Ada Lovelace Day: Donna Haraway

Today is Ada Lovelace day, a day to celebrate the achievements of women in Science, Engineering and Maths. As a former mathematician and a bit of a geek, I remember feeling both surprised and pleased when at eleven years old I discovered that the ADA computer language was named after the first computer scientist and that unusually she got the recognition that she deserved, in a time when so many women’s achievements were accredited to their male partners. For today I’d like to select Donna Haraway as a woman who has been inspiring to other women including myself to pursue aims and ambitions within the STEM area.

I grew up in an industrial town in the 70s, men worked in foundries and if women worked at all it was in offices, shops or schools. Production, science and engineering was mens work. The 70s of course saw major upheaval in the roles of women, slow to come to small Scottish towns, at primary school we girls still got “Craftwork” (ie knitting & sewing) while the boys got technology (carpentry and later on computers). While by the time that High School came, sexist assumptions of sex-appropriate activities were starting to break down and promotion of women into science and technology was starting (if a little patronising and half-hearted), it was still seen as a boys domain, reflected in the gender composition of science, maths and engineering staff who were overwhelmingly male.

By this time it was the early 80s. The women’s movement had started to retreat into essentialism, separatism and valuing women’s supposedly inherent abilities – intuition, empathy, knitting skills It is true that all of those things tend to be found in greater abundance within women, partly through the gendering of experience and partly through social conditioning; it is also true that they are undervalued, however the initial aim of the women’s movement to smash patriarchal attitudes to what women could and couldn’t do, seemed to have been blunted. The emphasis on women’s physical capabilities and their closeness to nature through menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth only seemed to reinforce and support narratives of women as specific classes of beings suited for specific things.

It was in this context that Haraway wrote her Cyborg Manifesto. A manifesto that demanded that women’s movement transcended essentialism, that we looked beyond binary systems and looked at how they could be undermined, transmuted and fused. That we embrace the artificial and the human-constructed, celebrating the achievements and progress that we have made, rather than retreating back to the natural and the hand-crafted.

Technology was reshaping the female experience – effective contraception meant the fear of unwanted pregnancy was diminished; legal abortion made an unwanted pregnancy less of a disaster and improvements in obstetric care made childbirth less dangerous. At the same time, technology was reshaping the unpaid domestic labour expected of women – with white goods lessening the burdens of cleaning and cooking.

The essentialist feminist discourse of valuing women’s sacrifice, promoting traditional womanly pursuits and steering an isolationist course taking in a lesbian separatist ideology found most resonance within the white middle class women who were prominent within second wave feminists. Working class women were only too glad to be freed of domestic labour, rather than having it celebrated. Haraway provided an alternative discourse of liberation through the destruction of the male/female binary, an embracing of technology to become post-human and post-gender. In doing so she provided the ideological justification for women to push the boundaries of technology and science, not just for the good of humanity, but for the good of womankind.

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