Features March/April 2023

Lessons from Historical Female Technical Communicators

By Kerry Ulm

Women’s historical contributions to technical communication offer useful insight to modern technical communication professionals.

Women play a significant role in the modern field of technical communication. According to an STC research study, in the 21st century, the majority of technical communicators are women. Without similar studies regarding other periods, it is difficult to ascertain what percentage of historical technical communicators were women. Prior to WWII, the field was not as clearly defined as it is today, and women’s roles and documents were often overlooked.

However, by investigating historical documents and biographies, modern researchers have uncovered instances of women’s participation in technical communication that provide insight regarding women’s work in the field. Although the circumstances of their participation vary, many of these women’s experiences contain useful takeaways for 21st century technical writers and communicators.

Ancient Mesopotamia

Dr. Kathryn Raign traced female participation in technical communication back to Ancient Mesopotamia, starting around 2400 BCE. Different approaches to gender roles, literacy, and methods of documentation all influenced the women’s work.

Since the idea of “writing” was relatively new, so were perceptions of “writers.” In some cases, women transcribed information. In other cases, they dictated information to scribes. The documents themselves were in different forms than those that writers use today, such as cylinder seals and clay tablets. They fell under two classes of information: material that was meant to be passed down to future generations and material that was meant to serve everyday business without necessarily being archived.

The writings covered a range of topics, such as documentation of sales, tracking property investments, and instructions and scripts for rituals, including medical practices. Persuasive letters demonstrate women’s use of rhetoric two millennia before Aristotle wrote his treatise on the topic.

What can modern technical communicators learn from Ancient Mesopotamian female technical writers?

  • Involve team members in idea generation even if they will not be involved in the writing.
  • Consider the expected lifespan of a document when defining its contents and structure.
  • Keep in mind that people may be “technical communicators” or “technical writers” but have different job titles.
Hildegard von Bingen

During the 12th century, Hildegard von Bingen produced dozens of documents. She was placed in a Catholic convent as a child and eventually became the head of her German religious community as well as a renowned thinker and writer. In addition to writing about her religious visions and beliefs, she created a number of musical compositions that continue to be performed to this day. Von Bingen also created medical and scientific texts, which researcher Dr. Susan Rauch has argued are evidence of her status as a female technical writer.

One of Hildegard’s best known texts, Causae Curae, outlines medical ailments, including their causes and treatments. The instructions in the text communicate what were then complex technological processes. The text contains many of the baseline descriptions contained in modern patients’ medical charts, and the writing follows classification and rhetorical principles as defined by modern technical communicators. Von Bingen writes in a thorough and descriptive style that comprehensively describes the topics.

In Physica, von Bingen covers a variety of scientific topics, including zoology, physics, cosmology, and biology. The text includes an index of plants, classifications of animals, and instructions for use of flora and fauna for various medical purposes. Von Bingen also describes the night sky and weather patterns using a method that is similar, Rauch comments, to the communication of information in the American annual publication, the Farmer’s Almanac.

What can modern technical communicators learn from Hildegard von Bingen?

  • Lean into hierarchies and classifications to create organization for readers.
  • Include a variety of information in one document by methodically arranging the contents according to a system.
  • Advocate for technical communicators’ ability to create documents about a variety of topics regardless of the communicator’s educational background.
English Renaissance Women

English women’s literacy rates rose during the 16th and 17th centuries. As literacy rates changed, documents evolved to accommodate women’s skill sets, according to Dr. Elizabeth Tebeaux. The topics featured in these Renaissance books include food recipes, midwifery instructions, estate management, and other domestically oriented information.

Prior to this period, poetry was the leading writing style for communicating technical information. Metered and rhyming poetry made instructions easier for women to use. For example, some silkworm management texts were written as poetry so that the information could be read aloud and memorized without users needing to frequently reference the original hardcopy text.

The use of poetry transitioned to prose as women’s literacy rates grew. Some texts were written primarily as memory prompts. The details varied based on what information the writer presumed the readers already knew versus what information was novel to them. In certain midwifery texts, the instructions include English versions of Latin terms to accommodate readers’ different knowledge levels.

Other texts were created as stand-alone instructions. The grammatical structure and verb choices in these books reflect an early form of the writing methods that technical communicators use in modern manuals. As English women’s literacy rates grew, books written for them were increasingly technical in nature, and the writing style became more refined.

Men wrote the majority of the surviving technical books about topics that pertained to women’s typical roles and activities. However, scholars believe women may have written similar books. Because the documents written by women were never formally published, they existed in more fragile formats. These documents may have been used heavily in daily life, so they did not survive long enough for modern researchers to prove their existence.

What can modern technical communicators learn from documents written for English women during the Renaissance?

  • Adjust writing styles based on readers’ comprehension levels.
  • Define words and information for readers when necessary, but not when they likely already know them.
  • Include features that make it easier for readers to recall information.
American Female Inventors

In 1837 near the small town of Brandon, VT, a blacksmith named Thomas Davenport received a patent for the first electric motor in the United States. The motor enabled future transportation and manufacturing developments, including modern electric vehicles.

Although Davenport has received the majority of the praise for the invention, he did not create it alone. He was assisted by a relative, a man named Orange Smalley, and his wife, Emily Davenport. Researchers often cite Emily Davenport as taking careful notes during the invention process, but her work has not been extensively studied. Her lack of recognition is a common theme that unites many historical female technical communicators.

While searching for female technical writers in the annals of history, scholars developed different theories regarding women’s presence—or lack of it—in the field. On the one hand, women could have been too busy with other work to participate in inventing and documentation. On the other hand, perhaps they were simply not included in history books.

Historians have also found that women’s roles in filing patents, specifically, is often underreported. Limitations on women’s education, cultural stereotypes, financial requirements, and misrepresentative descriptions of inventions all restricted women’s involvement in the inventing and patent filing process, including their roles in the documentation of inventions. In the United States during Emily Davenport’s time, marriage restricted women’s ability to own patents, which limited their roles in the creation of associated technical documents.

What can modern technical communicators learn from early American female inventors?

  • Advocate for the field of technical writing by demonstrating its worth.
  • Document your own contributions to projects to ensure you receive appropriate credit.
  • Recognize the importance of every team member’s role in supporting a successful project.
Florence Nightingale

Although Florence Nightingale is typically associated with her advancements in the field of nursing, she was also a technical communication pioneer. In the late 1850s, when newspaper reports of poor sanitary conditions in Crimean War military hospitals reached the home front in England, the government responded by sending a team of nurses to improve the situation. Nightingale headed the group.

Over the course of her 18 months in the hospitals, Nightingale and her team improved their sanitation and mortality rates significantly. Upon her return, she pushed for sustained hospital reform by writing a report which she compiled through months of research and discussions with subject matter experts. After submitting the report, she waited. For months it went unpublished. When the doctors, whom the report threatened to expose, anonymously published a contradictory pamphlet in an effort to save their reputations, Nightingale worried her report might be overshadowed. She decided to create an annex to her report that relied on statistical communication through data visualization.

Together with her mentor William Farr, Nightingale developed statistical charts to make the information easier for readers to quickly grasp. Her text and diagrams, which included a novel data visualization structure known as a “rose diagram,” efficiently communicated information to capture readers’ attention and emotions. Her efforts contributed not only to society’s better understanding of the conditions in military hospitals but also to the development of the field of technical communication.

What can modern technical communicators learn from Nightingale’s work?

  • Design documents so that the intended users will actually use them.
  • Enhance messaging by combining visuals and text.
  • Use innovative approaches to increase the effectiveness of persuasive writing.

Women’s roles in technical communication have evolved alongside the growth of the field itself. Many other historical female technical communicators have also made significant contributions that hold lasting lessons for modern technical writers today. Sometimes peeking into the documents and past works of these figures can spark innovations for projects in both the present and the future to come.

  1. Carliner, Saul, and Yuan Chen. 2019. “Who Technical Communicators Are: A Summary of Demographics, Backgrounds, and Employment.”Intercom. Accessed December 12, 2022.https://www.stc.org/intercom/2019/01/who-technical-communicators-are-a-summary-of-demographics-backgrounds-and-employment/
  2. Durack, Katherine T. “Gender, Technology, and the History of Technical Communication.” Technical Communication Quarterly 6, 3 (1997): 249–260. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15427625tcq0603_2
  3. O’Hara, Frederick M. 2001. “A brief history of technical communication.” In Annual Conference – Society for Technical Communication 48 (2001): 500–504.
  4. Raign, Kathryn Rosser. “Finding Our Missing Pieces—Women Technical Writers in Ancient Mesopotamia.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 49, 3 (2018): 338–364. https://doi.org/10.1177/0047281618793406.
  5. Rauch, Susan. “The Accreditation of Hildegard von Bingen as Medieval Female Technical Writer.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 42, 4 (2012): 393–411. https://doi-org.uc.idm.oclc.org/10.2190/TW.42.4.d.
  6. Spiro, Linda. 2018. “Women Inventors: Information Sources.” Journal of the Patent and Trademark Resources Center Association 28 (2018).
  7. Tebeaux, Elizabeth.1993. “Technical Writing for Women of the English Renaissance: Technology, Literacy, and the Emergence of a Genre.” Written Communication 10, no. 2 (1993): 164–199. https://doi-org.uc.idm.oclc.org/10.1177/0741088393010002002.
  8. Visser, Thomas D. “History of the Smalley-Davenport Shop.” Smalley-Davenport Shop Forestdale, Vermont. Accessed December 12, 2022. https://www.uvm.edu/histpres/SD/hist.html.
  9. Wicks, Frank. “The blacksmith’s motor.” Mechanical Engineering-CIME 121, no. 7, July 1999. Accessed December 12, 2022. http://bi.gale.com.uc.idm.oclc.org/global/article/GALE%7CA55307112?u=ucinc_main.

Kerry Ulm HeadshotKerry Ulm is a freelance writer, editor, and digital storyteller. She is also an Adjunct Instructor in the Department of English & Comparative Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Kerry has an MA in Creative Writing, an MA in Professional Writing, and a Graduate Certificate in Film & Media Studies.