by Rohan Narain
Technology has always been at the heart of human development. From agriculture to manufacturing, its constant innovation has enabled the emancipation of countless lives. On this front, these technologies have played a crucial role in emancipating women in modern society. By focussing on four main categories – transportation, information and communication, home technologies, and medicine and hygiene – this article tries to provide a comprehensive understanding on how specific technologies have contributed to the emancipation of women in various areas.
Throughout history, technological development has always been the fulcrum of societal development. In recent centuries, it has also acted as a tool for the emancipation of women in a society whose adoption of the same has led to a silent revolution in the way the structure of the society was constructed. These technologies by providing women greater access to education, information, freedom of speech, and action have enabled them to have an equal footing alongside men in the eyes of the law and society, personally and professionally. As we see in the coming paragraphs, technological innovation such as the bicycle, printing press, washing machine, and contraceptive have brought unprecedented opportunities for women in education, employment, and rights.
In the pre-industrial age, women and girls were not offered the same liberties/ opportunities as men in most societies, including the West. They did not have the same rights as men and had nobody to advocate for them in the eyes of the law, especially when it came to parental or marital abuse, may it be emotional, physical, or sexual. They were also severely limited in engagement with the world due to biological processes such as pregnancy and menstruation.
However, the invention of the modern bicycle in the 1880s as an alternative to the penny-farthing came to define female empowerment in the 19th and 20th century. It challenged stereotypes around women’s physical strength, transformed dress codes, and became a symbol for the suffragette movement.
By granting them greater independence, women could move around freely without relying on chaperones, carriages, or horseback. However, this development did not come without backlash. Women were warned riding bicycles was “immoral”, and doctors even went so far as to say that it could lead to severe medical conditions, including damage to the women’s faces and complexion.
Despite this, the widespread adoption of the bicycle by women continued rapidly. Victorian reformists called for more rational clothing and baggier undergarments to ride bikes. And others, such as Annie Londonderry, a Latvian immigrant to the United States, challenged prevailing perceptions of femininity by becoming the first woman to ride around the world on a bicycle from 1894 to 1895. Therefore, as rightly pointed out by American women’s activist Susan B. Antony, the bicycle was a symbol of “free, untrammelled womanhood”
One of the main goals of female empowerment is to help women gain access to resources, participate in decision-making, and control the distribution of benefits. In this regard, information-communication technology played a vital role in reducing poverty, improving governance, overcoming isolation, and providing a voice for the voiceless. In particular, the printing press significantly shaped the women’s rights movement from the late 19th century to the early 20th century.
For example, the Women’s Printing Society founded in 1876 allowed women to work in the printing trade. The venture was part of a growing movement to open new areas of skilled employment to women to earn higher wages and gain greater control over their lives. Despite opposition from trade unions that feared lower wages, printing was considered suited to the skills regarded as innate in the contemporary gendered view of women.
The Society offered conditions and hours suited to women. Its apprenticeships, for which women paid £5 as a premium, lasted three years, compared with the seven years’ apprenticeship required of male printers. And once qualified, women earned 25 shillings a week, a good wage then.
Over the remainder of the 19th century, the Society became the obvious choice as the printer of many feminist newspapers such as The Women’s Penny Paper and its successor, The Woman’s Herald. It also featured a pamphlet by Mrs Frances Hoggan – the first woman to earn a doctorate in medicine from any university in Europe – as well as Mrs Millicent Fawcett’s speech on women’s suffrage.
Similarly, women in San Francisco too were making strong gains in the printing industry during the latter half of the 19th century. In the 1860s, typesetting was the highest paying job for San Francisco women. However, opportunities were minimal, salaries were low, and there existed substantial prejudice against women in the workplace which locked them out of higher-paid jobs.
To voice the growing discrimination against women, Mrs AM Schultz launched a women’s literary magazine called The Hesperion in 1858. Despite her quick resignation, the magazine continued to focus on addressing inequality, lack of opportunities and wage disparities for women.
As experienced female typesetters began to move to San Francisco, one such typesetter, Agnes B. Peterson, founded the Women’s Co-operative Printing Union (WCPU) after being rejected by the International Typographical Union. The WCPU grew stronger as the women’s rights movement steadily grew and encouraged women to start their printing companies and journals. Eventually, after decades of protest, the Typographical Union opened to female printers, offering the same pay and protection as male printers. Hence, as one can perceive, information technology (in this case, printing) along with decades of protests, litigations and social movements played a central role in enabling women’s emancipation.
The Home Appliance Boom
At the beginning of the 20th century, women were almost exclusively engaged in running the household and being wives and mothers. In her PhD dissertation in the 1930s, Margaret Reid points out that running the home was comparable to running a small factory. According to her, the economists of the time did not account for household work, only accounting for the economics of conventional jobs, a practice that unfortunately continues in countries like India today. She noted that the productive work of the household was being overlooked, even though “more workers are engaged in it than any other single industry.” Reid reported that homemakers’ services generated $15.3 billion in 1918, 25% of a national $61 billion income.
Take laundry as an example. In 1900, 98% of households still used a cheap scrub board to wash their clothes and water had to be transported to the stove to be heated by burning wood or coal. Clean clothes were rinsed and wrung out and then ironed using heavy flat irons heated continuously on the stove. However, the introduction of the Thor in 1908, the first commercial electric washer, changed everything. By reducing the time taken for washing, it gave women more free time, allowing them to pursue other activities.
While Thor innovated the commercial laundry industry, other companies such as the Maytag Corporation and subsequently, Whirlpool turned their view toward the consumer market.
With around 700 manufacturers producing the electric washing machines by the 1920s, the constant innovation radically reduced women’s work at home. In 1900, the average household spent 58 hours a week on housework, including meal preparation, laundry, and cleaning—a figure that dropped to 18 hours in 1975. This resulted in women joining the workforce in record numbers. The influx of women into the labour force helped small businesses and gave rise to steady economic development. To put things into perspective, in 1900, just 5 percent of married women worked; by 2000, this had risen to 61 percent. As a result, the gender wage group, though scope for further improvement, has reduced in the last century.
Medicine and Hygiene
Over the centuries, many different birth control methods have been put forward. In 1798 Thomas Malthus, an Anglican clergyman wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population. It posed the issue of population outstripping the rate of replenishment of natural resources. He recommended late marriage and sexual abstinence as methods of birth control. Later, in the early 19th century, freethinkers like Jeremy Bentham, Francis Place, and John Stuart Mill suggested more practical birth control methods such as coitus interruptus, vaginal barriers, and postcoital douching.
However, it was not until 1855 with the development of rubber condoms by Charles Goodyear that society began to see a decline in the transmission of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and sexual intercourse was made medically safer for both men and women. The advantage of using rubber was that it is much more durable than animal intestine which made rubber condoms useful for more than just preventing STDs. It also gave women control over their reproductive decisions, allowing them to plan out pregnancies and have greater agency over the number of children they wish to have. The societal implications of such developments were monumental.
Almost immediately, the field of family planning was overhauled to accommodate the greater autonomy wielded by women over reproductive health. The rate of unplanned and teenage pregnancies also declined. Since women could now decide when to have children, they could engage with society in much more significant ways, such as joining the workforce, pursuing education, volunteering for causes, and advocating for equality alongside men in the eyes of society and the law. They could contribute to society and the world at comparable standards to men and could start a family when they felt ready to do so.
The process of emancipation continues to this day, with the internet bringing education, employment, and progressive ideas to previously untouched parts of the world, thus giving women and girls a much better chance at emancipation. Consequently, by bridging the disparity between man and women, technology has, in its attempts, played a significant role in creating an egalitarian society. As the world moves towards a more inclusive environment, one can remain hopeful that the rapid technological innovation creates an accommodative culture which promotes equity and justice.
Rohan K. Narain is a Master’s student of Diplomacy, Law, and Business at O.P. Jindal Global University.
Image credits: Digital Freedom Fund