Technology, Gender, and Cyberfeminism

In her riveting book Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China, Francesca Bray introduces “gynotechnics,” which is “a way of organizing materials from more varied sources into new patterns, providing a new perspective on gender and its place in the social order as well as a way of getting beyond what written texts alone can tell us” (373). The second part of her book is fascinating in its attention to the technology of weaving and how women’s lives existed in relationship to a technology that was considered “women’s work” without being devalued. Bray shows how women’s roles changed dramatically as weaving transitioned to being under the domain of men through this gynotechnical inquiry.

The part of the book of greatest interest to me was the third and final part, “Meanings of Motherhood: Reproductive Technologies and Their Uses.” Bray acknowledges that readers won’t be surprised that a society organized around the male descent line focuses concern over fertility on females (287). But what she tells us in Part Three changes what that statement means. Bray explains to readers that married men over age 40 with no children were legally allowed to take a concubine (although the practice was actually far more widespread than this statement would imply). While some wives resented their husbands’ concubines, others were eager for the concubine’s arrival and even sought her out. This is because the wife would be the real, or formal, mother of any child born to the concubine. Bray says that although “it appears to use that these women were simply acquiescing in their own oppression,” “such actions also offered to a childless woman the promise of a child who was formally hers” (357). Thus, women whose husbands had the status/money/power to take a concubine were released from the typical scrutiny surrounding fertility—and they could then avoid the plethora of frightening-sounding technologies Bray mentions for dealing with infertility and pregnancy. The wife employed a variety of social and local technologies, then, in the management of her household and the raising of the children that were now formally her own.

(However, even women who had no intention of bearing children still paid particular attention to their monthly cycles, because the Chinese conception of Blood as one of the vital organs meant that menstruation irregularities were a sign of bad health. Thus, technologies were often applied to women in imperial China in order to regulate them to a social norm.)

Gynotechnic inquiry is very related to the concept of cyberfeminsim, at least as represnted in Domain Errors!, although the latter is far harder to pin down. Cyberfeminism, according to Fernandez and Wilding in their book’s first article, came about in response to the fact that “historically, waves of feminism have often accompanied technological expansion” and the response of feminists to such expansions (17). A bit further on, they establish that cyberfeminism is, by nature, undefinable, unlabelable, and unidentifiable. As a person who likes definitions, this troubles me. Although I know that definitions (by definition) reduce complex ideas, I also find this initial reduction very helpful in developing a more complex understanding further down the line. Of course, “situating” a thing (as the title of the essay is “Situating Cybefeminisms”) may be a way to begin understanding it without defining it, and I found this technique helpful. I discovered that cyberfeminism is not feminism, but that it has much in common with second-wave feminism (20). I also found that cyberfeminism has its own two waves already as well: one that concentrates on the relationships of women and machines and a second wave that deals with politics and embodiment.

Among other essays I found particularly helpful to my work in Domain Errors! was Paasonen’s treatment of “the woman problem” in relation to the Internet. Paasonen notes that we (critical scholars) tend to “presuppose a given gender difference” in how women access the Internet. She also astutely points out that we incorrectly see gender is a polar characteristic and the Internet as gender-neutral (94). She goes on to present troubling depictions of expectations Internet authors have of women users … all of which, I think, go to show that more conversation on the topic is required in order to begin suggesting alternative methods that are less problematic. (But I’m out of room to ponder them here.)

Finally, Amelia Jones’ account of her infertility treatments was both touching and informative (an expected and yet interesting combination, given the book’s focus). “One’s entire identity becomes wrapped up in” a particular identity that is made possible by technology. Although I know it probably isn’t this simple, it seems to me that technology has allowed those dealing with infertility to hang onto hope, but also to make themselves miserable because of that hope. Technology has changed not only the way that women are perceived and embodied, not only the way they think and live, but also the ways in which they believe certain things about their inner selves.

Works Cited

Bray, Francesca. Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China. Berkeley: U of California P, 1997. Print.

Fernandez, Maria, Faith Wilding, and Michelle M. Wright, eds. Domain Errors!: Cyberfeminist Practices. Canada: Autonomedia and subRosa, 2002. Print.

**I feel compelled to note that Fernandez, Wilding, and Wright maintain an anti-copyright on their book, so I feel that I’ve done it a certain amount of rhetorical violence by citing it in the conventional manner. I beg forgiveness for this offense as I found no better solution.

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