Teaching and Advising in Feminist Scholarship: Why the Bra Makes Me Think that We Still Have a Long Way to Go

by Maria Rentetzi, Associate Professor, History and Sociology of Science and Technology, National Technical University of Athens, Greece

Although I am known for my work on the history of the natural sciences and gender, sometimes I like to escape from the “hard sciences” to work on the history of technology. As a friend once told me, this is something I do for my soul. I explored Greece’s historical passage from East to West at the turn of the 20th century by focusing on women’s hats as technologically sophisticated artifacts. I investigated the story of paper boxes as a way to talk about gender differences in the paper box industry during the interwar years and the rise of consumerism in the US. I studied the history of tobacco technologies in Greece through the gendered hierarchies in the tobacco warehouses of the early 1920s. I teach regularly an undergraduate course on gender and technology and introduced the field to my Greek students through my book The Technology of Gender and the Gender of Technology.

Not long ago, I was interviewed by a reporter for one of Greece’s most widely circulated newspapers. I wasn’t quite ready to believe its editor when he claimed that reader interest had pushed gender issues to the top of his agenda. Who, after all, cares about gender and technology today? The feeling that the topic is outdated is why I had changed the focus of my undergraduate course in the first place. Until recently, I was convinced that the basics, at least, were in place. Women continue to be underrepresented in engineering, discouraged from engaging in technological design, portrayed as unskilled users of technological systems, and exploited as industrial workers. Furthermore, historians of technology have been telling us that besides airplanes and spacecrafts, the kitchen and even the vibrator speak volumes about the socioeconomic contours of our everyday lives and our technological choices. What else could we ask for? Little did I know that a brassiere would shatter this tidy picture of progress.

Last semester, one of my graduate students, an enthusiastic young woman, began working on the history of the brassiere in Greece. Without doubt, the brassiere is a multi-layered artifact: made with the male gaze in mind, it is also a symbol of the feminist movement, a fashion-statement, a sign and reminder of female sexual pleasure, a passage to womanhood. It is inextricably connected to sexuality and our shifting angles on the female body. It also serves as a mirror for cultural differences: Kaliroi Paren, the editor of the Ladies’ Newspaper in Greece, urged women almost a century ago to wear their bras throughout the day for comfort, while the US fashion industry favored boyish, androgynous looks.

But as a fashion accessory, today the bra is also a product of a multibillion-dollar industry controlled by multinational corporations. Its production is a highly specialized enterprise. It entails patenting, multiple designs, pattern cutting, sewing, and an exhaustive process of selecting fabrics and wires. According to Jane Farrell-Beck, author of Uplift: The Bra in America, “a bra design can pose engineering challenges as formidable as those encountered in building a bridge or a skyscraper.”(Riordan, Teresa. 28 October 2002. “Patents; In bra technology, an incremental improvement can translate into comfort.” The New York Times). If historians of technology have looked closely at bridges and skyscrapers, why not brassieres?

The director of the interdepartmental MA program on History and Philosophy of Science
and Technology in Athens, Greece, was not convinced (The MA program has been running since 1996,
in co-operation with the Division of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Law of the School of Applied Mathematical and Physical Sciences of the National Technical University of Athens (N.T.U.A.) and the Department of Methodology, History, and Theory of Sciences, of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. http://en.phs.uoa.gr/graduate-studies/graduateprogramme-in-history-and-philosophy-ofscience-and-technology.html). According to our program rules at the time, students ought first submit for approval the topic of their MA thesis before they actually invest time and effort on it. The director then passes the document to the administration without any further formalities and the student is ready to begin. There was no formal committee to decide on the appropriateness of topics since the supervisor is responsible for the entire academic process. Obviously, this holds in the case of skyscrapers and bridges but not brassieres.

When my student suggested working on the “The history of the brassieres in Greece” the director claimed that as a topic it was far too restricted for the program, adding during an informal discussion that the topic is not “serious enough.” The student was advised to submit a different topic. The issue remained for some time under consideration, trapped in a transition period of changing program directors. Finally, the topic was accepted, which led to the establishment of new institutional rules that now allow tighter control of MA topic assignments.

Suddenly it became clear to me that I needed to return to gender and technology. Maybe the magazine’s editor was right after all. Issues of gender remain at the top of our agendas because we still have a long way to go in this country, and perhaps elsewhere too.

Maria Rentetzi
Associate Professor
History and Sociology of Science and Technology
National Technical University of Athens, Greece