The web site of Austin-based writer Eileen McGinnis.

 

Dr. Ursula Franklin: The Badass Canadian, Quaker, Feminist, Materials-Scientist Aunt I Never Had

I first heard of Ursula Franklin via the Ada Lovelace Day podcast. Technology writer Clive Thompson was on to introduce/gush about this pioneering physicist and metallurgist, who is not well known outside of Canada. You could tell he was a major fanboy.

Before the podcast had ended, I was equally smitten. It was love at first listen.


Ursula Franklin grew up in Germany, the only child of a Jewish artist mother and a Protestant ethnographer father. A Holocaust survivor, Franklin earned a Ph.D. in experimental physics in Berlin after the war, then emigrated to Canada in 1949. Two decades later, she left a career as a research scientist to become a professor of metallurgy at the University of Toronto, where she taught for the next 40-plus years.

Her scientific contributions are considerable. But Franklin is probably best known today for her writings and lectures about technology. A lifelong pacifist, feminist, and environmentalist, Franklin wanted us to reflect on how society and politics shape – and are shaped by – the technologies we create.

 Franklin with lab equipment.

Franklin with lab equipment.

Franklin had two children during her tenure as a research scientist. In a 2014 interview, she relays a humorous but telling anecdote about her experiences as a working mother, in a 1950s workplace totally unequipped for her existence as such:

The story is that I headed up the non-destructive testing and x-ray department at the Ontario Research Foundation. Good equipment, few people, interesting work. I was in there from the university, respected and the fact that I was a woman was probably not a big deal. Then I got married. It was a bit of social rumble—‘she, I mean, she got married?’ Okay, I got married.

But then, two years later, I got pregnant and we expected our first child.

At the outset, I decided to tell them quite early and say look: I am expecting a child. I would like to continue working. I can be in the lab fifty percent of the time—two and a half days. My mother is here; she’ll look after the baby. The other two and a half days, I will work at home, because much of my work—the writing and calculations and report-writing—it was possible to have the data for, and I could take my reports to work.

And they were stunned—because it had never happened.

And so what do you do [if you’re them]? You strike a committee. You strike a committee and you deliberate. And of course the one thing that goes on in parallel is the pregnancy, and so they kept on deliberating ...eventually—to their great shock—our son was born.

And four weeks later, I began to do what I had suggested. The committee never made a decision. Probably they never hired a woman of childbearing age again, but I kept on for another eight years and had a second child in that mold.

In characteristic fashion, Franklin uses her personal story to extrapolate on larger, systemic problems:

The unpreparedness, administratively and legally, to recognize that women, when you employ them, have needs, and require an administrative framework that takes that into account was totally absent. So that the task, then, for women like myself who were feminists, was to know that you had to have laws that gave maternity leave; you had to have provisions for flexible work; and the struggle from there on was not for us, but was struggled for all women to have decent working conditions and safe wages.

And that’s how it starts.


Whenever I want some cerebral bedtime reading (this is admittedly not often), I dip into Franklin’s collected writings. She writes on complex, structural issues around technology, gender, and power in a manner that is kindly and wise. There is something deeply soothing about her straightforward, logical prose even as her work challenges us in so many ways – to think differently, to act humanely, to choose the more difficult path.

One essay I came across in the collection that stuck with me was titled “Will Women Change Technology or Will Technology Change Women?" The scope of this talk is VAST: Franklin hopes to shift the culture and practice of science to create a more human-centered, flexible approach that integrates women's experiences and expertise. 

She contrasts the scientific status quo with lessons from "the women's world":

  • In the "technological order," tasks are "predictable, non-random, fully scheduled, and carried out without reference to context" whereas "Tasks in the women’s world arise in contexts out of specific needs…. They are unschedulable and there is a high degree of randomness both in the reality and the expectations."

  • "The technological order, narrowly specialized, offers little scope for improvisation" whereas "The women’s world, on the other hand, is to a large measure unplannable.… Inventiveness, spontaneity, and improvisation are highly valued too."

  • "The technological order is an environment that emphasizes personal achievement and quantifies machine output.... One may want to contrast this notion of productivity—churning something out at the lowest cost whether anyone needs that something or not—with the notion of ‘copeability,’ the ability to deal and cope adequately with a variety of circumstances."

  • "Finally…the technological order is geared to maximizing gain; the strategies of the women’s world are more often than not aimed at minimizing disaster."

On the one hand, I think we can broaden Franklin's scope even further. Although she defines these traits in terms of "women's world," her concepts of inventiveness, "copeability," and "minimizing disaster" speak to marginalized experiences of all kinds – of people of color, undocumented individuals, LGBTQIA individuals, etc. 

But I also appreciate the way her words resonate when we narrow them down to our own petty complaints and daily struggles as parents and creators, whatever our gender identity.

Unschedulable. Unplannable. Unpredictable. Sound familiar?

  • The anticipated work day derailed by an unexpected illness that keeps your kid home from daycare.

  • The improvisational skills required to delicately navigate a toddler's mood and head off (or manage) a tantrum, all at 7 am, before your own creative work has begun.

  • The re-adjustment of your own expectations for what productivity might look like (aka, lowering the bar). Where just getting oneself to a professional conference is your idea of a win vs. giving the best, most dazzling talk at said conference.

Franklin, of course, has a lot of wisdom to offer us as citizen scientists and as human beings. If you haven’t heard of Ursula Franklin and care about even one of the following topics – technology, feminism, pacifism, the environment – you should read up on her posthaste.

But there is some parenting wisdom nestled amidst all of Franklin's large-scale theorizing. Namely: parenting is building the heck out of your character – your resilience, adaptability, and yes, creativity. As Franklin might reassure me/us if she were alive today: trust that these skills are going to shape your artistic or scientific or entrepreneurial life at some unforeseen future date.

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(And if the apocalypse comes instead, trust that you will be ready…?)

 

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