Why we think of innovation as male - and why it's wrongMar 11, 2021
Anni Albers was a trailblazing artist who created modernist masterpieces.
After finishing one of her best works she gave it to her mother. Her mum was very grateful and immediately draped it over the piano and plonked a vase of flowers on top of it.
You see, Anni Albers happened to be creating modernist masterpieces using thread.
Anni Albers was a weaver and people didn’t perceive her modernist masterpieces as Art (hence the plonking of flower vases on top of them).
It wasn’t like Anni Albers hadn’t tried to be a painter. When she arrived at the world-famous Bauhaus art school in Germany in 1922 their painting courses were closed to women. The founder believed women were only able to think in two dimensions, while men were able to think in three. Hence women were delegated to the less prestigious textile classes.
Why am I telling you this story?
It’s for purely selfish reasons.
I’m trying to process something that happened to me on Monday.
It was International Women’s Day and my morning started on a panel on women and innovation. The first question we were asked was: “are men better at innovation than women?” (The second one was if this was due to biological differences…).
Now the person asking the question was probably not expecting us to say:
- Yes, men are just better at innovation than women, HAPPY INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY TO YOU!
I think he was expecting us to say something along the lines of “Yes, of course historically most innovations have been created by men… but…” and then move into a passionate argument for the need for more women in STEM.
So, what does this all have to do with Anni Albers?
The first American patent given to a woman was related to weaving. In 1809 Mary Kies became the first woman to receive a US patent for her method of weaving straw with silk. For millennia women have been experts in textile production: inventing spindles, looms and loom weights. Women are even thought to have invented string.
Now that’s a PRETTY SIGNIFICANT INVENTION.
Just think about it.
We are used to talking about “the stone age” and it makes you think of cave men in animal skins dragging women behind them by the hair going: Ugg! But archeology professor Elizabeth Wayland Barber has suggested we ought to call it “the string age” instead.
String was actually more important, she argues.
With string you could “tie things up, to catch, hold and carry”. Humans could suddenly make snares and fishlines, carrying nets, handles and packages… All thanks to the female technology of string.
So yes, women have always invented. The problem is that “technology” has been defined as “what men do”. (I go into this in much more detail in my forthcoming book).
When a man produces an abstract piece in oils on canvas, it is called Art. When a woman produces an identical piece in textiles it is called “craftwork”.
The economic consequences are huge.
It’s not artworks made from thread that sell for millions. It’s not the women of the Bauhaus school we remember. It’s the men: Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and so on.
In the same way women’s inventions are not displayed at technological museums. They tend not to be counted as “inventions” at all.
We drape them over the piano and plonk a vase of flower over them.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Tate Modern in London had a great Anni Albers exhibition in 2019
New York Times article on string and cloth during the “stone” age
It’s based on The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory, by James Adovasio and Olga Soffer.
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