Technocratic Feminism: How Gender Equality Can Win a War

November 03, 2014

When most people make the case for feminism and women’s issues, they’ll use terms like equality, fair opportunity, and progressive social values. But 2011–12 AAUW American Fellow Laura Puaca discovered another effective kind of rhetoric.

Puaca found that during times of national crisis, like the world wars and the Cold War, women tackled underrepresentation in a very different way. Rather than rally for fair treatment and opportunity under the law (an often losing battle), some women during these periods argued for gender equality as more practical, affordable, and secure for all. By appropriating the language used by politicians and technocrats (“national security interest,” “defense,” “scientific manpower,” and “optimal utilization of resources”) they were able to channel fairness and equality into a conversation about national security and economic interests.

Surprisingly, Puaca tells us, there was no term for this strategy, so she coined one herself. “Technocratic feminism” became the focus of her recently published book, Searching for Scientific Womanpower: Technocratic Feminism and the Politics of National Security, 1940–1980. Technocratic feminism refers to “the strategy that is used by reformers,” she explains. “The strategy draws on national security prerogatives”—and in the case of the Cold War era, that meant scientific manpower, so reformers “used the language of technocrats” to make their argument. “The focus and crux of their arguments has little to do with equality, but rather [with] the interest in producing experts, people who are trained in scientific and technological pursuits.”

In other words, by drawing the argument away from the abstract ideas of equality and justice, feminists in these times of crisis argued for equal treatment as a technological and economic win for everyone.

Laura Puaca; technocratic feminism

Laura Puaca’s book, “Searching for Scientific Womanpower: Technocratic Feminism and the Politics of National Security, 1940–1980”

But that didn’t mean that these women abandoned their core belief in women’s equality for equality’s sake. Many of the women who adopted this tactic — like AAUW members and the Society for Women Engineers — had long histories of interest in and support for women’s education and equal employment,  but they learned to change the timbre of their arguments. During her research, Puaca read about many such women in AAUW’s archives. Virginia Gildersleeve was a lifelong pioneer for women’s education, and Margaret Rossiter, author of Women Scientists in America, was an AAUW fellow just like Puaca.

Puaca elaborates that there was a lot of discussion within the technocratic feminist movement about “the need to maximize resources and minimize waste. The arguments weren’t so much that we didn’t want to discriminate against women, but that we as a country couldn’t afford to waste the brainpower that women offer.”

This idea, of course, led to the conclusion that without women we were moving towards an economic and security downturn, falling behind our enemies and competitors.

This argument resonated during wartime periods: Would we as a country be able to keep up with our enemies in World War II without all of our citizens pitching in? Would we lose the space race if we weren’t utilizing women scientists and engineers, when the Soviet Union was? Puaca has even found the same kind of language being used in more recent history to support the participation of women in cybersecurity efforts, computer science, and engineering.

Admittedly, it can be disheartening to learn that tactics like this still need to be employed when it comes to getting women into underrepresented fields. However, each time the strategy succeeds it becomes clear that when given the opportunity, women can thrive in all professions.


Laura Puaca’s American Fellowship was sponsored by Bertha Sheppard Adkins and Althea K. Hottel (AAUW North and Middle Atlantic 1955–56).


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