Call for Papers: Workshop – Reproductive Labor and Gynocentric Technologies in East Asia, 1800s-2000s


“Reproductive Labor and Gynocentric Technologies in East Asia, 1800s-2000s”


Jacob Eyferth (Chicago), Suzanne Gottschang (Smith), Gonçalo Santos (HKU)
Date: October 12-14, 2018
Venue: Smith College


The starting point of this Working Group is the idea that social life is fundamentally about “people-making.” Following David Graeber, we recognize that “while any society has to produce food, clothing, shelter, and so forth,” in most societies the production of material objects “is very much seen as a subordinate moment in larger productive processes aimed at the [creation and] fashioning of humans.” Industrial societies obfuscate the primacy of “people making” by separating material production in the workplace from social reproduction at home, marking the former as male, public, and important, and the latter as female, private, and unimportant. An earlier generation of feminist scholars challenged this doctrine of separate spheres and its explicit devaluation of women’s work. Our working group draws significant inspiration from this earlier scholarship to call for a re-appreciation of the centrality of reproductive labor in modern industrial societies. We argue that reproductive labor is not just a basic precondition of “production” (i.e., the replenishing of the labor force so that the production of goods can go on); the work involved in the reproduction of life in its social and biological dimensions is also an end result that remains important even where it is denigrated and overlooked.

We refer to the goals of reproductive labor as “gynocentric” because in most societies – including East Asian societies – women tend to play a central role in the work of creating and fashioning humans. Such work relies on a variety of tools, techniques, and practices (which we call “gynocentric technologies”, drawing on Francesca Bray’s notion of “gynotechnics”) that are often spatially dispersed and involve many different actors and institutions. Children are not simply raised by mothers in households; they are moved around from caretaker to caretaker, or people move around to take care of children, or outside agents are called in to help. Similarly, the reproduction of life at home – the cooking, feeding, cleaning, etc, that is the precondition for all social life – depends on networks of cooperation between women who help each other in these tasks. If one adds technology to the mix, one gets complex, spatially dispersed assemblages of people, techniques, and artifacts that come together in the work of creating and fashioning humans. These infrastructures can have many different scales (local, national, and global) and they have become more complex in recent times, with increased transnational mobility, and the growing significance of law, state policy, science, medicine, industry, and the media.

There is an important historical question here. The work of human reproduction always involved dispersed networks of people that were gynocentric in the sense that they could include men but were basically built around the labor of women, linked to each other through kinship or other ties. In the old agrarian order, everyday survival depended on a number of skills — textile manufacture, garment manufacture, food processing, healing, childcare, midwifery, etc. — that were important sources of prestige and dignity for women, even in the most oppressive circumstances. After the industrial revolution, many of these skills were gradually incorporated into the factory system and the logic of the market. Historians working on Western societies have drawn attention to a dynamics of de-skilling, whereby women either forgot old skills or else continued performing their old labor subject to the authority of experts and no longer in control of the productive process. This research tends to overstate the extent to which these transformations have led to a demise of women’s work. In contrast, we start from the assumption that gynocentric work did not disappear but was transformed and obscured. In East Asia as elsewhere, a modern focus on “production” – understood as commodity production outside the home – led to an understanding of women’s work as “reproductive chores,” with the effect that work that reproduced life at home often ceased to be seen as work at all. At the same time, women’s work became the object of attention of state regulators, reformist elites, and commercial providers, and was subjected to increased controls.

We ask questions about the transformation of reproductive labor and gynocentric technologies in East Asia from the 1800s onwards, when processes of industrialization and globalization were significantly accelerated. Throughout the region, we see a transition from an agrarian economy rooted in gendered divisions of labor in small producing households, to a modern political economy in which productive work is defined as taking place outside the household, in offices and factories. In the agrarian economy, women’s efforts were seen as subordinate but also complementary to men’s work. Ideally, “men tilled and women wove;” if either of them stopped performing their gendered work, people would starve or freeze. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean intellectuals began to think of “the economy” as a distinct realm, separate from the household and populated by male income earners. In this new model, domestic work performed by women became invisible, even though women, as artisans, cash croppers, and small commodity producers, continued to contribute to their households in the same way as men. Yet the ideological erasure of gynocentric work should not be confused with its actual disappearance. Precisely because such work was typically construed as private and unimportant, it could escape systematic transformation.

Rather than assuming a straightforward process in which women were progressively deskilled, their autonomy undermined by male experts, their work made redundant by industrially produced commodities, we assume an uneven transformation in which new skills and technologies interacted with older cultures of cooperation. We trace this transformation by focusing on changes in the everyday technologies that are involved in the work of “people-making.” We are thinking, for example, of how breast pumps, formula, and plastic bottles make it possible to disperse the work of nursing across time and space, or how cell phones and tracker wristbands allow Chinese migrant parents to be involved in child raising from a distance. Such arrangements are part of larger material and organizational infrastructures that have become increasingly transnational and commercialized as we entered the 21st century. An important part of this project is to show how these emerging infrastructures vary across East Asia, and how these variations are shaped by long-term socio-cultural and politico-economic processes, linked to a number of different projects of gender equality and female emancipation.



We invite proposals from PhD students and early career scholars working on topics related to gynocentric work and technology in East Asia. We welcome proposals focusing on historical and/or contemporary issues, and drawing on one or several of the following disciplinary approaches (anthropology, history, sociology, STS). We are particularly interested in inter-disciplinary and cross-disciplinary perspectives that speak to larger issues in East Asian and global history and society.

The selection of specific topics for the workshop will ultimately depend on the availability of speakers, but we are interested in paper proposals focusing on one or several of the following key interconnected themes:

  • Biological reproduction. Traditional and modern techniques that regulate and aid the reproduction of biological life, including fertility treatments, contraception, abortion, pre- and postnatal care, midwifery, and infant nursing.
  • Homemaking includes the “three C’s” (caring, cooking, and cleaning), but also (in pre-industrial environments) hauling water, gathering fuel, spinning, weaving, sewing, raising animals, preserving food, etc. We also include commercial or public services (restaurants, canteens, laundry services, etc.) that supplement or replace domestic work.
  • Intimacy and connection. Techniques that maintain and shape social bonds in the family and beyond. These include, among others, the exchange of gifts and other objects, the creation of intimacy (and sometimes control) through cell phones and social media.
  • Healing and care include techniques ranging from routine “maintenance” of bodies to healing and caring for the sick, aged, and dying.

Abstracts (500 words max) should be submitted to the organizers by January 25th 2018 at the latest.

We will announce the shortlist of selected abstracts in early February 2018. Invited speakers will be expected to submit a full-length paper (8,000 words max) by September 1st 2018 to be presented and discussed at the workshop. We will provide assistance for costs of travel and accommodation of invited speakers.

Contact:           Jacob Eyferth (Chicago), email:

Suzanne Gottschang (Smith), email:

Gonçalo Santos (HKU), email:

About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
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