Women, Technology, and Typewriters

David Michael Newstead.

It might sound too bizarre to put into words, but typewriters were once considered innovative. And interestingly, the story of typewriters ends up being a case study about women in technology. So to better understand issues we’re grappling with today like occupational segregation and the gender pay-gap, I thought I’d delve into this chapter of history.

Beginning in the 1880s, many women entered into the workforce for the first time through the newly created role of typist. Now as archaic as that sounds, this represented a big career opportunity compared to the limited jobs available to women at the time. Encouraged by the popular belief that women were better at typing because of their dexterity, more and more of them began working in offices of every variety where once upon a time there had been no women at all. Unfortunately, this is also where some of the worst aspects of office culture first appeared like sexual harassment and glass ceilings. And even the best opportunities for a woman sitting at a typewriter in those days only paid a third of what a man made.

Somethings didn’t change much in the ensuing years. Seven decades later, being a typist was still a remarkably common profession among women in the workforce. As one author in 1954 put it, “There are more women working at typing than at anything else; twice as many, for instance, as are selling in stores and shops and six times the number working on farms.” So for better or worse, women and typewriters share this strange historical connection.

Typewriters started to be mass produced during the Industrial Revolution. From about 1840 to 1880, an assortment of wildly different machines were created by numerous companies. Nietzsche had one. Mark Twain had one. But few of these devices were very profitable for their manufacturers. This ultimately changed when the Sholes and Glidden typewriter was released by Remington in 1874 after years of development. Newer models and plenty of competitors would follow in their footsteps, but this typewriter set the standard. Even today, your laptop’s keyboard is based on this device! Another interesting note though is that Remington is a major weapons manufacturer that needed to diversify its business after the end of the American Civil War. One of their ideas was to build typewriters.

The circuitous route from typewriters to today’s technology starts there. All the largest typewriter manufacturers would again revert to making weapons during the First and Second World Wars, including Underwood, Remington, and IBM. And it’s these lucrative government contracts that helped to establish the business connections linking military spending, office equipment, and eventually research and development. By the 1950s, for instance, Remington began developing pioneering computers like UNIVAC with notable advancements led by Navy computer scientist Grace Hopper. Meanwhile, IBM would go on to become the dominant force in technology for a generation and, by the 1970s, it gained 75 percent of the typewriter market. It’s from this point onward that the typewriter began to fade away and the computer started its ascent in our society.

This time period is noteworthy for another reason though. Just as technology had been evolving over the years, women’s professional options were beginning to change as well. So when early computer programming was relegated to the status of typing, most computer programmers were women. For example, Margaret Hamilton is famous for writing the code behind the Apollo space missions. In that era, men were more interested in hardware, while women focused on software. Bolstered by their expertise in mathematics and computer science, these women contributed to milestones like ENIAC, UNIVAC, and manned space flight.

But while working on typewriters had been gendered in one direction, computers and the culture that grew up around them soon became gendered in a radically different direction. Ads, stereotypes, and more just seemed to reinforce the idea that mainly men worked in technology. In particular, our image of a good computer programmer changed from a woman in a support role to an anti-social male genius. The difference was when this guy typed on a computer it was viewed as somehow more magical than all the typing that came before him. And as a super genius, he also expected to be paid more. By the 1980s then, the number of women entering into computer science began to drastically decline and has never recovered.

Somethings haven’t changed much in the ensuing years. The gender pay-gap persists. Sexual harassment certainly persists. And the problems facing women in the tech industry are now infamous. Overall, this reflects a consistent devaluing of women’s qualifications and contributions in the workplace. Yet as technology has become more central to our lives, the scope of these issues isn’t limited to debates on who should work in a specific industry. The problem becomes what biases and blind spots are built into tools we all use every day. Simply replacing old technology with shiny new devices won’t fix that, but changing outdated mindsets is a good place to start.

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