Technology and Woman's Work
reviewed by Esther Westervelt - 1965
Harriet Martineau observed in 1836 that in America, "it is a boast that women do not labor . . . (yet) so many women are dependent on their exertions." Technology thrust American women into the labor force during our nation's infancy. As Baker notes, Alexander Hamilton hailed the factory employment of women, which, he observed, increased factory production without taking men from the fields, which could "continue with convenience, during the night, as well as through the day," and which rendered "women and children . . . more useful . . . than they would otherwise be."
Yet Baker, Professor Emeritus of Economics at Barnard, is the first since Edith Abbott, whose Women in Industry was published in 1913, to explore the impact of industrial technology on women's labor force participation and, concomitantly, on the employment patterns of those women in the lower echelons of the labor force who "are dependent on their exertions" but who are noted cursorily or not at all in most treatises on women's work.
Baker's perspective is historical rather than predictive, limited to American women, and focused primarily on the twentieth century. Her 8o-page review of the period before 1900 is introductory; since it relies heavily and not too critically on secondary sources, it adds nothing to earlier studies of the period. The strongest parts of the book are those dealing with twentieth-century trends and counter-trends in women's employment in factory, office, and shop and with white-collar unionism.
That technology has steadily increased the variety of employment opportunities for women is often noted. Technology in communications and offices drew women out of the factories. Advanced technological change opened durable goods industries to women; the electronics industry now employs more women than does the textile industry, where women's factory employment began. Baker documents these and similar developments thoroughly.
Less generally recognized is the fact that the effect of technology upon women's employment has been neither uniform among industries nor unidirectional within any given industry. Technology has attracted men to women's work, as well as vice versa. For example, in 1960, women comprised little more than a fifth of all bakery production employees. The cigar industry began as a household craft performed chiefly by women, later became a skilled factory craft from which the union vigorously attempted to exclude women by advocating protective labor legislation, then became almost completely mechanized. As a result, in 1961, 75 per cent of cigar makers were women. In printing and publishing, on the other hand, technology has lightened the work without materially increasing women's traditionally low participation in production.
Baker's examination of trends and forces in a variety of occupations is scholarly and detailed. She does not overlook the role of unions, both in relation to women's membership and to women's employment in given fields. She says little of women's attempts to participate in union leadership, probably because most such attempts have been abortive. The successful efforts of some unions and the attempts of others to keep women out of certain fields are reported; these earlier struggles bear a marked resemblance to today's simultaneous union opposition to minority groups and automation.
In her review of white-collar unionism, Baker attributes its slow growth (as have others) to public employment, professionalism, and large numbers of women white-collar employees who are discriminated against in status and salary. But she also traces the struggle of blue-collar unions to embrace white-collar workers and the latters resistance to joining manual workers in unions popularly characterized as violently aggressive, suggesting that the energy of white-collar unions was greatly dissipated in interunion strife.
To the much-discussed subject of women in the professions, Baker adds nothing new. The chapter, "Teachers and the Technology of Education"an enthusiastic endorsement of educational technologyis, she acknowledges, a digression. Positive pronouncements based on secondary sources such as the New York Times make the digression unfortunate. She fails to explore the implications of technology for women in teaching.
When the author handles material outside the field of economics, she tends to be uncritical. The style is somewhat irritatingly characterized not only by a proclivity toward dangling modifiers, but also by a tendency to report percentages and numbers indiscriminately. The latter habit keeps the reader unnecessarily busy doing arithmetic.
These are, however, minor flaws in a book which contributes richly to our understanding of women's employment as a phenomenon of economic structure and economic forces. Baker's work is also a healthy antidote to the inclination of educators and others to focus their concern primarily on professional women and on the social and psychological implications of women's work.