The clever machine that carried the suffragettes all the way to parliament, time-saving devices and the liberating pill. Commemorating International Women’s Day: The technologies that assisted women in their struggle for equal rights.

From the middle of the 19th century, the world has witnessed numerous revolutions: regimes have risen and fallen, medicine improved immensely, life expectancy increased by decades, we reached outer space, developed social media and so much more. Two of the pivotal revolutions that most revolutionized our lives were the scientific and technological developments on one hand, and the enormous progress in the status of women in Western society on the other. When two such central processes take place simultaneously, they are bound to have something to do with each other.

The public struggle for women’s rights and self-fulfillment has been going on for many years with considerable progress. Throughout the struggle, women knew how to harness the opportunities technology gave them to shake off the binds of firmly established social norms and discriminating financial structures, and open doors that were up till then closed before them. From the bicycle, through domestic electronic appliances and the birth control pill, let’s discover the role some novel inventions had in the struggle for gender equality.

Bicycles: The Wheels of the Right to Choose

The invention: Bicycles are instantaneously both particularly simple and remarkably clever vehicles. At their core, they are just wheels attached to a frame, one behind the other, powered by muscle, with mechanisms to improve safety and channel energy. However, at the same time it's not only an especially cheap and compact mode of transportation, but also an extraordinarily efficient machine.

This efficiency is due to the fact that bicycles are a kind of gyroscope, a machine that maintains its stability thanks to the fact that it revolves around, like for example a dreidel. Stationary bicycles will fall if we do not hold them still, however during a ride both wheels spin rapidly and turn into gyroscopes that aspire to keep upright. By doing so, they stabilize the entire machine and the rider using it.

The invention of the bicycles is attributed to Karl Von Drais from Germany, who invented a simple vehicle in 1818 which had two wheels, without pedals, and was powered by pushing the legs off the ground, like a kick scooter. During the following decades, many improvements were added that would eventually turn the invention to the modern bicycle we know today. The drivetrain and gearing transfer the driving energy of the vehicle from the front wheel to the back, and pedals, inflated rubber tires, modern frames, hand brakes and more were added. The increasing comfort and efficiency of the new models have gave rise to the golden age of bicycles in  1890’s, or the “Bicycle Boom”. People flooded the streets and roads in search of the advantages that the efficient, affordable, and easily accessible two-wheeled transportation, preferring it over the expensive horse and carriage. With it, workers could easily reach from the suburbs to their workplaces in city centers and a culture of recreation and leisure flourished among the younger population. This also opened new doors for women, exactly at the most suitable historical time.

A woman learning to ride a bicycle in Toulouse, France, in 1895 | Wikipedia, public domain.
All beginnings are hard: A woman learning to ride a bicycle in Toulouse, France, in 1895 | Wikipedia, public domain

The contribution: In the last decade of the 19th century, two supposedly unrelated processes unfolded across the United States, Britain, and parts of Western Europe: Bicycles became widely used by the public, and the suffrage movement, that called for women’s right to vote, took center stage. The two processes relied on each other, so much so that bicycles become the symbol of the new woman, who fights for her rights.

American suffragette leader and social activist, Susan B. Anthony, wrote In 1896: “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood.”

Victorian-era social norms, mostly in Britain but also in the United States and Western Europe, dictated that women, especially from the middle and upper classes, become housewives and focus on housework and raising children. A woman that in spite of that wanted to “go out into the world” to work, study, socialize freely or take part in the public and political spheres found herself standing against social, cultural and financial constraints.

One of these constraints was mobility: moving around in cities was based mostly on horses and carriages, that were not always available and came at a high cost – while in most families the money was under the control of the man.

For the first time ever, bicycles offered a relatively cheap and accessible method of transportation that could be used daily for any purpose: work, leisure or physical activity. It gave many women access to the public sphere and assisted them in their struggle for their right to exist within it without the need for a male escort. 

Simultaneously, the bicycle initiated significant change in another field - fashion. Women’s clothes in the Western world during Victorian times restricted movement. They included corsets with varying degrees of comfort or encumbrance and long and elaborate dresses and skirts with several layers of undergarment skirts and metal hoops (crinolines). These clothes made it hard to perform any physical labor or run - and utterly impossible to ride a bicycle. Even if you did manage to mantle on the bicycle, the extra fabrics will get entangled with the projections, wheels, and pedals. “If women ride they must, when riding, dress more rationally” announced Frances Willard, a suffragist activist in 1895 in her book “Wheel within a Wheel; How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle”.

An ad for a women’s bicycle in an American newsletter in 1904 | Wikipedia, public domain
Starting a new journey. An ad for a women’s bicycle in an American newsletter in 1904 | Wikipedia, public domain

Willard also opined that change was inevitable and logic had to overcome tradition – and she was right. Women’s fashion adapted to the bicycle and became more comfortable, with shorter skirts and bloomers- puffy comfortable trousers that were inspired by Turkish fashion and invented in the middle of the 19th century as an alternative to the cumbersome undergarments and became external outwear. Later on, women even began to wear modern-style trousers.

The same era also witnessed the invention of several clothing patents that provided solutions to adapt current fashion for bicycle rides, such as long laces that tied the edges of a long skirt during the ride.

“One of the things that most liberated women was the change in fashion” explains Hila Benyovitch-Hoffman, author of the feminist blog You Can Call Your Sister Van de Graaff. “The transition to shorter, more practical dresses at the end of the 19th century greatly helped women mobility, followed by the transition to super-loose and comfortable dresses in the early 20th century.”

For women’s rights activists in general and the suffragette movement in particular, bicycles embodied the fight for freedom. It symbolized the ideal new woman – a young, educated, sporty woman with a career and ambition for equality in her marriage. It's no accident that the visual images of the new woman of that time were almost always depicted riding a bicycle.

Bicycles and bloomers | Illustration: Frederick Borr, public domain
With the bicycles came the change in fashion: Bicycles and bloomers | Illustration: Frederick Borr, public domain

Women’s rights protest activities embraced the bicycles. In June 1894 Annie Londonderry Kopchovsky, a Lithuanian-Jewish mother of three, went off on a media-covered 15 months journey around the world on her bicycle, proving that a woman can do anything a man can. Fifteen years later, Alice Hawkins would infuriate the conservatives in Britain when she dared to wear trousers during a protest as she cycled around Leicester city as a part of a campaign for women’s right to vote. And these are only two prominent examples.

By 1920, the Suffragettes emerged victorious in most democratic countries and women were allowed to vote and be elected to office. This basic political right was achieved by a determined political struggle led by women who knew how to take advantage of all the tools at their disposal, including a two-wheeled vehicle that came along just at the right time.

Kat Jungnickel of Goldsmith University of London demonstrating how women improved their clothing in order to ride bicycles:

The Electric Washing Machine

The Invention: The modern electric washing machine is a device based on a metal drum that spins inside a water container. Clothes and fabrics that need a wash are inserted into the drum, and soap entraps the dust and fatty particles during the spinning in the water, cleaning the fabric.

The first patents on manual washing machines were registered as early as the 18th century, and in the middle of the 19th century steam engines were incorporated as well. However, all these devices were cumbersome to use and required either muscle power to spin the drum or the use of massive industrial steam engines. It was only when the electric washing machine was developed in the first half of the 20th century, combined with another innovative revolutionary concept - indoor water pipes - that the invention could enter regular homes.

The great breakthrough of the machine occurred during the 1940’s and 50’s in the United States, and a little later in Britain, Israel, and other countries. In doing so, it changed lifestyles that were fixated for decades.

The contribution: In 2009, in honour of international Women’s day, the Italian newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, that is considered a semi-official representative of the Vatican, in a provocative announcement that sparked outrage, wrote to its readers: “What in the 20th century did more to liberate Western women? Some say the pill, some say abortion rights and some the right to work outside the home. Some, however, dare to go further: the washing machine”. Of course, the message expressed the resentment of the catholic church to the concepts of family planning and women’s rights on their body, and the comparison itself was completely ideological and not based on any scientific comparison. However, it contained a grain of truth: the washing machine, alongside other domestic electronic appliances, did play an important role in the process of women entering the workforce and in the change of the power dynamics between women and men inside the family.

Like all housework, in the Western world, washing garments was considered “a woman’s job” until the 20th century, and men did not take part in it. Manual washing was a taxing task that required soaking, boiling, scrubbing, rubbing, washing, draining and hanging. Until the development of indoor water piping, women had to take the family clothes to be washed by a water source such as a river, go to community washing houses that included time-saving accessories, or draw 180 liters of water for an average wash from a well and carry it home. Those who could afford it used the services of laundresses that worked for miniscule salaries, under appalling conditions and without any appreciation.

 A woman doing laundry in the river in India, 2015 | Photography: Just Another Photographer, Shutterstock
There are some places in the world where it is still the traditional work of women. A woman doing laundry in the river in India, 2015 | Photography: Just Another Photographer, Shutterstock

This exhausting work required a great amount of time and labor and provided no financial reward. It is estimated that in 1942, an average housewife in the United States spent 52 hours a week doing house chores, including laundering garments and bedding. In many places, women used to gather for communal washes, so as not to perform this difficult and repetitive task alone. In the 1950’s, there were still condominiums in Israel where neighbors used to gather to do the laundry in the yard.  

Such fixated social structures, where the man is the provider and the woman is in charge of housework, are hard to change. One of the factors that contributed to the shift was the introduction of domestic electronic appliances.

In fact, based on census data from the 1940’s and 50’s, economist Emanuela Cardia from Montreal University discovered in a 2009 study that the entering of new technologies to households, such as the washing machine, electric fridge and electric stove, had a significant driving role in the process of women entering the workforce. This change was gradual: while in 1900, only 5% of Canadian women worked outside their house, in the 1980’s, their numbers grew to 51%.

Did the washing machine and the rest of household appliances such as the fridge, electric stove and vacuum cleaner indeed “redeem” women from a life of hard household labor and exploitation? They undoubtedly saved valuable time, and indirectly led to a more balanced family model where both parents are in charge of income, housework and childcare. However, the picture is complex. Over the years little research was done on the daily routine of housewives and working women. Women still perform most of the housework in modern and supposedly egalitarian families, even during the COVID-19 lockdowns, and simultaneously go and work outside the house. The use of washing machines and other valuable time saving appliances also varies widely from one country to another. While in the United States, the comprehensive use of washing machines began in the early 1940’s, in Britain in 1948, only 2.8% of households had a washing machine and it required a substantial decrease in the price in the 1960’s to trigger a significant change. In the United States, there are also condominiums where tenants share a laundry room.

Washing machines are even used to measure financial differences between countries: In 2010, 70% of the world’s population did not have access to washing machines, but in wealthy countries, there was one in almost every household. This discrepancy has a large influence also on the social status of women in poor countries. Conservative social structures often delay the entering of new technologies even among those who can afford it – for instance, the caste system in India creates a financial pressure on laundresses in Mumbai to continue doing their laundry manually in order to maintain their income.

An advertisement for a household washing machine from 1946 | Origin: The Print Collector / Heritage Images / Science Photo Library
Look… No work! An advertisement for a household washing machine from 1946 | Origin: The Print Collector / Heritage Images / Science Photo Library

The Birth Control Pill

The invention: The birth control pill is a medicinal pill taken orally that contains the female sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone, or synthetic molecules derived from them. The role of the hormones is to prevent the ovulation process, meaning the maturing of the egg and its passage through the ovary to the uterus. In addition, progesterone prevents the uterine lining from receiving the fertilized egg and creates changes in the lining of the cervix that prevent sperm cells from crossing through on their way to the egg.

The role of progesterone and oestrogen in preventing pregnancy was already discovered in the 1930’s, but it took an extra 30 years until substitutes that weren’t easily decomposed in the saliva or stomach were developed.

In the 1960’s, the first birth control pills were made available to the public, developed by the biochemist Gregory Pincus from Worcester’s Institute for Experimental Biology in Massachusetts. Different pills contain different doses of both hormones or their substitutes, however their underlying biological mechanism is the same.

The contribution: The birth control pills had an immense social impact, expressed even by the name itself: The noun with the definite article “the pill” is exclusively recognized with it, without the need to specify which pill we are talking about. Its high efficacy in preventing pregnancies, alongside the fact that its use depends solely on the woman and does not require special preparations before sexual intercourse, gave women full control over their fertility, and therefore sexual liberation.

The pill took a pivotal role in the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and in the hippie counterculture of the United States. It also legitimized premarital sex, and, according to Harvard economist Claudia Goldin and her colleague Lawrence F. Katz, also had an enormous influence on the economic status of women in society and even on their education. The pill allowed women to significantly postpone the age of marriage and childbearing, without the need to give up sexual intercourse if desired. This time could be used for academic studies and career development.

All of these processes combined contributed to the breakdown of the traditional family hierarchy, in which the man’s career advancement was more important than that of the woman’s. Later on, women’s organizations and human rights activists further advanced this process by establishing laws that determined an equal economic status between men and women, and the empowerment of other deprived groups such as the LGBTQ community.

All in all, it is no wonder that women’s rights activists had an important role in the development of the pill. An especially central role was taken by the founder of the American Birth Control League, Margaret Sanger, who assisted Pincus in fundraising research scholarships, initially from the Federation for Planned Parenthood and later from the philanthropic suffragette Katharine Dexter McCormick. McCormick also initiated the collaboration between Pincus and the gynecologist John Rock from the Free Hospital for Women at Harvard, so that the necessary medical experiments could be performed. Pincus said more than once that he could have never succeeded in the task without the help of Sanger, McCormick and Rock, and even dedicated the 1959 report about the development of the pill to Sanger.

Katharine McCormick and a variety of birth control pills | Source: Tony Freeman / US National Archives And Records Administration / Science Photo Library
Significant contribution in the development. Katharine McCormick and a variety of birth control pills | Source: Tony Freeman / US National Archives And Records Administration / Science Photo Library

The rapid spread of the pill sparked lively public debate between liberals and progressives who supported it to the religious and conservative segments of society, that opposed it. In 1968, Pope Paul VI even published a public statement of the Holy See, entitled Humanae Vitae (“human life”), that confirmed the Catholic doctrine regarding the sanctity of life and rejected birth control. Some Protestant churches, however, approved the use of the pill, despite their objection to premarital sex.

Using the pill comes with a price. Some women report side effects such as mood changes, bleeding between periods, headaches and nausea. In rare cases, there can even be side effects such as high blood pressure or over-coagulation of the blood, that could lead to strokes. In addition, the use of the pill is associated with a minor increase in the risks of cervical cancer, and a decrease in the chance of ovarian cancer. Women use the pill not only as a birth control but also a means to control the timing of menses, lessening its intensity and even to prevent acne during adolescence.

The Politics of Technology

Science has no ideology – it is only a means to understand the world we live in and examine assumptions. But technology, meaning the use humans do of scientific knowledge, is often dependent on people who use it and the values of the society where it is developed. Knowledge is power among other things, and when it's deliberately combined in daily life it can be used to change reality - or to preserve it.

An interesting example is the new technologies created during the 19th century that were used for processing metals. They allowed on the one hand the development of thin, more restrictive corsets, and on the other hand the development of the crinolines, a sort of cage made of steel that held the dress on top of it.

In the eye of modern women in jeans or tights, the crinoline may look like an actual cage, but women of the time regarded it differently: “Women fell in love with the crinoline, that freed them of the weight and encumbrance of numerous layers of undergarment skirts previously worn,” explains Inbal Sagiv-Nakdimon, owner of the history of fashion site What Will You Wear For Time Travel?. “On the other hand, men were annoyed by the large space the crinoline made women occupy. Caricatures of the time depict a sad man, pushed aside by women that take over a room or a train cart”. Did the technology free women or cage them? It all depends on the use and the social meaning attributed to it.

A crinoline in an illustration from 1856 | Illustration: Wikipedia, public domain
A metal cage or freedom from the weight of fabrics? A crinoline in an illustration from 1856 | Illustration: Wikipedia, public domain

Think of the single-use tampon. Its contribution to the quality of life of women is not in doubt, as seen by its popularity worldwide. And yet, in poor countries in Africa, the lack of single-use feminine hygiene prevents young women from attending school regularly, and procurers use their control of such products to control sex workers. Elsewhere, there are struggles against the taxation of tampons and sanitary napkins, as part of the efforts to reduce economic inequality in society.

Many technologies filled a role in the struggle for equal rights for women- such as baby formula, single-use diapers, sewing machines and the internet. But technology is nothing but a tool, and true appreciation should be directed towards those who use it to make the world a better place. There is still a long way to go, and society continues to this day to limit women in myriad of ways, even by depriving them of one of the most simple and necessary features in an outfit: pockets.