"Hello Central?": Gender, Technology and Culture in the Formation of Telephone Systems

Michèle Martin

Recent writing of women's history in Canada has tended toward a closer examination of the ideology of "separate spheres," the sexual division of labour, and the interplay between class and gender. Once poorly integrated into the mainstream of Canadian history, it is now a major current. Considered in this vein, Professor Martin's book "Hello, Central?" is an attempt to explain the "historical impact of a new technology on cultural practices, especially on social relations among women" (p. 4). It also examines the consequences of women's activities in shaping the use of the telephone. The analysis is based on an examination of the control exercised by "ruling classes" and the reaction of dominated groups who attempt to contest "class and gender monopolization of the means of communication by powerful groups" (p. 7).

The first chapter discusses the nature and extension of the technology and the technology's confrontation with contemporary cultural practices. Martin agrees with Raymond Williams that class differentiation is evident in the diffusion of the technology of the telephone. Chapter Two, "Killing the Competition," is a discussion of the link between business interests and the technology, and especially how the technology was related to the "expansion of capitalist production in Canadian society" (p. 27). It also discusses the regulation of the telephone system and its development as a public utility. The third chapter examines the feminization of the operator labour force, and domestic labour, and the role of "Victorian morality" in the shaping of the female labour force. Martin describes the evolution of the occupation of telephone operator and how standardization affected women. Chapter Four gives us an interesting and entertaining insight into the training of these women and management's desire to have them deal with the public in the "woodsy voices of a summer day." There is also an informative examination of the image of the operator as devil or heroine in a larger social context, and how the operator played "midwife" to the arrival of new communications practices. Martin argues that the "transition from a pre-telephone to a telephone society was very much influenced by the operators's participation in the development of telephone systems" (p. 109).

Chapters Five and Six deal with the extension of the telephone and its diffusion and concludes that because of "capitalist industry's control over the development of the telephone" (p. 110) its diffusion was limited. In the residential spread of telephones, women shaped the social uses of the new technology. Martin perceives the telephone's effects on women as paradoxical: on the one hand, it had an emancipatory influence; on the other it reinforced sexist attitudes. The study concludes that it was in the "interaction between different telephonic rationalities" (p. 171) that a telephone culture developed. Here, women were a determining influence in the use of the telephone for social purposes. Martin reasserts the social and culturally embedded character of technological innovation: there is no grim technological determinism at work here.

This book sheds light on an important nexus--that of technology and gender, and the conclusions about the role of women are especially apt. This is a theme worthy of further study. As history, however, the study is marred by several weak links. Throughout the text, the author appeals to a rigid framework wherein there is little room for flexible interpretation. The text is replete with references to mastodonic terms--"capitalism," "capitalist society," "bourgeois," and "ruling classes"--that shed little interpretative light on the subject. There is little discussion of the notion of public utility and what that meant in the early-twentieth-century context. The state failed, it is maintained, to fulfil its role as "protector of the poor." There are other similar generalizations that are fragile.

Bell's implementation of more stringent business methods on the operators might have been structured around an examination of the context of what currents were leading Bell management and others in the Canadian managerial cadre to implement what amounted to a revolution in control. The book's treatment of business and the state is often incomplete and clichéd. Recourse to the rich literature in the history of Canadian women and of Canadian business, labour, and regulation would have enriched and given nuance to the analysis and interpretation of this important chapter in the history of labour and women in Victorian Canada. The evidence often lies uncomfortably on Professor Martin's Procrustean bed. The prose is at times difficult to read, and the bibliography has a number of incomplete citations and lacunae. Still, "Hello, Central?" harbours new insights into the importance of women workers in shaping communicative practices.



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