“What Next for WITH?”: A Scandalously Brief History of a Feminist Listerv

By Beth A. Robertson

In 1983, eminent historian of technology, Joan Rothschild wrote “the omission of the female affects how we know and what we know, and our very deepest beliefs and concerns about technology…” [1] Her words were one of many that began to challenge how women were strategically distanced from technology, science and empirical knowledge more broadly. Not one to leave revolution to chance, Joan Rothschild was also active in establishing a more prominent voice for women in the academic field of technological history. She briefly charts this development in the edited collection Machina Ex Dea. Here, Rothschild writes of the growing involvement of women in the Society for the History of Technology throughout the 1970s, as well as the founding of the special interest group Women in Technological History (WITH) in 1976. As Rothschild writes, WITH was formed with the aim of encouraging feminist analysis and research in the field of the history of technology. Although emerging from the American context, this feminist organization quickly gained an international membership, drawing scholars from Canada, Europe, Asia and beyond. 

By the late 1990s, members of WITH were once more contemplating the organization’s purpose and direction, with some even wondering if it should continue at all. Efforts to make the history of technology more accessible to women in very practical ways were ongoing. At the same time, some looked to emerging technologies that seemed to hold unfathomable promise. Scholars in the field had already begun harnessing the internet as a form of communication, yet Deborah Douglas recalls that the technology still seemed “magical”. Considering women’s continued tendency to find themselves in less prestigious and lower-paying academic positions than their male counterparts, email and listservs seemed like a relatively inexpensive means to network across vast distances. Arwen Palmer Mohun recalls how such communication technologies were simultaneously conceived of as an opportunity for women to engage in scholarly debates around high tech, a conversation that was then dominated by men. Some members were involved in the founding of H-Sci-Med-Tech, and creating a list for WITH seemed like a natural extension of such efforts. Nina Lerman volunteered to create the listserv in 1997, and when Molly Berger and others joined her, WITH was “back in business” as Douglas relates.

These early listserv conversations were dynamic and animated. Topics ranged from intersecting histories of science, medicine, technology and feminism, to nail polish and its more practical uses of stopping runs in stockings. Undoubtedly, this new platform stimulated discussion and a sense of camaraderie, especially for those who would not be able to participate otherwise. While some were highly influential in supporting the listserv, others ensured that members continued sharing news, insights and ideas. This included Joan Rothschild who humorously chided the group during one less lively period in 1999, “Everyone is so QUIET! Is anyone out there??”

Listservs may no longer be seen as cutting edge in the world of Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Neither are they completely free of problems. As some studies have found, digital communication platforms like listservs are not perfect at promoting egalitarian exchange and are by no means uninhibited by existent power relations. [2] Yet, this does not detract from the fact that they were, at least once, a radical new means of communication that feminist organizations like WITH utilized to break down barriers for women intent on furthering a feminist analysis of the history of technology.

WITH is once more undergoing a period of transition, prompting some of the more established membership to ask “What next for WITH?” as Deborah Douglas described it. Notably other promising interest groups have grown up around the organization in recent years, including EDITH for instance.  Many of the original members have aged. Joan Rothschild passed away this past February.  Much like that moment in the 1990s, some may even be wondering if WITH should not let other initiatives take its place.

I, for one, would argue no. I am a new member who went to my first WITH luncheon in Dearborn, Michigan this past November. While there, I found myself engrossed in conversation with other scholars, young and old, discussing pressing issues that women currently face in academia across North America and beyond. My experience in no way led me to believe that WITH is taking its final breaths. In fact, WITH and other organizations like it may indeed have a significant role to play in our current climate of economic austerity and job insecurity that has disproportionally affected women. Although I am not completely sure of how to answer the question “What next for WITH,” I do have some ideas, including the use of digital tools to once more reinvigorate vibrant discussion and debate among women in the field. Much like Rothschild argued during one of her animated listerv discussions in 1998, “…gender analysis is central to the history of technology, how it affects the discipline.” This has by no means changed, and neither has the significance of WITH’s mandate.

Beth A. Robertson, Ph.D. is an historian of gender, sexuality and the body who teaches with the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa. Her forthcoming book, currently entitled Possessed by Science: Gender, Embodiment and Psychical Research, 1918-1939, examines a transnational network of interwar psychical researchers from the perspective of feminist technoscience and queer theory.

Many thanks to Deborah Douglas, Nina Lerman, Molly Berger and Arwen Mohun for their personal stories that they kindly allowed me to share for this post.

[1] Joan Rothschild, “Introduction,” Machina Ex Dea:Feminist Perspectives on Technology,ed. Joan Rothschild (New York: Pergamon Press, 1983), xii.

[2] For a couple of examples of such studies see Laurie Cubbison, “Configuring LISTSERV, Configuring Discourse,” Computers and Composition 16 (1999): 317-381; Patricia McGee and Felicia Briscoe, “Discourse Analysis: Power/ Knowledge on an Academic Listserv,” Info, Comm & Ethics in Society 1 (2003): 133-147.






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