Where have all the women gone?

Lisa Nakamura’s analyzes in “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture” the Fairchild Corporation’s use of Native American women to manufacture integrated circuit boards from the mid-60’s to the mid-’70s. She makes the point that women of color’s labor were essential to the founding of the physical, digital culture—circuits and chips—but that the patriarchal culture dominated their contribution and then erased it from the narrative. One way Nakamura supports her thesis is to examine a 1969 sales brochure depicting Fairchild’s “docile” Navajo women technology workers as culturally suited for the tedious and detailed task. The brochure visually draws together the digital and the native by using a rug pattern that women on the reservation would have produced and then showing that same pattern on the integrated circuit. These women are the central feature of the company’s account of the integrity of Fairchild’s manufacturing quality. She examines how Fairchild’s narrative is aimed at the US government who was not only heavily invested in using their circuits but also interested in ending services to the reservations (925). However, in the retellings of the history of Silicon Valley, the contributions of these women are all but expunged except for a “footnote” (921). Her article is an essential step in the direction of a fully inclusive narrative of the DNA of digital culture, and she gets closer to the heart of the problem of colonialism and patriarchy in the history but leaves out the most crucial part of the narrative: the native women’s voices. The problem is that when she is retelling the exploitation of these tribal women in Shiprock, New Mexico, we never hear from the women themselves.

I found it fascinating that though she directly quotes Charlie Sporck from Fairchild, she gives the native women no voice of their own except in an indirect mention of the general feelings of the Navajo tribe vis-a-vis the Fairchild plant’s closure (936). If there were no accounts from any of the women workers at the time.  Why doesn’t she acknowledge them? Is there an understanding that no one went back to talk to the women? Is it implicit? Leaving holes in the narrative is something we’ve spoken about this semester such as the ghost of Sally Hemings’ brother, James, who is all but left out of the archive. I have the same feeling about these women who are mentioned but not heard. It’s like talking about someone who you pretend isn’t in the room but is right in front of you. She accounts for the holes but does not do much to fill them with the actual participants. To tell this story without the voices of the women is to continue (albeit in a lesser way) what everyone else has done and objectify the erased people. I think she almost gets to giving agency to the oppressed and has written an essential piece in the history of digital culture, but this story needs to go further and be more inclusive even while continuing to analyze the narrative.

But how do we get away from objectifying the subjects of our inquiries? It might be messy to include the voices of these women, more time consuming and disturb the narrative that they were exploited without their participation. I don’t know, but we need to start to think about these things when we are writing about the marginalized. The last word on the Navajo women’s disposition was Charlie Sporck’s claim that the plant was a “failure.” He said, “the women made the money, and the men drank it up” (936). Why does he have the last word? When talking about the DNA of digital culture and how the exploitation of women of color figures into it, it is probably best to include those women’s voices and finally give the space to the exploited workers. I think that when we as academics need to look closely at the holes in the narrative spaces where the voices of the exploited should be, and make sure to give space to them.

1 thought on “Where have all the women gone?

  1. Farah Zahra

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts Pamela. As you said, although Nakamura makes a great contribution to the critique of the history of digital culture, her narrative makes no space for the women’s voices. I can’t agree more to the point you make about the objectification of subjects. Yet mere inclusion of participants voices, even that is not enough. I’m thinking the different ways in which interview answers often get employed in academic narratives to serve the researcher’s theoretical/intellectual project and not the other way around….

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