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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

New Book From Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Professor Advocates Feminist Technology

June 11, 2010

New Book From Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Professor Advocates Feminist Technology

Linda Layne

A new book edited by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Professor Linda Layne and other feminist scholars examines “Feminist Technology” — objects in our daily lives that enhance women's ability to develop, expand, and express their capacities.

The book considers many questions, including: Is there such a thing as a “feminist technology”? If so, what makes a technology feminist? Is it in the design process, in the technology object itself, in the way it is marketed, or in the way it is used by women (or by men)?

Feminist Technology presents case studies of products — specifically menstrual-suppressing birth control pills, home pregnancy tests, tampons, breast pumps, Norplant, anti-fertility vaccines, and microbicides — evaluating the claims that such products are liberating for women.

In each case study, the authors show how the products are not all they are promised to be and offer proposals for alternatives. Rather than simply offering post facto critiques of technology, they seek to intervene early in the design process. They would like to see feminism as pervasive a social goal as sustainability when it comes to designing products and human-made spaces. 

The products, each of which is intended to help women control their reproductive system, provided a good suite of technologies with which “to think,” Layne wrote in the introduction to the book. “They are in some ways, the simplest test cases and yet, as we quickly found, not simple at all.”

“A technology may appear feminist in the light of one type of feminism and antifeminist through a different feminist lens,” said Layne, a medical anthropologist and Alma and H. Erwin Hale ’30 Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at Rensselaer.

One example studied in the book is the menstrual-suppressing birth control pill lauded by liberal feminists, according to Layne, as a valuable addition to the range of contraceptive choices available to women, and rejected by radical feminists as irredeemably antifeminist.

Layne said that, in the United States, one of the primary ways the feminist movement has worked to overcome gender bias has been through changes in the law and public policy. However, technologies also impact gender biases, becoming — as noted by a colleague in the book — less considered “forms of legislation.”

Layne said she is already planning a sequel on “feminist entrepreneurs,” and is currently seeking subjects.

The book brings together feminist scholars trained in cultural anthropology, archeology, history, philosophy, geography, women’s studies, architectural design and pedagogy to develop better tools for designing, promoting, and evaluating feminist technologies.

Recognizing the different needs and desires of women and acknowledging the multiplicity of feminist approaches, Feminist Technology offers an insightful examination of existing and emergent technologies that share the goal of improving women’s lives and guidelines for promoting more and better feminist technologies.

The book was edited by Layne, Sharra L. Vostral, associate professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (formerly of Rensselaer), and Kate Boyer, a lecturer in the School of Geography at the University of Southampton (formerly of Rensselaer).

Layne is the Hale Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences and a professor of anthropology at Rensselaer.  Her books include Motherhood Lost: A Feminist Perspective on Pregnancy Loss and Consuming Motherhood.

For more information about Feminist Technology, visit the Illinois Press Book Blog entry about the book at .