How Technology Inspired Feminism and Transformed Masculinity

A Q&A with Harvard professor Debora Spar, author of ‘Work Mate Marry Love: How Machines Shape Our Human Destiny’

Photo: John Lamb/Getty Images

What happens when the machines we create begin to change us? This question lies at the heart of Debora Spar’s new book Work Mate Marry Love: How Machines Shape Our Human Destiny, an examination of the way technology is upending our intimate and emotional lives.

In Work Mate Marry Love, the Harvard Business School professor looks at how our social structures and intimate relationships are fundamentally altered by the rise of new technology. The book takes a look at the history of technological change to find clues to help guide us in the present moment, and, in particular, looks at the ways masculinity has been shaped by technology.

When we think about technology, it tends to be focused on what’s happening on the factory floor and in the office — our commercial and our economic lives,” Spar tells OneZero. “But our most personal decisions, how we have children and form our families and fall in love, are being shaped by technology every bit as much as our business lives.”

OneZero caught up with Spar to discuss the technology that fueled feminism, how the Industrial Revolution shaped masculinity, and how our machines transform what it means to be human.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

OneZero: You write that feminism is a direct result of technological shifts — that the massive social movement was ignited and enabled by innovation. How has technology fueled feminism?

Spar: I don’t want to downplay the role of the suffragettes and the women’s liberation movement and activists — many human beings played a huge role in shaping feminism as we know it today. However, there was also a technological change that enabled feminism to be possible.

Technology, particularly refrigerators and washing machines, were crucial in just freeing women from the sheer drudgery of work that had consumed most of their lives. If you go back and look at how many hours it actually took just to do a family’s laundry… I mean it was madness in the days before washing machines. Would it have even been possible to imagine women leaving the home to go into the paid labor force when they had 70 hours of housework to do every week? Being a housewife was really a full-time job. I mean, it still is, but certainly it was a full-time job before you had refrigerators and washing machines.

And the [birth control] pill was one of the most important technological developments of the 20th century. Without the pill, without contraception more generally, but the pill was really the crucial technology, women had no control over their reproductive lives. Not that the pill is perfect, but it’s pretty darn good. It really was the pill and access to contraception that enabled women to say, “Hang on. I don’t want to have babies right now.” Or, “Now is a good time to have a baby.” Or, crucially: “I don’t want more than a set number of babies.”

But for men, you argue, the story is different — they’re still stuck in these norms that go pretty far back, to the Industrial Revolution.

It was really the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution that created this very sharp division of labor between the sexes that we now take as normal. Prior to the creation of factories, men and women both worked at home. Whether it was milking the cows or shearing the sheep, work was done at home. Once you get the factory economy, you create this very different system where someone from the home leaves the home to go elsewhere and receive a paid wage.

As the revolution proceeded, it was increasingly men who moved into the factories. And in fact, there were laws that mandated that only men could work in factories. Over time, men were seen as the breadwinners. During that moment, there’s an actual narrative created that sort of adored women as the domestic goddesses and praised men as the breadwinners.

Now, factory jobs are going away. Many of the jobs that will be wiped out by technology are jobs that have traditionally been held by men. But what happens to men and to male identities when those jobs go away? One of the beauties of feminism is that it’s created multiple identities for women. So, today, women can be stay-at-home wives and mothers, they can be single women, they can be single mothers, we have a whole range of acceptable identities. But for men, kind of across the socioeconomic spectrum, their identities are largely still defined by their role as workers and breadwinners.

Men without jobs we don’t think of very positively. So, what happens to all of these men when they don’t have jobs and how can we create other identities for them? One of my great fears is, we see this in the United States and elsewhere, is that men without jobs revert to ancient tribal identities, and that’s not a good thing.

But many men work in the information economy, in white-collar jobs. What about them?

One of the things we sort of know from looking at technology generally, those jobs are going away, too. Not for everybody, but as automation and A.I. proceed, it’s going to go up the hierarchy, if you will. And, once again, Covid is going to accelerate that.

You argue that the technology we’re creating is actually forcing social changes. Is this a causal relationship, or does the technology we make reflect how our interests have evolved? Which comes first?

Clearly, it’s hugely complicated and it’s interactive. As we change as human beings, as our preferences change, we create different kinds of machines. But I think if you had to choose between the chicken and the egg here, technology is the driving force. We created social media, for instance, but it is now reshaping us in fundamental ways.

How can we create policy that takes these changes into account?

The laws will always lag technology; however, ours are really lagging badly now. Our tax structures, our health care, certainly our school systems are really still reflecting where American society was in the 1950s. We’re seeing it now as Covid is forcing us into the future.

Our school systems still presume that A) there are two parents, and B) that there’s one parent at home who could go to the parent-teacher conferences, and who can sign the permission slips, and make the lunches, and who is there for the summers. The whole idea of a summer — it’s still reflective of the harvest season that we haven’t lived in for a really long time.

You say that we should look to Marx for insight into our current moment. Why is that?

Marx was one of the first and most important thinkers, along with Engels, who traced the connection between technological change and not only political structures but social structures. Which makes great sense because what Marx was really trying to explain was the era he was living through, which was marked by the Industrial Revolution.

Much of what he writes has been seeped deep in the issues that emerged out of the Industrial Revolution. There was a technological change, a massive one, and it shifted class structures — it shifted social structures and it shifted family structures as well. A lot of my book deals with changes in how we conceive of children — and what Marx was trying to explain was, what happens when you change the means of production? What I’m talking about is arguably even more fundamental, which is what happens when you change the means of reproduction?

You argue that we should be more flexible in our view of “masculinity.” How so?

Homosexual relationships are a really interesting template to be looking at. When you have two men in a gay relationship, and particularly if they’re married and they have kids, one of those men is usually, or frequently, becomes a stay-at-home dad. So we’re getting some of the strongest possible new identities, actually, from homosexual relationships. The male partner needs the same provisions that in the old 1950s model presumed went to the stay-at-home wife. So I think, actually, same-sex couples are really important here.

But even in heterosexual couples — you rarely hear very successful women bragging about their stay-at-home husbands. If you look at super successful women, particularly if they’re also mothers, they frequently have husbands who are either staying at home or they’ve taken up the larger burden of childcare — but nobody talks about that. It’s still sort of seen as an embarrassment for women and their husbands to acknowledge that. So instead you hear men saying, “I’m consulting, or I’m managing the family money.” Or something else, but you very rarely hear the male partners of successful women say, “Yeah, I take care of the home front.” And we need to trumpet that because that’s a very viable, exciting new identity for men.

I hope we see more forms of straight masculinity where men can be defined by more nurturing roles or more supportive roles. I don’t think we’re quite there yet, but I think it’s starting to happen.

Writer (currently) in Budapest, bylines @TheAtlantic, @Undarkmag, @VICE, @voxdotcom & more; follow on Twitter @hope_reese; hopereese.com

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