM crops will affect men and women differently depending on the gendered division of labour in different places. The research agenda of biotechnology is dominated by white men in developed countries and research is targeted towards industrial agriculture, not subsistence farming. In many countries, women choose and preserve seed, but their knowledge is not respected by the system that develops commercial seed. The patenting of seeds and the use of hybrid seeds can lead to reduction in genetic diversity and makes whole communities dependent upon the external source of seeds. GM crops can increase the use of pesticides and women can be more vulnerable to toxins at certain times in their reproductive cycles. Overall, instead of seeing GM as the solution to feeding the world, rural women tend to view GM as part of the corporate food-production system that undermines their food security. Connie’s talk can be found here.

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