Friday Ephemera
Friday Ephemera

The Flow of Ideas

Sharra Vostral is an Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and History at the University of Illinois. According to her website, “her research centres upon the history of technology in relation to gender and women’s bodies and the ways in which material artifacts function in individual’s everyday lives.” Among the professor’s areas of expertise are “gendered design issues,” such as shaving, and,

The social and technological history of sanitary napkins. 

More of which later. However, Professor Vostral’s most recent public comments involve the political ramifications of patchwork quilts:  

This use of patchwork as an insult really struck me, because it is such a gendered insult. [Atlantic politics editor, Marc] Ambinder deploys the metaphor because it assumes that no thought goes into a quilt (like policy), and it’s just a hodgepodge. In reality quilting is a predominantly woman-based art form, that had roots in resourcefulness, community, and skilled sewing hands. To debase something by calling it patchwork is based in gendered and derogatory understandings of the quilt.

Note the professor’s confidence as she rushes to the podium on Mount Grievance. She is righteous and wise, and apparently telepathic. Non-literal uses of the term “patchwork” must assume whatever sequence of ideas suits Professor Vostral’s worldview. Used metaphorically, the word “patchwork” must signal disdain for quilt making, quilt makers and, by implication, an entire gender too. There can be no doubt about it. “Patchwork” simply is a “gendered insult”- one “based in derogatory understandings” of a “woman-based art form.” It’s “embedded,” apparently. Why? Because

The way a patchwork metaphor works is, in part, due to its origins in women’s circles, and many things labeled as “female” are used as put downs.

But wait. As Tommy Christopher points out with admirable patience: 

The metaphoric use of “patchwork” isn’t meant as a value judgment of patchwork quilts, but rather as a way of visualizing the concept of something made up of existing leftover pieces, rather than pieces fabricated for a given purpose. It’s a great way to make use of scraps of fabric, but not the best approach to government policy.

Readers may wonder how a presumptuous blunder of this kind could be made by such a serious and politically savvy scholar. Especially one who uses “an approach derived from a vigorous, interdisciplinary combination of science and technology studies, history of science, gender studies and women’s history,” and whose insights will “enable students to have a better understanding of gender as an intrinsic part of the ways we interpret and shape the competing landscapes that we inhabit.” But hey, these things do happen. As when the Guardian’s handwringer-in-chief Zoe Williams insisted, via somewhat circuitous thinking, that “hoodie” is in fact a “sinister racial code word.” Or when David K Shipler detected “embedded racial attitudes” while indignantly shaking his thesaurus: “‘Elitist’ is another word for ‘arrogant,’” said he. “Which is another word for ‘uppity,’ that old calumny applied to blacks who stood up for themselves.”

Professor Vostral’s published work includes a contribution to Feminist Technology, a collection of essays that asks the question

Is there such a thing as a “feminist technology”?

And then answers it.

This volume explores ways of actively intervening to develop better tools for designing, promoting, and evaluating feminist technologies.

Reviews of Feminist Technology are, alas, thin on the ground, though students are directed to a brief endorsement by Barbara Katz Rothman, author of Recreating Motherhood: Ideology and Technology In A Patriarchal Society. (Sample chapter heading: Motherhood Under Capitalism.) An earlier volume by Professor Vostral, Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology, is helpfully summarised:

These ubiquitous yet invisible technologies provide women with the means to hide their periods, but the history of embedded politics in menstrual technologies reveals that they can be used both as artefacts of control and empowering tools of change.

Quite why the humble tampon should be construed as an “artefact of control” isn’t entirely clear to me. However, the less obvious benefits of this absorbent device are outlined at some length. Among them, the fact that,

Technologies of menstrual hygiene allow women to pass as their non-menstrual selves in a society where fluctuating and messy female bodies are not preferred.


An examination of the history of menstrual hygiene technologies provides a provocative means to view this relationship of gender identity, technology and passing in recent United States history. Menstrual hygiene products are hidden artefacts that have enabled women to pass, to overcome prejudice levelled against a bleeding body. At certain moments the technologies helped women pass as healthy. In others, they helped them to pass as non-bleeders. Because women have relied on the pass, their exposure is felt more keenly in moments in which menstrual blood seeps through clothing, for instance.

Note the heavy reliance on tendentious terms - “hiding” and “passing” - and the implicit, terribly clever parallel with racism. (“She could pass for white,” etc.)

Though menstrual hygiene technologies have been used and construed as personal and private, and even at times secretive, these hidden artefacts function in a similar way as visible artefacts because they help to represent the body as something else: not bleeding. The importance of this is that the representation is both outward and inward. The act of technological passing presents an altered external identity, but also requires the technological user to agree to a sort of temporal amnesia.

At this point, readers may also wonder how it can be that an estimated 98% of humanities scholarship goes uncited or unread.

(h/t, rjmadden in the comments here.) 

If you’re kind-hearted you’ll buy me a beer. After the above, I need to forget.