STS.049J | Spring 2004 | Undergraduate

Technology and Gender in American History


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


This class is centered upon two questions: first, how has gender mattered in the historical development of modern American culture, and second, how has technology mattered in the reshaping of gender identities in the 20th century. The first question raises issues about the role of women in industrialization and technology more generally; patterns of education, professional choices, demographics, and economic opportunities; the ways in which historical arrangements to include and exclude women and men have been played out in the dominance of certain technological systems rather than others. The second question raises issues about how men and women view each other, and themselves, as players in modernity. How have women in different contexts - rural vs. urban, inner city vs. suburb, South vs. North or West - created different relationships with technologies large (e.g., systemic, such as electricity) and small (personal, such as birth control)? In this class we will attempt to understand how these twin questions might be answered by moving into the late- 19th and early- 20th century and working our way up to the present. Our central goal is to see how particular historical circumstances and concerns created contexts for things to go one way rather than another, and for people to act in some ways but not in others. If “the past is another country,” as one historian put it, then our task is to visit that country for an extended stay, trying to both understand its peculiarity as well as its very real connections with our own lives.


Students are expected to attend all classes, to complete all reading before class, and to actively participate in class discussions.

Each student leads class discussion at least once during the term. This involves first providing a brief outline of the day’s readings, describing both the author’s main point and the content of the argument. Secondly, the student offers three questions intended to open up a discussion of the reading. The questions might identify a puzzling contradiction or obscurity in the reading, challenge the author’s data or conclusions, suggest a connection with other readings and issues brought up in previous classes, or explore the larger implications of the author’s argument.

Students also write two short (5 page) papers and one longer (10 page) paper. All three papers are connected to the final project.

In paper 1, due on session 5, students identify a particular technology (e.g., personal computers, rocket launchers, electric razors, motorcycles, food processors, etc) that is relevant to their final paper. Using both popular and trade magazines from a particular historical period, students collect advertising for this technology and analyze the ways in which the ads implicitly and explicitly use gender as a promotional framework.

In paper 2, due one day after session 13, students select a secondary source relevant to their project (but not a book we are reading in class), and write a critical review of it.

In paper 3, first draft due one day after session 21, final draft due one day after session 25, students use primary materials (e.g., historical monographs, textbooks, photographs, letters and memoranda from archival sources, interviews, popular literature, film, etc) to explore the relation between a particular technology and its historical and cultural context. Students present their work at the end of the semester.