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Gendered telephones and machine-like women

As telephone operation rapidly developed as a feminine profession during the 1890s and early twentieth century, so did a complex relationship between the gender of the operators and the technology they operated. The gender and humanity of female telephone operators became conflated with the telephone technology with which they worked so closely. During their training to become the “perfect operator[s]” (Martin 50), managers molded the women’s gender performance. The shift in the way these women were conditioned to be women was not a shift towards masculinity, however; it was a shift towards mechanization. At the same time, the new technology of the telephone was “gendered” both male and female. This relationship between telephone and telephone operator in the U.S. and Canada at the turn of the century seems to be an extreme case of identities mutually constituted between gender and technology. This case, in which both the gender of the technology and the humanity of the female workers are profoundly ambiguous, illuminates the difference between “cyborgian” and “machine-like.”

The male managers of early telephone companies selected women to operate their telephone systems because women allegedly had a suitable disposition for the job. In late Victorian society, femininity was defined by submissiveness, patience, prudence, honesty, and carefulness (Martin 53). Young boys, on the other hand, who had previously been employed because they had been the telegram messengers, were rowdy, rude, and cranky to callers (55). According to the logic of the day, women may not have been as skilled as men in their use of technology, but rudeness was less acceptable than a technical mistake (56). The “disciplinability” factor, then, was key in the managers’ choice of women for the role of operator.

As the telephone industry grew and the owners looked for ways to increase profits, discipline increased for the operators to the point that they were encouraged to be machine-like. A Canadian newspaper called the women “automata…they looked as cold and passionless as icebergs. But that is only discipline” (Martin 70). Women’s passive, submissive qualities turn out to have positioned them exceptionally well to be “made into machines.” Machines, too, are supposed to be subservient to their users, programmed to carry out certain tasks and incapable of performing others. The more precise, disciplined, “passionless” and passive the performance of an operator was, the more machine-like her performance. All these qualities in a woman would also bring her closer to the femininity of the day. In other words, the more the operators performed the desirable femininity, the more they became like machines.

If women became machine-like through a heightening or refining of the same characteristics that made them feminine, then was the telephone technology itself feminized? Yes, but perhaps not primarily because women imparted feminine qualities on the machines. This did occur: use of foul language on the telephone became taboo, and people associated the new experience of using a telephone with the female operator’s voice (Martin 74). But while these practices may have feminized the technology during its early development, telephones are now no more gendered than other technologies (though phone etiquette may be indicative of sexual practice, according to George and Sedgwick). The more useful and persistent way to think about the way female operators’ use of the technology gendered it is to think about men.

Men used and had control over women’s bodies in the same way that they used and controlled the machines. Only males could hold management positions; this is one of the reasons, along with insufficient pay, that telephone operation was considered a female occupational ghetto (Martin 52). Though some female operators were in charge of others, males had the power to set the norms of the workplace and decide working conditions. Operators had very little autonomy over when they could take breaks and vacations, their hours, and how they could talk to the callers—their use of language was predetermined for them, and they were forbidden from having personal conversations on the line. The managerial men programmed, in a sense, every move or “decision” the operators could make during the workday. Men built their female workers at schools where, in the words of the Bell Telephone Co. in 1930, the best operators were “made” into “a kind of human machine” (Martin 73). Ironically, technology in general is associated with the male gender because men most often make and use it. The gender that technology “is” or “has,” though, is more accurately female in that both women and technology are “created” and “used” by men, especially in the case of female telephone operators.

How can we use this case to think about our relationship with technology today? First, it’s important to consider that the early telephone was not clearly gendered either male or female; both genders attached to the technology. At the same time, the operators, in their ideal state of productiveness and femininity, were considered to possess both human and machine-like qualities. Both constructions were ambiguous. Because female and male, organism and technology were so intertwined in the operators’ work, perhaps there existed a symbiotic relationship between woman and machine. Was this connection, though, cyborgian in a positive sense? To me, it seems to have been more machine-like. The difference between cyborgian and machine-like might have to do with free agency. While we might aspire to the ideal of cyborgness, which could give us more freedom by blurring the lines between life and technology in a post-gender world, female telephone operators were not made freer through their work with machines. They were “automated” for the profit of the company—or at least, managers tried to make them that way. The operators did not live in a post-gender world, but rather one where they were considered tools very similar to the ones with which they worked every day.

Work Cited
Martin, Michele. “The Making of the Perfect Operator.” Hello Central?: Gender, Technology and Culture in the Formation of Telephone Systems. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991. 50-81.

One Response
  1. March 20, 2009

    A very interesting paper. I really like the distinction you make between a cyborgness that allows agency and one that doesn’t, placing the operators along the continuum towards machine and not human. I also like the way you connect the masculinization of technology through the use of technology and connect that to the technologization of the women through men’s use of them as machines.

    I’m reminded throughout your paper of Metropolis, which its embodiment of some of the issues you raise. The robot is gendered technology completely, being used by a man for his own ends, but she is not very machine-like in the way she behaves or looks, which is the whole point, of course.

    I also wonder if other professions could be examined this way. Are nurses or secretaries desirable for their “feminine” qualities that actually make them more machine-like and better at their jobs? Or does this analysis break down in contemporary culture or in certain professions?

    I think it would also be interesting to explore the ways in which cyborgness is or isn’t freeing. I think perhaps this issue will get explored again in the gaming section.

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