Gender Sex and Tech: Continuing The Conversation
Episode One: Interview with Dr. Lisa Smith
Transcription by Jennifer Jill Fellows
Jennifer Jill Fellows: When I was a kid, my bicycle was a technological tool that opened up the neighborhood to me. It felt like progress, like growing up, like freedom. There is a common idea that newer technologies are always better. In fact, technological innovation is treated as progress and as a good thing almost by definition. And yet, the truth of the matter is often a lot more complicated.
Jill: Hi everybody. Welcome to another episode of gender, sex, and tech, continuing the conversation. I’m your host, Jennifer Jill Fellows. And today I’ve invited Dr. Lisa Smith to the show to discuss her research on bicycles, birth control pills and baby bottles. And how these technological tools can be used to complicate a simplistic narrative between technology and progress.
Jill: Dr. Lisa Smith is a faculty member in the department of anthropology and sociology at Douglas College. So, she’s a colleague of mine and close friend. Her research expertise lies in sexual and reproductive health with a specific focus on birth control and Period Equity. She also researches gender-based violence and the post-secondary context and public and community engaged sociology. Currently she has two active research programs. One, the Period Product Access Project, and the other IMPACTS collaboration to address sexual violence. In addition to publishing and academic journals and collections, Lisa broadcasts her work through community engagement, popular writing and podcasting. She’s also my co-editor on the book Gender Sex and Tech, which was the inspiration for this podcast, as many of our listeners know. And she’s here today to talk about birth control, bikes and baby bottles.
Jill: Hi Lisa, welcome to the show.
Lisa Smith: Hi Jill. So great to be here. Thanks for the opportunity.
Jill: Yeah, this is going to be fun.
Jill: So I wanted to take a moment and resist the idea that somehow digital space floats free of physical space. It’s important to remember that digital space itself exists because of physical space. Materials our computers and cables and servers are made of, are extracted from physical space and built in physical space and occupy physical space once put into operation. And much of that physical space is on stolen land. So today I acknowledge that I’m recording gender, sex, and tech, continuing the conversation on the unceded territory of the Coast Salish People of the Qiqéytnation. And Lisa, where are you joining us from today?
Lisa: Thanks for that introduction and really important work Jill. I’m joining you today from my home where I live in East Vancouver. And it’s Vancouver’s located on the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam and Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh People.
Jill: Okay. So I went back up a bit before we kind of dive into the specific three technological tools that you want to talk about, bikes, birth control and baby bottles. Before we get into that, Lisa, can you tell me a bit about your academic journey? Like did you always want to be a sociologist?
Lisa: No, I didn’t. I had to think a lot about this question because I’m always thinking about it. How do we end up where we are, right? I started out my academic career as an undergraduate student at Kwantlen university or the college at the time. And I don’t really think I had a sense of what I was doing there. Other than that, I knew that after you finish high school, you’re supposed to pursue some kind of post-secondary studies. And so I really found myself, I want to say flopping around, but kind of ambling around maybe let’s say that sounds a little more intentional.
Jill: Exploring maybe?
Lisa: Yeah, I was definitely exploring what I wanted to do and where my interests lie. That said, I think I’ve always been the kind of person who’s curious as much as we all are. I think I’m particularly curious and I’m really interested in, in, people, I’ve always been interested in people who they are, their stories, what makes them unique. And in particular, I think that’s because I really struggled as a teenager to find my place in the world. I didn’t really feel like I fit in. And so, because I always felt like an outsider, I, I found myself often watching people and wondering about their interior lives. I feel that Sociology ended up being my passion in part because it seemed like a place where I could do those things. And that was really exciting for me to realize that I could take these things that I was doing it just naturally as a person and, and run with that as a scholar. So, I ended up in Sociology once I was a graduate student because my first degree was actually in Criminology. And to be honest, I’ve never really looked back. I feel that Sociology allows me to ask so many questions that I want to, in the ways that I want to. And so that’s really what’s kept me here.
Jill: Nice. I think that’s a fairly common story of a lot of people’s entry point into kind of some kind of academic research is that you get into a post-secondary environment and then you amble around a little bit till you find your people or your place or your methods, the things that seem to speak to you.
Lisa: Yeah, I think it truly is. And you mentioned people there and I feel like that piece is really key, or at least it was key for me. So, finding mentors, colleagues, people who I could connect with was really important for my career. And I feel like that’s very feminist, too, right. I’ve never been interested in being the kind of scholar that goes it on their own. So, I was never drawn to this isolated life of a scholar. I really wanted to be with people and working in collaboration around ideas. That’s what really excites me the most about scholarship is that capacity to connect with others and equally to connect with our social world and see the impact that those ideas can have.
Jill: So let’s talk a little bit about intersectional analyses of technology. And one thing that I think is really interesting in your research is that you speak a little bit about this idea of there being a concept, and I don’t think this is original to you, but concepts of digital immigrants and digital natives.
Jill: and I wonder if you can talk about this concept a little bit for people who might be unfamiliar.
Lisa: Yeah, for sure. So it’s definitely not my concept, it’s Mark Prensky’s concept. And I don’t believe he’s a Sociologist. I, I’ve checked that and he’s not a Sociologist, so he works in the field of education. That’s what I understand. And he wrote this piece, digital immigrants and digital natives a few years back, and he wrote a couple of follow up pieces as well. And he wrote this piece, speaking to educators and even more specifically, at least in that first short piece that he wrote, he’s speaking to professors. So in particular, he was, I think, seeking to talk back to professors who were maybe lamenting the fact that the current generation that they were teaching didn’t want to learn in the same way that they had learned. And in particular, that they wanted to be connected and use all the tools, the technologies that they were most familiar with in part because that’s what they grew up with. So, at its core, this notion of being a digital immigrant refers to using or trying to adopt technologies that you didn’t grow up with. Digital natives, on the other hand, are completely comfortable with these devices because they grew up with them. So, one of the examples he uses in his article is for example, saying, “Oh, give me a call or I’ll dial that number.” And there he uses that to say like you’re showing your accent, right? You’re showing that you’re more familiar with this other kind of technology, right? Using a telephone where you dial. And of course, digital natives would hear that either not understand or maybe even think that you’re just old and outdated. And in particular, Prensky thinks that we, as educators, people who were teaching should really get up to speed and understand who we’re teaching and why and the skills that they have an understanding that maybe you do need to change things because it’s not that these folks aren’t skilled. It’s just that they have different skills and capacities. And in particular, different understandings of technology and what, and how you can use it as part of your learning. Then we might be familiar with.
Jill: I’m now wondering how many people listening know what a rotary phone is.
Lisa: It’s so funny that you mentioned that one because in preparation for this interview, I was rereading that initial short little article and I hope we can post it underneath the podcast.
Jill: A link to it for sure. Yeah.
Lisa: Yeah. A really well-written article. It’s funny, it’s engaging like Mark Prensky’s are really great author. And I think that’s one of the reasons that, that idea ends up in Sociology texts, but also other disciplines as well. So yeah, I hope people can read that. But yeah, as I was reading the article, I was thinking about that, that rotary phone, right? Because I think that’s an example of like a cusp item for our generation. Because I certainly remember my grandparents having a rotary phone and actually kinda, felt kinda fun to use. I like there was something,
Jill: there’s something satisfying. I’m going to have to get the noise of it put in the podcast.
(rotary phone noise)
Lisa: Absolutely. And there’s actually if I remember a project around that, so keeping those sounds
Lisa: from those devices and technologies that we no longer use. A rotary phone is a great one.
Jill: Or the sound of a modem connecting. Like that’s something I haven’t heard in years.
Jill: That it really was kind of formative of my entry into digital space. And it isn’t anymore, That’s not something that younger generations associated with digital space, I don’t think.
Lisa: No. I mean, there might be still some folks who use that. So, I know that like for example, in a lot of areas of Canada where folks are still using dial up, that would be something that people would know. So, it’s also about like one of the things I think that’s important to think about what that concept is, that it’s one Marc Prensky doesn’t talk about that, right? He’s focus more on age. But I suppose if I were being not necessarily critical, but adding something to what he’s talking about is thinking about the ways that, that experience can also shift across place and space. And it might not just necessarily be a question of a generational divide. It could also be a question of where you’re from or even what part of the country you live in.
Jill: Yes. So that seems like also bringing a little bit more of an intersectional lens to this, that it’s not just age, but it also might be urban versus rural divide and other things like class might also have some effect on the kind of access that you have, as well as other intersections of social position and social location.
Lisa: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s not something that Marc Prensky talked about, at least not in the articles that I’ve read. It could be that he’s thought about it in other places. But, in the original formulation of that concept, in the stuff that I’ve read, there’s no mention that this could impact or be part of anything other than age. And I think that’s really exciting to bring that in because it adds a richness to our understanding of those concepts that we can see other facets that could make this concept meaningful or work for our social world as we interact with others.
Jill: So that we can’t necessarily make assumptions about who is going to be a digital native?
Lisa: I think so.
Jill: In the classroom or beyond,
Lisa: Absolutely. Yeah, and I actually think that is something that instructors tend to do quite a lot, right? So assuming that there are students who they assume are young and savvy are up, and with it in terms of, oh gosh, that maybe sound like a real . . .
Jill: Hello fellow teenagers. I am with it.
Lisa: But this idea that, like, our students are on the Instagram, using Twitter, all of the latest social media things or equally that they’re comfortable and confident with navigating all different kinds of technologies like, I think we know what we use to some extent, most of us, right?
Jill: So, to kind of ground this and perhaps a personal experience, would you feel comfortable sharing the story of your son and the smart phone?
Lisa: Yeah. For sure. Yeah. So, I find my children are an endless source of insight for my work. And I don’t think I’m alone in that. I think most scholars, especially if you study the social sciences, learn so much from their children. When you’re a caregiver or a parent for a young person, you see the world through their eyes, and you see the concepts that you’re teaching and learning about as an instructor, but also as a researcher, really come to life. And so that’s exciting most of the time and sometimes it’s frustrating when you realize, let’s say that you’re reinforcing social norms, or in this case, the story I’ll share is about me confronting this reality that in many ways I’m a digital immigrant to some extent in my son’s world. And one of the things that I’ve noticed is that for my kids, having the latest technology and devices, is something that they really take for granted. And I find that interesting because when I think about myself and my partner, we’re not, I would say, people who are particularly invested in owning the latest devices and technology. And in part that’s a personal choice like about how I see and value innovation, but also buying new things. So, for example, for a long time during grad school, my partner and I shared a cell phone, which people thought was hilarious, like they were like “who does that?” But I mean, it was partly because we wanted to be frugal. It was partly because, again, I don’t value having those things in my life. I think also it’s about that time where people felt that they could still be connected to the world and maybe have a cell phone or not. And life was okay. Whereas I think increasingly for my son who’s 13 and my other son who’s 10, they associate having a cell phone with something that’s very natural and normal for their generation. And I found often that we would have conversations about the importance of that for them. So in the one instance that I shared, walking towards the bus stop because that’s when these conversations happen, right? It’s not in this like uber intentional way. We’re heading on our way to the bus stop and we were talking about something quite consequential and somehow got around to the topic of smart phones and he was very certain that I liked old thing. So, he said to me, he was like “Mom, you only like old phones, you never get new phones.” And this was not perceived as a good thing. Like it was definitely like, him offering a like, bold critique my choices as a as a person and not even just as a parent. But like as a person, right?
Jill: So there’s a way in which the phones have come to kind of be a necessary part of identity and individuality for your son and perhaps away it wasn’t for you. And this isn’t like, you like vintage phones or something?
Lisa: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Like there’s really, I think the sense for him that like, I don’t even know if he would use the word “cool.” I’m gonna share this podcast with him and hear what he says. But I think he would just say it’s, it’s all it’s just like it’s what you do. And so, it’s more like I’m out of step.
Jill: Your non-normative in your phone practices.
Lisa: Phone practices, yeah, that’s right.
Jill: I’m sure he wouldn’t use that language,
Lisa: No, no. exactly. But that’s, that is what he’s talking about, right? That’s that I’m not doing what’s expected, which is a little bit different from Prensky’s concept, right? Which is more about capacities, but at the same time, I feel like it’s a related element of that concept where it’s not just about the capacities that you have, it’s also about what you assume about how technologies are used and where they fit. What they say about you as a person.
Jill: And maybe also norms and standards, right? How to use them, what to use them for. Yeah, I think now about older generations, like my parent’s generation sending personal messages by posting them on somebody else’s public Facebook wall. Right? Like I don’t think friends necessarily do this, or at least my friends don’t. But I’ve seen parents post things like “love you honey,” on somebody’s public Facebook wall. And I know Facebook is already dating me, right? This is a different digital landscape than younger generations. But I find it really interesting to think about how my parent’s generation uses Facebook if they even do, versus how my generation has tended to use Facebook and the kind of norms that exist there like that would be a DM for most of my friends, you would send a DM telling people personal messages like “I’m thinking of you” or something like that, you wouldn’t post it to their wall.
Lisa: Yeah, exactly. And so Prensky would say you’re showing your accent and like even that acronym that you just use, right?
Lisa: That’s something that a lot of digital immigrants would not be familiar with. They’d be like, I don’t know, what a DM is what does that mean, right?
Jill: So are we destined to become digital immigrants? Lisa?
Lisa: I think, yeah, and I don’t think it’s fundamentally a bad thing. I mean, well, I say that, and then I’m like, there’s always exceptions to the rule right? Transformation, change. This is the fodder of Sociology. So, I suppose if those things didn’t happen, I would be out of a job. And it’s what makes humans exciting and interesting is that life is changing underneath our feet. That’s what I really love about what I do. Noticing that and thinking about, well, how does this impact human life? So, change happens. And to that end, we, as part of our communities, our collectives, our generational experiences inevitably confront that. And I feel like that’s what it’s about, partly. So, I don’t know if all of us are destined to become digital immigrants because some people take great delight and confronting those challenges of what’s new and getting up on it, right? So, learning all of the ins and outs of the new. At the same time, I think we are destined to become immigrants because part of what Prensky is talking about is that notion of being enculturated very early on in terms of your social experience and orientation to the world. So being a digital native is not just about learning things when you’re older and things have changed. It’s partly about growing up in and around that experience of the social world, which is a fundamentally different thing. It’s a different kind of experience. So, I think we can learn to speak the language of folks who have learned about technologies at different times than us. But that’s a different kind of experience than living with it and knowing it intimately in that way.
Jill: I think that’s really, really interesting. And it looks like that then there’s conversations across these different digital cultures or digital landscapes is possible. But there does seem to be a different kind of qualitative understanding for people who, for example, grew up with the Internet always a part of their lives. As opposed to people like me, showing my age, for whom my childhood and parts of my youth. There was no Internet or it was very nascent. It’s very early stages. It wasn’t something that was a part of my day-to-day life.
Lisa: Yeah. Exactly. And I think too, like, a really good example that I’ve seen and I’ve seen other offers right about as well, is looking at, for example, young children and how they engage and interact with screens in the contemporary generation, especially if I’m looking at urban centers in, let’s say, North American society, you may use that large catch-all, but it could apply to many other spaces as well. If you look at young toddlers today, even sometimes as early as two or three years old, as soon as they’re confronted with something that looks like a screen and they want to interact with it, one of the first things they might do is touch it.
Lisa: In part. That’s because they’ve learned from a very, very, very young age that screens are tactile and can be interacted with in that way. And that was something that when I was a toddler would not even have been a possibility. So, I wouldn’t have interacted with a technological device that I confronted because it’s not something that was even a possibility when I was a child, I probably would have treated it like a rotary phone.
Jill: Okay. So, we’ve talked a little bit about digital immigrants. Digital natives brought in a bit of intersectionality. And now I want to shift gears a little bit to talk about the three specific examples of technology that you look at in your chapter for the book, Gender, Sex, and Tech. So, can you tell me what drew you to doing this research on birth control baby bottles and bikes? Perhaps it was something separate for each one or kind of a common thread through all three.
Lisa: No, it was not, Jill. It was a rebellion.
Jill: Rebellion. Okay, Let hear it.
Lisa: So, I remember when I was a grad student and I can’t remember how this conversation came out with my supervisor. But it was something in regards to, I don’t know what it was doing was like paper or an assignment or something. She was like “Lisa, you can’t do it all. You have to pick one.” That’s always kind of stuck with me. And I feel like this chapter with like the manifestation of that desire to do many things in one place. But I mean, I feel like as someone who teaches at college, like that’s what I do, I’m not a tenured professor. In part that’s what drew me to being in that place is that I don’t have to pick. I teach many different courses. I teach in areas that are, I don’t want to say outside my expertise, but often adjacent to or not exactly what I research. And I really like that. I find it fun. I find it exciting. I find it a place for exploration. And so, I feel like what I wanted to do with this chapter is explore these connections between things that in some ways are disparate, in some ways connected and do all of that in one chapter.
Jill: I love it.
Lisa: I was really excited.
Jill: But why specifically birth control, baby bottles and bikes?
Lisa: Well, birth control felt like a natural one. I think when we started writing the collection, in my mind, that’s something that needs to be there in a collection that’s looking at gender, sex and technology. The birth control is something that I would expect to find in a book like that, right? Bikes I feel came about in part because I wanted that to be in the collection. I am someone who cycles a lot. And I started learning about and reading about these Black feminist cycling groups. And I just found it really interesting, but also something that people who were not perhaps aware of what’s happening in cycling or equally the history of cycling in terms of its connection to intersecting forms of inequity would necessarily know about. And then the baby bottles came about because I heard a radio interview with an archaeologist who had uncovered these ancient ceramic infant feeding vessels. And so, I feel like those three things were all coming together in my mind as we were putting the collection together. And I was really excited about how mundane they were, but equally, how important they can be for impacting our lives and the social world around us. So, I picked those because they rose to the surface for me in terms of being to some extent emblematic of that kind of banal everyday technology or things that we take for granted, but also things that are not digital. Where I see us putting a lot of emphasis when we’re talking about innovation and technology, especially in today’s world, I don’t know that it’s always been like that. But I think in today people think technology, they think digital. And so, I wanted to push back against that. Not to say it’s not important, but to bring other ways of thinking about technology to the surface.
Jill: Another kind of “yes and” moment, yes, digital. Also, all these other technologies.
Lisa: Classic Lisa that I just I just loved that. Like the conversation can’t end, and we’re going to go more.
Jill: The other thing that occurs to me as you’re talking about that is that it might be possible to kind of expand digital immigrant, digital native, to think about technological immigrant and technological native, right? So, birth control has been a part of the technological landscape my entire life. But for my mother’s generation, this was something new, right? And so, I think that that concept may be usefully expanded outside of digital as well. Another kind of “yes, and. . .” that we might invite listeners to think about too.
Lisa: Yeah, that’s a really cool idea Jill I’ve never thought about in that way. I’d have to think about it a bit more, but yes, it seems to me like it could be applied there because it is again about language, right? And even that use of short phrases to refer to things. So, for example, “getting on the pill,”
Jill: yeah, my grandmother wouldn’t know what that meant, when she was young.
Lisa: Yeah, and even associating certain symbols, colors, or phrases. Right? And this is, I think part of how we see the social in technology. It’s not just about what it does to our bodies, but also how it inspires and shapes the ways we engage with others in our social world. Whether that’s through language or through expectations for conduct in terms of how we’re supposed to use things, when, who’s supposed to use them? Who’s not expected to use them.
Jill: So one of the themes that comes out in this chapter is that you use these three examples of technology to be quite critical of modernism. So in a nutshell, Lisa, can you tell our listeners what modernism is?
Lisa: Okay. So I feel like that’s really hard to do.
Jill: in a nutshell.
Lisa. Nutshell, yeah. I know. Right now, I understand a modernist view of the world would generally see progress in technology. So, technology leads to progress. Technology leads to better things for people. More technology means more better things for people. So that’s to me, is like a very simplistic understanding of technology. Strong faith and science, belief that things can get better.
Jill: Yeah, obviously this is not everything that can be said about the modernist worldview, but when applied to these kind of technological tools and we think about kind of social normative mindsets that we would label as modernist or worldviews that we would label as modernist, it is, I think this kind of idea that like newer is better, progress is good. Technological progress is going to lead to the betterment of humanity. And Lisa, your phone as old and that’s not very modernist.
Lisa: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s like you’re the philosopher there. So that to me is a moral obligation piece, right? So, and I don’t think that’s something that’s necessarily explicitly said. Like it’s not like people run around saying like, “I’m a modernist and you should be using these things,” right? It comes through in these very subtle ways in terms of how our culture functions. But yes, definitely, I think that if I were living in a society that reflected modernist views, you would be expected to take up and adopt new ways of doing things. Whether that’s technology, whether that’s ways of parenting even potentially right? But this idea that working towards something new is fundamentally better.
Jill: So, we’ve got modernism here. I also want to get on the table intersectionality, which we’ve already actually kind of brought in with our discussion of digital immigrants and digital natives. But can you tell me, Lisa, how do you understand intersectionality?
Lisa: Yeah, I feel that it’s a concept that is very important to my teaching and my research. And it’s one that I try to approach every day with fresh eyes. I feel that it’s really important to acknowledge where terms originate. So, in the same way that we talked about digital immigrants, digital natives comes from Marc Prensky. Intersectionality we know comes from the work of Black American feminists, Crenshaw and Collins, right? In particular. We talk about this a lot in the textbook. And I was really excited to see the different ways that authors have taken that up. I feel in my own work, what I’m always trying to do is understand how something is not just one thing. And so, for me, intersectionality provides us with a lens through which to view things such that we don’t just understand one experience within that. And of course, at the core, we want to be thinking about the deep and intertwined nature of gender, race, and class. But of course, as most of us know, as the concept has evolved and been used in other work and then brought forward by other scholars and being used and other places like for example, Canada, we want to also think about the intertwined nature of ability of geographic location. In Canada, we have to be talking about indigeneity and settler colonialism. And in my mind, as scholars, it’s also an obligation to constantly be thinking about, well, how can we be doing our work better, more fully, such that we can invite people to build off of the work that we’re doing. So, if I start something, my hope as a scholar, and I think this is true even maybe before folks started working with this concept, but we don’t want that discussion to end there. So, I think part of what I’m hoping folks to, when they read my chapter, is that they think about other things or other experiences that perhaps I wasn’t able to include in the chapter. And I feel like that helps us to think about how scholarship doesn’t just end with one piece and has to keep moving and going beyond that to me is really important. And I feel part of doing work through an intersectional lens.
Jill: Another kind of “yes and” moment too. That what you’ve put down in the chapter or even what we say here today on the podcast is not a definitive end of the conversation, but an invitation to more?
Lisa: I believe so. Yeah, I do. I think that’s really important.
Jill: Okay, so we have background on modernism, brief discussion of intersectionality, acknowledging in both cases, there’s a lot more research that people could do. A lot more that has been said and can be said. But let’s take our ideas of these concepts and return to your three examples of technology. So, what would be a modernist story of birth control, or perhaps more specifically of the birth control pill?
Lisa: Yeah, I think that if I were to think about how folks talk about the birth control pill and something that would be in line with modernism, it would be this notion that’s often repeated that I’ve seen, especially in like the news media, sometimes even by academics, right? Like that the pill, it has changed women’s lives, right?
Jill: For the better.
Lisa: Yeah, definitely for the better and in particular freedom, right? So, I think that’s something that I might add to our discussion about modernism is that, that ethic is applied differently within the context of gender, right? So, when we see a modernist view applied to things are technologies that relate to the lives of women, we see technology as being a helper. So, technology fixing the problems, whether that’s equity or equality issues facing women, right? So, in this case, women are not free if they can’t control their reproductive lives. And I don’t want to make it seem like that’s insignificant. I think it’s really important to state that. The capacity to control our reproductive bodies is, is important that matters, it matters to me as an individual regardless of academia. But nevertheless, what we find is this catch-all assumption that’s made in particular about the pill, that the pill has fixed women’s lives. It’s made them free, problem-solved, right? Onwards and upwards, right?
Jill: Yeah. So, we identified this problem, we developed the tool. The tool has fixed the problem. Technology, the great helper. Women are freer, things are better.
Lisa: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
Jill: Okay. So let’s complicate this story. And it’s not to negate, as you said, it’s not to negate anything you’ve already said. It is true that reproductive freedom is very important. And it is, I think, also true that the pill did have a radical impact on the lives of many people. And that in many cases that may have been for the better. I don’t know. But let’s take this modernist story and add an intersectional lens. What happens when we do that?
Lisa: Yeah. So again, just by scratching the surface just a little bit. So as soon as you start to read a little bit more about the history of the pill and in particular its development very quickly you see that that modernist notion that’s often communicated about the pill is far more complicated than what we see on the surface. I feel that one of the, one of the most obvious examples that we could take a look at is early trials of the pill, which used Puerto Rican women as test subjects, right? So, using the pill, and making sure it’s safe for consumption by American women specifically, used Puerto Rico because this was a place where the US could extend colonial power to access a population that could be tested on.
Jill: Okay, so we can see then that through an intersectional lens, it’s not clear that the development of the birth control pill was beneficial to everyone. That certain populations were exploited in the creation and development of this product, which was intended for other populations to better their lives. So colonial power was exerted over Puerto Rican women in order to try and develop something that was going to bring freedom to American women. Is there any other intersectional component that we should note with the creation or distribution of the pill?
Lisa: Yeah. So, I mean, I think again, is something that if you’re excited about, you can read so much more about. If you’ve read a little bit about reproductive politics in the 20th century, you’re looking at North America. You might know already that reproductive freedom, so having the capacity to time and space pregnancies, was not perceived by all people as something that was fundamentally a liberatory thing. So, in particular, certain women, racialized women in particular, were already experiencing violence on their bodies by the repressive practices of the state, sometimes through medical professionals, sometimes through law enforcement, who sought to control and space pregnancies or in some case, forcibly sterilize them, such that they could no longer have children. And we know in Canada, for example, that forcible sterilization disproportionately targeted racialized women, Indigenous women, and women who were targeted because of mental illness or ability. And so, to this end, it means that it’s not about the technology. We need to rethink the ethic, or at least not see the ethic of, “I need to be able to control reproduction” as freedom. And think about that instead as how different groups have been targeted for exactly that purpose through the exercising of state violence. And so, to that end, it maybe, and many groups very vocally stated, “I don’t see using the pill as a full expression of freedom. I’m more worried about stopping the state from violently controlling my body and reproduction.”
Jill: Yeah, I think that’s a really good addition. And particularly if we think about also coercion or force on the part of medical professionals who are the ones that people have to go to in order to get prescriptions for these pills.
Jill: And so this again means that your social location really does affect how this revolutionary new technology appears or is presented to you based in the context of what you’ve already experienced in terms of perhaps forcible reproductive control?
Lisa: Mm-hm. Yeah, exactly.
Jill: Okay. So in the interests of doing everything in Lisa’s chapter, what is the modernist story of baby bottles? Or a modernist story? We don’t have to tell the definitive modernist story of baby bottles.
Lisa: Yeah, I feel like this is an interesting one because I don’t think it’s one that people would naturally associate with that kind of view. Like, I don’t like when I think about the pill, there’s regularly newspaper articles and even as we were writing this book, there was another book that came out that uses the pill as an example of a technology that’s transformed women’s lives like that’s actually get tagline, right?
Jill: It’s a quite common narrative.
Lisa: Exactly. Yeah, and it’s one that people are familiar with. I feel like in terms of baby bottles, It’s a little bit of a different story. Like I don’t think, or at least I haven’t ever seen like a newspaper article coming out being like “it’s the 50th anniversary, a baby bottle, the baby will have changed women’s lives” like that’s not how it works. And please correct me if I’m wrong, dear listeners. Maybe you’ve come across something like that. I would love to see that article and maybe somebody should write it.
Jill: That would be cool.
Lisa: Yeah, exactly. So baby bottles are a different story, right? It’s a different kind of thing. Nevertheless, we see a similar kind of ethic circulating in our everyday interactions with people. And of course, you might not even become attuned with this until you start to care for an infant, whether you’re a parent or you’re caring for a child as a caregiver. But one of the things that you might come across as a new parent is people sharing with you like “did you know that you can have a lot more free time if you bottle feed. Why you get back out there and play in your soccer league, you’ve just got to pump and bottle feed, right?” And I don’t think this is fundamentally a bad thing, just like what I said with the pill, right? That’s not to say that these are bad things, right? But here what I see is an association with this thing that you can use, right? A baby bottle and increasing your capacity to have free time to live your life. I would say even to be free, right?
Jill: Yeah. I think there’s sometimes an equity promise too, that baby bottles will mean that the if there’s a lactating parent, the lactating a non-lactating parents can share feeding duties more equally, right?
Lisa: Exactly. Yeah.
Jill: Which translates into freedom for the lactating parent, perhaps. Yeah. So, I think that’s really interesting. But or “yes and” how does this come more complicated? If we add an intersectional lens to this?
Lisa: Well, I feel. . .okay. So I want to go back against your question though a little bit.
Lisa: Because I think part of what inspired me about talking about baby bottles is I feel that there’s something that we really truly take for granted in terms of what they do for people’s lives. And I think that’s part of what interested me in them. So, if I were to say, we’re going to make things more complicated, at a very basic level I feel like it’s just about starting to notice those ways that people very gently receive advice about what this thing means for them. And I want to also think about the ways that it can be very important for people. So where do folks get access to information, whether that’s through doctors or from consultants in various medical fields, right, who are seeking to support parents and who may or may not have access to that information. One of the things that we notice about information that’s shared with women about sexual and reproductive health is that there’s a huge dearth in information. So, what do I mean by that? I mean that folks are often put in a position where they have to reach out and seek support in more informal channels because reliable information is really hard to come across. And so, to that end, we see all kinds of informal mechanisms popping up on Facebook. people connecting through social media to share information about how to parent and how to navigate, those are really difficult times when you’re a new parent in particular. So, all that to say that I think that people seek out each other to fill those gaps. And I think that’s a really important and key aspect about building our collective knowledge and power as people. That said, what we notice about baby bottles and some research that I came across that I found really interesting, took a look at the kinds of advice that was given to women in popular magazines. And I found it really interesting that this one author who I talk about in the chapter found that there was a pretty significant difference between the kinds of information that was directed towards working class women, right? As opposed to middle-class women. And in part, what I feel like that helps us to start thinking about is, well, what is it about that advice that reinforces those experiences of class difference as opposed to actually addressing them through systemic changes in terms of the choices that people are making about breastfeeding versus bottle feeding, right? Because it’s so much more complicated than that.
Jill: So, what was the different advice that working class versus middle-class women receive?
Lisa: The chapter that I referred to as is written by Duckett and Duckett’s pieces great. I really encourage folks to check it out. So that’s another one, perhaps we can post the link to that at the bottom. But Duckett took a look at these mainstream parenting magazine. So there, of course, I’m showing my digital immigrant status, right? Most folks probably don’t read those magazines anymore, but they would be, of course online. So, be interesting to actually to see the study repeated using online magazines
Jill: Or like online parenting chat boards and stuff?
Lisa: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So, Duckett found that magazines that were directed towards working and lower class women assume certain things about them. So, in particular that their diets would be poorer. And so that was one of the reasons that was often used to say that “well you should probably consider bottle feeding instead”
Jill: And using the formula, I assume.
Lisa: Yeah, using a formula specifically. And even if you are going to be breastfeeding, that you need to supplement your diet. So, I think there’s, there’s tricky things here, right? So do I think that telling people to eat better because it’s going to support better breastfeeding is fundamentally a bad thing. Maybe not, right? Advice about nutrition can be a really positive thing. I suppose what I’m more interested here as a Sociologist is the kinds of things that are being assumed about people and how this shapes the information they’re receiving. So, to some extent it’s Ivan really about the technology, right? The technology is literally in this case, just a vessel.
Lisa: Yeah, a reflection of these kind of deeper systemic inequities that gets circulated and almost activated actually, by the existence of that technology, that possibility to not breastfeed, right?
Jill: Right. I am assuming middle-class women weren’t given the same kind of advice about supplementing their diet or relying on formula then?
Lisa: According to Duquette, no.
Jill: So your last example a technology is bicycles. So, what is the modernist story of bicycles and perhaps bicycles and feminism more specifically?
Lisa: Exactly. So I think this one is a cool one to end with because I, I hope folks saw that with the chapter, what I wanted to do is pick something that’s expected, something that’s unexpected, like baby bottles and then bikes, which I think some people, if they’re in the know about bikes might expect, but I don’t think everyone would. So what do I mean by that? Well, bikes are important to the history of feminism. Also important to the now of feminism in a number of different ways. And they’re particularly important for thinking about intersectional feminism. I don’t think most people know that. I think some people would know that. So, if I think about the pill and I think that okay, there’s lots of newspaper articles I can find easily that talk about the pill as revolutionary for women, baby bottles, not so much,
Jill: Right. We had to kind of fill in the gaps for baby bottles because there’s not a lot of modernist. . . It’s more kind of an unspoken norm than something that celebrated in the Atlantic as the 50th anniversary of the pill or what?
Lisa: Yeah, exactly. And I think bikes is something that some people may have come across. Okay. So, like you might have come across it if you’re taking a first year women’s studies class and your instructor or let’s say, knows that for the suffragettes in England, bikes were really important in terms of certain feminist actions. You might have come across an article in a magazine, a feminist magazine that you’re reading that talks about Kittie Knox, right? So one of the first Black female riders in the States who broke all kinds of records, right? But I don’t suspect that the vast majority of people think about or conceive of bikes as a fundamentally connected to some kind of revolution in women’s experience of the world.
Jill: Yes, so many of us, if we have some background in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies may know that for some first wave feminist movements, the bicycle became kind of really symbolic of women’s motion and women’s freedom and of the movement in general. And that some of us, probably fewer of us are aware of not just this symbol of first wave feminism, but Black female ridership.
Lisa: Yeah, I think some of you may know that. Not everybody.
Jill: Not everybody. So, this already, I think, kind of shows us how an intersectional lens may change how we think about the story of bicycles. That the, as I take it and perhaps I’m wrong and listeners can let me know. But as I take it, the more widespread known story is the story of first wave feminism in England particularly and the symbol of the bicycle for the suffragettes. And then there’s a slightly less well-known story, which you talk about a little bit in your book about the history of black female ridership. So, I was wondering if you can expand on this a little bit more. In particular, you say that specifically defined a history of black female and ridership, like if we wanted to find references about it and read about it, we have to know what we’re looking for.
Jill: So, can you talk about this a little bit more?
Lisa: Yeah, I can. So what do I mean by that? I mean that if I do a quick search on the internet and of course, search is optimized, right, based on who you are, so that’s going to impact . . .
Jill: Who you are, where you are? Yeah.
Lisa: Yes, exactly. But nevertheless, if I do a quick search, either of like available videos and documentaries, things that are written in the scholarly body of literature, I can pretty quickly find stuff that looks at bikes and suffragettes, right? A lot of focus on England, some stuff about things happening in the States a little bit, but not a whole lot of really intentional discussion about women who are not white. And in particular, women riders who were not white. And this is actually even mentioned by the one community organizer that I mentioned Black Girls Do Bike. And I found it interesting because at the end of writing the piece, I found another article by her, a
Lisa: where she says exact same thing that I do, which I thought was really interesting.
Jill: So we can link to that. That’s amazing.
Lisa: Yeah, I’ll see if I can find the article. But what I mean to say with that is that if we’re thinking about these spaces of knowledge that are built right as scholars, as one of the things we do. But within popular literature as well, filling that knowledge gap about the fact that bikes could have anything to do with women’s liberation has already been pretty slow, right? So we don’t have even a ton of stuff available. What little is available really only looks at that one small part or connection between women’s liberation and technology, the bike. And the Wikipedia page I think is perhaps the best example of that, right? So, if you look at the page that I mentioned at the time that I wrote the chapter, the only section that’s available is the one on female emancipation. And there’s no mention of Black female ridership in particular. And I’m certain that there are many other groups that are left out of that as well, especially if we’re taking an intersectional lens. So, I’d really like to see people fill that out. I think that’s an exciting and important thing to do and something that’s very doable.
Jill: I think it’s also interesting when you mentioned the algorithm and search engines and how your social location in your search history and who you are and where you are affects the kind of results you got. It’s also seems to suggest that, I mean, you did find a fair amount of digital sources about historical and current discussions of Black female cyclists. But it, it didn’t show up just by kind of putting in like “feminism bicycle” or something like that.
Lisa: I really had to look and I know because my sister is a bike mechanic. So, when I was starting to work on this chapter, I mentioned to her that I was really excited about writing something about bikes. And she mentioned to me to look into the history of Black female ridership. So, I had to be told by someone that that exists. And in part that’s because I think I’m a white woman, right? Like that shapes what I know about the social world kinds of experience I look for. But my knowledge, my orientation, I would say is in many ways reflected in the kinds of knowledge that’s out there, right? So, the academic field reflects that as well and you know that, right?
Jill: So, will you share with the audience what we have to know in order to find out information on the history of Black female ridership, if we wanted to do Google searches, since we have to know what we’re looking for, what do we need to know?
Lisa: I had to absolutely you a lot about this question Jill because I’m not quite sure how to answer it in a good way because I don’t know that we can ever fully know what we don’t know.
Lisa: I’m going to answer it in kind of a round-about way by saying that we have to have collections like this collection. We can’t, we can’t be writing scholarship on our own, but also we can’t be doing academic work with folks who are just like us. And so, it’s really important that we consider that work as something that needs to happen together, but equally in ways that allows a broader understanding of the social world. I mean, at a very minimum, we need to, I think as scholars always be thinking about the things that we don’t know and providing openings and entry points for others to fill in those gaps. At the same time, it seems easy to say that and it makes the gaps seen kind of inconsequential because they’re not right?
Jill: I think I was going to put my philosophy hat on for a second, there’s kind of two different types of ignorance that I like to differentiate between. There’s the known unknown and the unknown unknown, right? So, there’s stuff that you know exists but you don’t. . . you know that you don’t know anything about it been known unknown. It’s out there. I don’t know anything about it, but I know that I don’t know anything about it, which means I could go do research. Then there’s the unknown, unknown where you don’t know and you don’t even know that you don’t know. So perhaps one thing that podcast like this can do is flag something like Black female cyclists and history of Black female ridership. So that something transforms from being for some of of our listeners, an unknown unknown into a known unknown.
Lisa: Yeah. For sure.
Jill: Now you know that out there.
Jill: And that can help you go find more research. Plus there’s links in the book and I’ll have links in the notes of the podcast as well.
Lisa: Yeah. For sure. Yeah. And I guess I would say too, that it’s not just about history, right? So like. . .
Lisa: . . . because I’m not a historian, I’m a sociologist and for me, the history piece I care about in a big way, but I guess I care more about what’s happening now. And, and I was really excited to learn more about organizations like Black Girls Do Bike and there’s so many more. And there are even many more organizations around the world. So, I feel like it’s really exciting to learn more organizations, whether it’s in your local community, but also globally. During the course of doing research for this chapter, I learned about a new documentary called Afghan Cycles,
Lisa: So that’s another instance of learning about the intersection between gender and cycling. And some of the ways that technologies like the bike impact our capacity to move and sometimes feel free. I feel that what’s most important and what I’d like to leave people with is to always have a question mark behind what you know. Because I think that’s really important.
Jill: At the end of the chapter you wrote something that I was absolutely lovely and I’m going to quote you.
Jill: You said, “I hope by now we can agree new tech does not lead to a fundamentally better society. However, dare I say, people working together can make something with tech that is meaningful to their social world and experience.” And I was wondering if you could speak to this a little bit. This idea.
Lisa: I guess it goes back to what I was talking about earlier. People. I’m fascinated by people, but I also see possibilities and our capacity to connect with one another. I think it’s very easy to see the possibility in these things outside of ourselves, whether that’s technology or, or other things too, right? Like it’s not just technologies that we think about in this way. I feel that at the end of the day, it always goes back to the fact that it’s human made. It comes from people regardless of what it is. And so that brings with it a responsibility on us, but also, of course, unlimited possibilities in terms of the kinds of ways we can interact with technologies. And I really feel that one of the best ways that we can do a good job with the things that we use as societies is by connecting with each other and putting those relationships first as a path forward.
Jill: I like that. So, the technology then really becomes secondary to our thoughts about how we’re going to use it, why we’re going to use it, and what is meaningful in this use of technology to support and connect with each other perhaps.
Lisa: Yeah, yeah, I think that is what I would say. Or maybe just not, maybe off center. I would say it needs to be offset.
Jill: Any last thoughts about everyday physical tech that you’d like to leave our listeners with?
Lisa: I think the last thing I’d like to leave listeners with is just sharing my sense of excitement. I’m really interested to know if people can think of other things that kind of circulate within everyday life that we maybe don’t always think about first, what technologies are. And I would just really love for people to share those things with me because I’m so fascinated by all of the things that come to the surface once we start to ask these questions. And I would just love to get like email about the rotary phone or something like that or something else. Yeah.
Jill: This episode of Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation, continued a conversation began in Chapter 1 of the book, Gender, Sex and Tech: an intersectional feminist guide. The chapter called “Bikes, Birth Control Pills and Baby Bottles: dancing on the edge of social transformation.” And it was written by Dr. Lisa Smith. I want to thank Lisa for joining me today for this thought-provoking discussion. And thank you listener for joining me for this episode of gender, sex, and tech continuing the conversation. If you would like to continue the conversation further, please reach out on Twitter at @tech_gender or consider creating your own essay, podcast, video, or other media format to continue the conversation in your own voice. Music for this episode was provided by Epidemic Sound. This podcast is created by me, Jennifer Jill Fellows, with support from Douglas College in New Westminster BC, and support provided by the Marc Sanders Foundation for public. Until next time. Bye everyone.