“This is the History People Often Care About Most”
Ruth Schwartz Cowan has made a career of discovering unlikely truths about our material world and how it got that way—and still finds colleagues who think the subject isn’t quite legitimate
RUTH SCHWARTZ COWAN IS ONE OF A VERY FEW SPECIALISTS in the history of technology whose work is widely known among teachers and students of general American history. It is also well known and highly regarded in realms far beyond academia, particularly her prizewinning 1983 book, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology From the Open Hearth to the Microwave, which confirms the counterintuitive proposition that the proliferation of “labor-saving” household appliances had actually increased the amount of time that women spent on housework. Ruth’s graduate training was in the history of science, and with her husband, Neil M. Cowan, she has written a social history of Jewish assimilation in America, but her light shines brightest in the history of technology. Her Social History of American Technology is the most popular textbook in the field; she is a past president of the Society for the History of Technology.
In 2002, after 35 years on the faculty at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, on Long Island, she accepted a professorship in the Department of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently at work on two new books. One of them is about genetic screening; the other, in collaboration with her husband, tells the story of women engineers in the United States.
This interview took place in Ruth’s office on the Penn campus in Philadelphia. For more information, see http://RuthSchwartzCowan.com/.
You grew up in Brooklyn and got a B.A. in zoology at Barnard. How did you get from that to the history of science and then technology?
At Barnard you couldn’t complete a zoology major without taking physics, and I thought physics would be horrible, so I put it off as long as I could. In my senior year they hired a young man who wanted to try teaching physics through its history.
So you took his course.
Yes, and I thought it was the most exciting intellectual experience I had ever had. After graduating, I taught high school. I got the idea that if I had been captivated by learning physics through its history, then girls who hated science—and I was teaching a lot of them—might also be. And if I had to get a master’s degree to keep teaching high school, why not take it in this field? My teacher at Barnard told me there was just one person teaching the history of science who was worth studying with. He was at the University of California at Berkeley and his name was Thomas S. K’fchn.
The man who wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Yes. I was at Berkeley until August 1964, just before Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement and everything else blew up in September. I still thought I wanted to teach high school, but nobody would hire me to teach science with a master’s degree in history.
So you began to think of going on for a doctorate.
Kuhn and I had several long talks about this, but he didn’t want to supervise a dissertation in the history of biology. He advised me to go to Johns Hopkins. There I remember sitting with some other graduate students in a cafeteria, and the history of technology came up, and somebody said, “That’s just for dummies who can’t understand science.”
You finished a dissertation on the eugenicist Francis Galton in 1969 and went from there to writing on household technology in 1973. How did that happen?
Well, this is going to sound like I made it up, but in 1968 and ’69 I was at Stony Brook, and the campus exploded, as all campuses did. One of the innovations that came out of the student protests was something called “process education.” The theory was that education would be relevant if the students could see the process by which a person becomes educated. So you’d teach something you knew nothing about, and the students would learn along with you. I volunteered.
I think I can see where this is headed.
I decided to give a course on “technological determinism,” the notion that historical change is caused primarily by technological change. I had no idea what that theory said, except that it was somehow connected with Marx and that this was bad from the perspective of the people who had trained me. I scrambled for material, and I could find only one self-defined historian of technology, Lynn White. When the semester was over, I decided it would be fun to do a small research project involving the theory and thought, “Hey, I live in Manhattan and I commute to Stonv Brook. Why not do a study of the impact of the Long Island Rail Road on the growth of the Long Island suburbs?” Then in the spring of 1970 I gave birth to my first child, and the fiftieth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, woman suffrage, had just passed, and the second wave of feminism was gaining momentum. I was washing dishes one night—we didn’t have a dishwasher—and I literally had a “Eureka!” moment. I said to myself, “This is nuts. You don’t know how a railroad functions. But you certainly know how a house functions.” So why not study the impact of appliances on the work that women do in their houses? I wanted to know what had made it possible that I could contemplate continuing to work outside my home with a baby in my life, when my mother had to quit her job as soon as she became pregnant.
Your hypothesis was that household appliances would have made it easier to keep working.
Yes. I thought, I’ll get myself a time series—a set of annualized statistics—on women’s labor-force participation, and then I’ll get a time series on the diffusion of household appliances, and I’ll just compare them. Little did I know there was no such thing as a time series on the diffusion of household appliances.
There was no information at all?
There was some, but it was really hard to find, because it was all in different trade magazines. And I quickly learned that a sociologist named Valerie Oppenheimer had found that there was no connection between women’s work-force participation and any variable that could have anything to do with household work anyway. Oppenheimer’s work was really solid, and I began to think I’d have to change my hypothesis.
But you still wanted to approach the question from the perspective of a historian.
Yes, and in 1973 I found myself at a meeting of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), standing on a stage, explaining how it could be true that new appliances had not liberated women but instead had increased the time they spent on household tasks. I was terrified. Giving such a talk to a conference of women was no problem, but there were no women here. When I was finished, true to my fears, one man, who I later found out was a leader in the field, stood up and said something really negative. But a couple of weeks later I got a letter from MeI Kranzberg, who was both secretary of SHOT and editor of its journal, Technology and Culture , saying, “That was a wonderful paper; you must submit it to T&C.” And of course I did.
In your address as president of SHOT you remarked that a colleague once told you that adding the history of technology to the history of science meant adding a women’s perspective. And that struck you as odd because most people thought of technology as generally masculine. What did she mean?
I think she meant that the history of technology is about mundane things, and that the history of mundane things is somehow feminine compared with the history of, say, wars and politics, which is masculine.
Which leads right to your concept of what you’ve termed “the consumption junction,” where consumers redefine technologies in ways that their inventors had not intended.
It really bugged me that General Electric had once done comparisons of gas and electric refrigerators, and in all the tests nobody had ever put any food in the box. The consumer had been completely ignored. Somebody was going to have to worry about whether the butter melted or turned rancid, but that somebody wasn’t the engineering staff at GE. So when I learned about social actor theory, which posits that historical change results from the behavior of people in many different kinds of social roles, I decided to write a paper that considered the consumer as an important social actor in technological change.
It appears that More Work for Mother has been used and cited more often than any other book written by a historian of technology.
The book was even excerpted in Reader’s Digest, and that led to an article in The National Enquirer of all places. They called me up and interviewed me and then did a whole article on housework.
Let’s talk about your textbook, A Social History of American Technology, which was published in 1997. When it appeared, one historian wrote that a moment had finally arrived when a scholar could write a general history-of-technology text and a publisher could find a large enough market for it.
I was teaching a course called “Technology and Western Civilization” in the 1970s. I hated it, for two reasons. First, there was nothing good for the students to read, and second, the students didn’t know enough history, certainly not enough European history, for me to go all the way from Roman roads to the Cold War without losing them. So I thought, I can do the course just in American history, where the students should know the history well enough. I had to rely on monographs, and for the students at Stony Brook, many of whom were engineering students, monographs were not always wonderful. So finally I just said to myself, to hell with it—I’ve developed these lectures and I’ve given this course seven or eight times. I had a friend in the textbook division at Oxford University Press and I wrote a proposal for a history-of-American-technology survey.
One of the book’s main ideas is that technology is no more central to human society now than it ever was. That’s a point which must be harder and harder to get across, especially when people think technology just means computers.
Even in the early 1980s students would come into my class expecting a history of computers. The engineering students didn’t even think of the automobile as a technology. Once I realized this, I began my courses by making that point. In high schools in New York there was a course called “Technology,” and it was a course in keyboarding. When I was in school it had been called typing and only girls took it. I think they changed the name when boys had to take it too.
The textbook has done very well.
Yes it has. I was surprised about More Work for Mother, but I was really surprised about A Social History of American Technology. My intended audience was students at engineering schools who were required to take American history. In my proposal I had said that the book would be designed so that it could be assigned along with an American history survey. Many teachers have used it that way, but it’s also being used in courses in science and economic policy studies. I get e-mails from people at business schools and in political science departments telling me that there’s nothing else to give their students that helps explain why science and technology policies are linked. Or what the impact of government science and technology policies have been over the years, from steamboat safety laws to the role of the military in the development of aircraft.
Now you’re working on two books, one on genetic screening and the other, with your husband, on women engineers, called Breaking the Mold . It’s not a series of biographies but a social history, right?
That’s right. We want to describe where engineering was as a profession during succeeding generations, and then ask how we should understand the experience of the women who were part of each generation. The first generation is that of Ellen Swallow Richards, who taught at MIT beginning in the 1870s and was a founder of home economics. There are deep resources on her at MIT. Then we have the papers of the first woman in America to graduate with a degree in civil engineering, from Cornell, in 1905, Nora Blatch Barney. We’ve found a paper trail for five or six women engineers who got their degrees before the First World War.
And in the interwar years?
Then the number of women engineers, which had never been large, went down. So we have to tell why that happened—the impact of the Depression on women’s education and employment, and a diversion of women with scientific and mathematical interests into home economics. Then a chapter on World War II, and one on the immediate postwar years.
For the years right after the war, we have interviews with women who were, say, put to work doing drafting during the war and afterward sometimes got an engineering degree, and who later went into the automobile or aircraft industry.
What is the percentage of women in engineering?
I think it’s 10 percent in the latest census data, but it’s funny data to work with. Say you get a bachelor’s in engineering and go to work for a corporation. When the next census comes around you may be a manager, not an engineer. Or it could be that large numbers of women who are now graduating from engineering school are not really apparent in the data because there are so many older guys still there. So we don’t really know what that 10 percent means.
You have said that women who succeed in engineering break stereotypes, and yet they tend to be “resolutely unpolitical and nonfeminist.” Is that true even to this day?
Oh, yes, absolutely. We call the book Breaking the Mold because these women don’t fit the stereotypical mold of engineers but they also don’t fit the stereotypical mold of feminists.
Because from the start they’ve known political engagement wouldn’t work in their favor?
Yes. And they’re basically like their male brethren when it comes to politics and when it comes to expressing emotions. Like male engineers, they often come from somewhat lower social-class origins than scientists do, and I think that explains in part why some of them help out in battered-women’s shelters or addiction-related programs for women. But most of them, if they do something outside their engineering work, it’s churchrelated or Rotary, not anything overtly political. The Society of Women Engineers’ executive board was sharply divided about taking a stand on the Equal Rights Amendment long after most other women’s organizations voted to support it.
Your other book in the works, Bad Genes, Good People: The History and Politics of Genetic Screening, is about a highly political subject.
Yes, and I started the project for a very personal reason. I had amniocentesis during my third pregnancy, in 1980, and, while I was lying on a gurney with eight quarts of water in me, they handed me a four-page consent form that was full of data about false positives. This is 1980, and I’m a feminist, and I’m going to read every damned word of that consent form before I sign it. And I’m reading it and thinking, “I have a Ph.D., and I wrote my dissertation in the history of biostatistics. If I’m having trouble with this form, how does an ordinary person make any sense out of it?” My next research project was born right there on the gurney. I want to emphasize political and ethical questions in this book, questions that affect consumers.
But when I’m finished I want to write something about the technologies of prenatal diagnosis. In ultrasound, for example, you have a technology that was worked out for finding weld flaws in metals. In the 1950s an obstetrician in Glasgow happened to have a patient whose husband was director of an engineering firm that used ultrasound. The doctor thought the technology held promise for his field, and his experiments led to using ultrasound to measure fetuses. Some firm saw a market among obstetricians, and after that it just took off.
When you edited a special issue of Technology & Culture in 1993, you remarked that the history of biomédical and medical technology was a neglected field. It’s not neglected any more, is it?
No, things have changed a lot. And medical technology is interesting in so many ways. Technologies change the physician’s sense of skill, they change the consumer’s understanding of his or her body. People walk around now and they know their cholesterol number. But do they know what that number derives from?
Do you still find that academics in other fields turn up their noses when you say you’re a historian of technology?
Oh, sure. The working title I originally had in my head for A Social History of American Technology was "We All Live in a Material World." It annoys me when people think that the social history of material culture is simple. It’s actually the most complex of all. And it’s the hardest to do. So many historians are phobic about material objects. When I first started teaching the history of technology, I had a graduate-student teaching assistant who was very left-wing and bohemian and very opposed to material things. He got going in class one day about how Americans are so dreadfully materialistic. I said, “Oh, and are you standing there naked?” People who charge other people with being too materialistic don’t think of the things they wear or work with or drive as material goods. Material goods are what other people desire. They think, “I only care about the higher things in life.” In fact, this is the history people often care about most.