Women – But No Gender? – in Everyday Technologies of South Asia

I would like to continue the discussion of our wonderful conference, STS-South Asia (UT-Austin, May 2010), by posing some thoughts and questions about the keynote lecture. This was given by David Arnold and titled: “Situating Technology: Reflections on the Rise of Techno-Modernity in 19th and 20th century South Asia.” Arnold provided a much-needed focus on everyday technologies during turn of the century India, and how they operated “in the home, the village, the street.” What really captivated me was his opening observation that many of the technologies of early 20th century India were global, and moreover, associated with women. Arnold made important observations about how narratives of femininity and sexuality often accompanied discourses and practices, as new technologies were introduced in daily life.

Why did I feel then, that a gendered perspective of technology was missing? I’m not an historian, but still as a feminist scholar, Arnold’s analysis raised many questions for me:

1. If women are the focus of the analysis as practitioners and targets of technology, and are the linchpin between everyday technologies and social realities, then why not even a hint of feminist theory in the analytical framework? Four different cases were presented as examples of the role of technology in everyday life (sewing machines, typewriters, bicycles, mills), and all were about women. Yet neither the significance nor implications of this link of gender to technology were discussed. Whether as a theoretical framing or as a method of understanding the cases, the analysis would have benefitted from some attention to the wealth of feminist literature on South Asia.

A case in point is Arnold’s discussion of the sewing machine. He points out how the Singer sewing machine from the U.S. was marketed in India for high caste women, who would be able to sew clothes in their households for sale to Europeans and Eurasians in India.

Reading Maria Mies’s classic piece The Lacemakers of Narsapur (1982), Arnold would have learned how this was happening as much as a hundred years earlier in the state of Andhra Pradesh. With the simpler technological tool of the knitting needle, Indian women began producing lace tablecloths, napkins, and rounds for the global market. This eventually became a full-fledged “invisible” production process, “submerged [in an] underground economy” of the household (p. 55).

With Mies’s analysis, we see the full implications (and complications) of the political economies of technology for women. The women in her 1970s study were poor and working in times of famine and economic hardship to augment the dwindling incomes of their husbands: “lace making is not a leisure time activity of all classes of women who want to earn some extra money” but rather an act of “necessity” (p. 125). Furthermore, the monetary benefits of lace-making ultimately lay less in the hands of these women than in the shockingly wide array of middlemen. Forming the transnational chain between the Indian women workers and the British, Australian, and German consumers were a number of male co-betweens: agents, hawkers, merchants and exporters. Thus, while the technology of the knitting needle, and by extension the sewing machine, may provide income sources for women, they are also embedded in a broader system of global patriarchal exploitation.

2. My next question: Is it possible that Arnold may be overstating the feminization of some of these particular technologies? For instance, Arnold presents a convincing argument about how Western organizations were targeting certain technologies to women: the YWCA in Calcutta encouraged women to use typewriters as a means of social uplifting. Yet, there is a difference between the intended user of a technology and its actual practice or use. Indeed, the ultimate success of these technology campaigns is a different story.

I would argue that it’s debatable whether machines like the typewriter were ever gendered “female” in a meaningful way in India. Even at the end of the century, the job of typing was still in the hands of male clerical workers within a majority of state and private firms. The truth is that the job of information processing did not reach a tipping point of feminization until the introduction of the computer, which was primarily after the year 2000. (In light of these points, I almost wonder if the strained link of femininity to technology by Arnold is an attempt to use women as a barometer of modernization, which I get to in point #4 below.)

One might also argue that the limited focus on mechanical gadgets is a misplaced way of understanding women’s relation to technology and science in the late 19th and early 20th century India. Here I’m drawn to Vandana Shiva’s (1989) work. If we are looking for the everyday participation of women in science and technology at this time – especially on a mass-populous level – what we find may not be an invention made out of metal, or even a consumer item at all (like bikes, typewriters, etc.). More abstractly, but still quite significantly, women’s contributions may have been in the scientific knowledge production of agriculture and environment, concerning seed cultivation, forestry, etc. As women were mostly rural during this period and doing much of the farming work for the household, their everyday lives revolved around technologies in those realms.

3. This leads to my next point, which is that several of Arnold’s cases are in some ways not about women at all, but rather about men. Deboleena Roy, one of our participants, noted that her father – not her mother – was the person in her household in India who was invested both practically and emotionally in the sewing machine. In fact, he wasn’t aware of any other gendered-association of sewing machines (like that of femininity), until he came to the US and encountered ridicule for using them.

This is not to downplay the significance of women in the social meaning of these technologies, but rather to reveal a deeper understanding when examining and interrogating masculinity as well. Again, there is such a rich gender literature available to fill in the gaps here. Many excellent historiographies on masculinity in South Asia have been written about the colonial period in India, such as Ashis Nandy’s (1983) analysis of hyper-masculinity and violence among the British, and Mrinalini Sinha’s (1995) exploration of effeminacy among Bengali civil servant men. There is also a growing field specifically on technology within masculinity, like Ulf Melstrom’s (2003) study of men and automobiles as everyday machines, Jeff Hearn’s (2009) work on virtuality, masculinity, and globalization, and my own work on Indian techno-masculinity in the IT industry (Poster 2009). Thus, in some cases, we should be asking not only why and how certain technologies are feminized, but why they are masculinized.

4. My last question arising is about the outcomes of technology for women. In most of Arnold’s examples, technology seems to have a positive impact on women, affirming of the modernist view that technology ultimately facilitates social progress. An example is the bicycle, which Arnold says was “liberating” for several groups of the 1930s, such as middle class women who gained independent mobility, and activist women could serve as couriers for the communist movement.

Feminist scholars of South Asia remind us that technology has not always been associated with benefits for women, however. Take the development process for example. With one of the earliest critiques of development, Ester Boserup (1970) revealed how technology can actually distort the development process for women. Based on research in the 1950s and 60s in India (as well as East Asia and Africa), she showed how agricultural technologies are often put in the hands of men. This leaves women with substandard tools for farming, lower yield crops, and exclusion from the anti-poverty programs.

Technology has come at a cost for urban women workers in factories too. Amrita Chhachhi, Sujata Gothoskar, and others documented how the automation of consumer and computer electronics production in Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Simla, etc., was quite disadvantageous to women, especially within the context of structural adjustment programs of the 1980s and 90s. Women were disproportionately affected by layoffs, and then by the ensuing “casualization” of labor. This meant that, even if their jobs were female-dominated, those jobs were also degraded (with insecure contracts and inadequate wages) and pushed out of the organized (and thus unionized) labor sector (Chhachhi 1999; Shah et al. 1999).

True, as Arnold points out, new forms of employment technology at the turn of the 19th century – particularly the rice and jute mills – were often unfairly disparaged as bad for women by Indian cultural and political media outlets. In fact, this was the case from Gandhi himself, who argued the mills were a “disservice to women,” taking them away from their traditional way of life. This dichotomization (nature vs. technology, work vs. home, etc.) certainly placed unnecessary choices on women. Still, is the alternative to welcome all technologies as potentially good for women? I would argue an uncritical approach is equally unhelpful.

Indeed, feminist scholars of late are providing more nuanced gender analyses when it comes to current (and much celebrated) technologies in South Asia – the ICT industry. The shift to advanced information processing services at the turn of the millennium, which I study, highlights the complexity for women (Poster Forthcoming; Poster 2007a, b). It has opened hundreds of thousands of jobs in outsourced call centers and software firms (and many more in secondary industries). Furthermore many of these women are the first in their families to work outside the home or in the formal sector. Some South Asian scholars are optimistic (whether guardedly or enthusiastically) about potential empowerment for women from ICTs in these fields (Banerjee and Mitter 1999; Mitter and Rowbotham 1995; Kelkar et al. 2002; Ng and Mitter 2005). At the same time, this newfound economic power from IT has yet to relieve or improve women’s burdens and responsibilities in the household (Kelkar et al. 2005; Poster 2005; Poster and Prasad 2005).

Finally, the newest form of everyday technology – the internet – is providing some of the greatest challenges to the modernization thesis. Believe it or not, internet usage is not correlated cross-nationally with gains in major indicators of women’s status, such as literacy, GDP per capita, and gender and development indices (Huyer et al. 2005). It is associated, however, with over ten different kinds of cybercrime against women in India, including cyber-harassment, stalking, bullying, defamation, hacking, email spoofing, morphing, pornography, etc. (Halder and Jaishankar 2008). Future studies of everyday technologies will undoubtedly be about cell phones, for which India is now the second largest market in the world, and how men are using them to take compromising pictures of women without their knowledge or permission, and then to sell them online.

Clearly, technology remains an unknown for women and men in South Asia at the dawn of the 21st century. No doubt, technology can play a huge role in empowering women (Hafkin and Huyer 2006). This is especially true in global south countries, where ICTs can help women to leverage rights across economic, education, sociocultural, psychological, political, and legal arenas, especially when other resources and tools are less available. Feminist scholars are also showing how South Asian cyberwebs are increasingly crucial for women’s activism (Gajjala 2003, 2004). As technology is intrinsically multi-layered, socially variable, and highly dynamic, however, we need continued study on the way that gender is integral to technology in South Asia.


Banerjee, Nirmala and Swasti Mitter. 1999. “Women Making a Meaningful Choice: Technology and the New Economic Order.” Economic and Political Weekly December 19:3247-56.
Boserup, Ester. 1970. Women’s Role in Economic Development. London: Aleen and Unwin.
Chhachhi, Amrita. 1999. “Gender, Flexibility, Skill and Industrial Restructuring: The Electronics Industry in India.” Gender, Technology and Development 3(3):329-360.
Gajjala, Radhika. 2003. “South Asian Digital Diasporas and Cyberfeminist Webs.” Contemporary South Asia 12(1):41-56.
Gajjala, Radhika. 2004. Cyber Selves. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
Hafkin, Nancy and Sophia Huyer. 2006. “Cinderella or Cyberella? Empowering Women in the Knowledge Society.” Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press.
Halder, Debarati and K. Jaishankar. 2008. “Cyber Crimes Against Women in India: Problems, Perspectives and Solutions.” TMC Academic Journal 3(1):48-62.
Hearn, Jeff. 2009. “Hegemony, Transnationalisation and Virtualization: MNCs and ICTs.” Pp. 1-13 in Changing Men and Masculinities in Gender Equal Societies Conference. Roskilde University, Denmark.
Huyer, Sophia, et al. 2005. “Women in the Information Society.” Pp. 135-196 in From the Digital Divide to Digital Opportunities, edited by G. Sciadas. Montreal, Canada: Orbicom.
Kelkar, Govind, et al. 2002. “IT Industry and Women’s Agency: Explorations in Bangalore and Delhi, India.” Gender, Technology and Development 6(1):63-84.
Kelkar, Govind, et al. 2005. “Women’s Agency and the IT Industry in India.” Pp. 110-131 in Gender and the Digital Economy: Perspectives from the Developing World, edited by C. Ng and S. Mitter. New Delhi, India: Sage.
Mellstrom, Ulf. 2003. Masculinity, Power, and Technology. Oxon, UK: Ashgate.
Mies, Maria. 1982. The Lace Makers of Narsapur. London, UK: Zed Press.
Mitter, Swasti and Sheila Rowbotham. 1995. “Women Encounter Technology.” London, UK: Routledge.
Nandy, Ashis. 1983. The Intimate Enemy. Dehli, India: Oxford University Press.
Ng, Cecilia and Swasti Mitter. 2005. “Gender and the Digital Economy: Perspectives from the Developing World.” New Delhi, India: Sage.
Poster, Winifred. 2009. “Subversions of Techno-Masculinity in the Global Economy: Multi-Level Challenges by Indian Professionals to US ICT Hegemony.” GEXcel Work in Progress Report V:123-135.
Poster, Winifred. Forthcoming. “Global Circuits of Gender: Women and High-Tech Work in India and the U.S.” in Women in Engineering and Technology Research: The Prometea Conference Proceedings, edited by A.-S. Godfroy-Genin. Zurich, Switzerland: Verlag.
Poster, Winifred R. 2005. “Organizational Change, Globalization, and Work-Family Programs: Case Studies from India and the United States.” Pp. 173-209 in Work-Family Interface in International Perspective, edited by S. A. Y. Poelmans. Mahwah, NJ: LEA Press.
Poster, Winifred R. 2007a. “Saying ‘Good Morning’ in the Night: The Reversal of Work Time in Global ICT Service Work.” Pp. 55-112 in Research in the Sociology of Work, vol. 17, edited by B. Rubin. Amserdam, Netherlands: Elsevier.
Poster, Winifred R. 2007b. “Who’s On the Line? Indian Call Center Agents Pose as Americans for U.S.-Outsourced Firms.” Industrial Relations 46(2):271-304.
Poster, Winifred R. and Srirupa Prasad. 2005. “Work-Family Relations in Transnational Perspective: Case Studies from India and the United States.” Social Problems 52(1):122-146.
Shah, Nandita, et al. 1999. “Structural Adjustment, Feminization of the Labour Force and Organizational Strategies.” Pp. 145-177 in Gender and Politics in India, edited by N. Menon. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Shiva, Vandana. 1989. Staying Alive. London, UK: Zed Books.
Sinha, Mrinalini. 1995. Colonial Masculinity. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Category: Uncategorized
You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
6 Responses
  1. Zelda says:

    As someone who knows next to nothing about this subject, I just want to say I was fascinated both by Winnie’s original post with its detailed analysis and by the subsequent discussion. I love nuance 🙂

  2. Kavita says:

    Arnold is an experienced archival researcher and has also had plenty of leave and funding to travel in India and do oral histories, so I was a bit perplexed at his lack of understanding of the gendered nuances that this thread already explores in a manner far more complex than Arnold’ presentation managed. So I agree with Winnie’s original post: his talk was a particularly stark reminder of the difference between the empirical presence of women and a gendered analytic approach to historiography. In feminist historiography of science, this break came somewhere between the work of Margaret Rossiter and Londa Schiebinger; after these scholars, there has been a massive growth in complex gendered analyses of the history of science. (Shubhra Gururani and I have been working on extending this approach to Indian environmental history and anthropology, and presented an earlier version at Madison, but have found this a particularly difficult project – more on that separately).
    The larger difficulty, in my view, is not so much a lack of work on South Asian histories of science, but an odd set of disjunctures in the techno-scientific domain. Shubhra and I described it as an oscillation between hypermodernism and anti-modernism (think, Nilekani versus Nandy, for instance). Abha Sur’s wonderful forthcoming book describes the academic landscape well:
    “Mainstream Indian historiography of modern science has been entirely lauding of Indian contributions. Descriptive biographies of major figures in modern science in India, written primarily by their former students and research associates remain indifferent to the impact of the
    internally differentiated social structure on scientific institutions, let alone on the content of scientific investigations.There are a few critical studies on the intellectual history of modern science in India but these are primarily concerned with science’s relation to colonialism. What
    is needed instead is a serious engagement with the content of science, the nature of scientific institutions and, the social, cultural and political context of their production, and last but not least the impact of these on Indian society.” (Dispersed Radiance, Chapter 1)
    I could go on about the academic landscape, but the more practical question, for me, is how to nurture a vigorous space of exchange and debate so that the history, philosophy and political economic analysis of South Asian science and technology might grow in a way that benefits from the rich methodological resources that exist in elsewhere, but also in a way that can overcome the divisions between theory and practice, politics and analysis, academic purity and engaged contamination. I think Indian contexts have interests in this area that are far more exciting than the boring space of US academia, but we don’t have the infrastructural and funding supports in place to make this a reality. With US academia in decline, where will this conversation occur?

  3. GP says:

    Great discussion. Lovely points — thank you Winnie, Lilly and Indrani. and am concurring with Indrani’s and Winnie’s points. So it is about Arnold not being versed in south asian feminist scholarship (not surprising as Indrani points out), not really having access to either the place to ask questions or having access to the kind of ordinary life (despite perhaps trying to speak to it) in India (such as getting clothes sewn) that might give him an insight into the short falls of certain avenues of thinking.

    So back to the sewing machine. Just looking back at some of the ads I have seen from the late 1940s and 1950s, sewing machines are incorporated into advertisements by cloth producers such as Binny’s and have clearly upper class women sitting at them as a part of a domestic scene. It might be the case that few women who were targeted by these ads bought or used sewing machines. Many, but not all, such ads were targeted at upper middle class women, whose relationship with sewing in households began and ended with domestic science course requirements for school or taking sewing classes at the YWCA. So those ads were perhaps about a fantasmatic domesticity with references to American magazines targeted at women living in suburbia (also fantasmatic). The aesthetics of some of the two sorts of ads were similar and at that time non-Indian ad agencies did carry some of the visuals over.

    But if anyone has actually tried to get either 1) clothes made 2) upholstery of various sorts done — from sofas to curtains–it is clear that public sewing is almost always in the hands of men (darzis), some of them Muslim men whose families train sons in the sewing trade (and deindustrialization and class as indrani points out, melded with older trade and trading networks specially in cases like Gujarat or Bombay might be an avenue to consider). Even though the front person taking orders for clothing might be a woman, specially in middle/upper middle class neighbourhood shops (rather than darzis that come to the house). In my discussions with some mistrys or carpenters (multi-generation again) they said that the upholsterers who worked with them were mainly men. Breaking into that world, the world of people who were technically and aestheticallly proficient at a trade has been hard for women. I talked to women who were considering getting loans for sewing machines and knew that it was not just about getting good at something, but at getting a clientele with certain settled expectations about who held access to certain proficiencies.

    And as you say Winnie, it is not about women, in some simple notion of in the flesh, but about gendering and the ways in which technologies acquire gendered resonances in certain political economies (pace Indrani). Priti Ramamurthy’s work is also instructive here including her recent article on the labor of sex in fields.

    So, like Indrani I would love to read Arnold’s article and see how the following might be available in his work or not as the case many be:

    deindustrialization (at various periods), class (and not just some idea of caste), capital demanded by families during marriage, and in cases such as cities in Gujarat, breaking apart older networks of affiliation post carnage (people are bemoaning the loss of technically proficient traders that they helped destroy), and gendering work. All of the above taken in relation to the production of rhetorics of modernity and the work that that rhetoric does (and not just simple notion of salivific modernity embodied as or embedded in any one particular technology).

    I am very tired, so am not sure if all this makes any sense, but I loved the above discussion so much that I had to say my little piece!

  4. Indrani Chatterjee says:

    I loved this discussion, and the one on arcadescollaborative. Now I want to actually read Arnold’s paper! and find out what his ‘evidence’ is. Unlike Maria Mies and others, Arnold is a historian of the early and middle twentieth century. MEthodological implications of this are that Prof Mies can go and observe and speak with lace workers, while Arnold may not have access to an industrial context that has also rapidly been affected by de-indutrialisation of a certain kind. In fact, the sewing machine, the cycle etc in the post-Partition contexts of the Indian economy became explicitly associated with lower middle-class men’s livelihoods (small scale industry, factory work) – and in turn became the source of enormous oppression of women in northern India. Sewing machines and cycles in particular were the capital goods regularly demanded by grooms’ guardians who negotiated the dowry payments to be made by potential brides/bridal guardians. Arnold may certainly have erred in his gender politics, and in not taking on feminist scholarship on labor and technology, but that is as much a reflection on the state of the field in South Asian history of science (non-existent) as it is on Arnold’s own blinkers. Besides, nothing in South Asian history is simply transferable or translateable between the Euroam feminist contexts of the 1970s-2010 to an economically different moment in 1900-1950.

  5. Thanks Lilly, both for the comment, and for the cross-posting. Sounds like another great discussion community. (I really appreciate your help in my first ventures to the world of blogging!)

  6. Lilly says:

    Winnie, thanks for this post. I saw Arnold speak on these same topics at UCI and while I enjoyed the talk, I was also shocked at how little engagement he had with STS. He was making points that STS had moved beyond for quite some time — that everyday practices were important, that this is how the meanings of technologies were defined domestically in unusual ways. I was also surprised when he spoke at Irvine that he still held onto writing history in the categories of indigenous and modern at the same moment he sought to complicate tradition-modernity binaries.

    I also posted a teaser to your post on another blog of information scientists at the request of one of them who read your post here and loved it. There are some comments there: