Collision 91: December, 2023

Ernst Toller, The Machine-Wreckers: A Drama of the English Luddites in a Prologue and Five Acts. Translated by Ashley Dukes. New York: Howard Fertig, Inc. 1991 [1935]

Nimble Fingers

Diane Wei Lewis

JOHN WIBLEY. This hellish engine-monster every day Devours the wages of a thousand men. CHARLES. The man who steals our work sins against Nature! CRIES. Sins against Nature! JOHN WIBLEY. They plan to hunt the men from every town And chain the children to their devilments. ‘Tis said this engine runs for babes of three. Ernst Toller, The Machine Wreckers, Act Two, Scene II1

Nottingham weavers rebel against the introduction of steam-driven looms in Ernst Toller’s The Machine Wreckers (1923). In this play based on the Luddite movement that arose in England around 1812, Toller shows automation being regarded with superstitious awe by all—workers, the factory owner, overseers, the townspeople, and the machine’s engineer. Technology is revered as a god and hated as a “monster,” “Moloch,” “witchcraft,” and “devilry.” Fear ultimately leads the weavers to destroy the machinery and kill the labor organizer Jimmy Cobbett, who has urged patience so he can coordinate the Nottingham rebellion with weavers in Blackburn, Bolton, Rochdale, Wigan, Derby, and Manchester. Rather than celebrate the Luddites, The Machine Wreckers issues an acute warning against the mindless idolization of advanced technology by capitalists and workers alike.

The Machine Wreckers also represents industrialization as a crisis of sexual relations and the family. In the course of the drama, working-class men lose jobs, wives and children take their places, and brothers are pitted against each other as some rise through the ranks to become overseers at the factory while others remain unemployed. This chaos produces sexual disorder as women turn to prostitution to support their families; in some cases, they are even pimped by their own husbands to property-owning johns. Male weavers lose their livelihood as artisans and face a crisis of masculinity as they become wage workers performing simple, repetitive tasks for a pittance. Able-bodied men are reduced to body parts, a process that symbolizes their castration:

ALBERT. Three days I let them chain me to the engine In Carlton, then I fled. This devil Steam Clutches you in a vice and tears The heart from out the breast. And then he saws and saws and saws The living body into pieces. Charles, you shall be the Foot, to tread, To tread, to tread your life away… With slacken’d arms and clouded eyes And back bent crooked at the mill George, you shall be the Hand, to tie And knot and fasten, knot and tie, With deafen’d ears and creeping blood And dry-rot in the brain….2

The women and children who take men’s places at the power loom are paid even lower wages—despite the management’s argument that women and children are far better suited for factory labor, since “the work demands deft fingers and a delicate touch.”3 “How their eyes sparkle! How they enjoy the light play of their muscles! How they revel in the natural suppleness of youth! [...] How charming the nimble movement (Hurtigkeit) with which this little girl ties up a broken thread!” says the owner when showing off the factory to a visiting government official.4

The Machine Wreckers demonstrates how the cliché of “nimble fingers” has been used to justify the reliance on women in labor-intensive tasks in periods of technological and economic transition. As scholars have shown, besides the feminization of occupations in industrialized countries, this trope frequently appears in contexts where it is politically necessary to emphasize cultural continuity as employment patterns and job types change rapidly. The trope of “nimble fingers” assuages anxieties about the upheaval of social norms in communities where newly established industries target women in the search of capital for cheaper, more docile labor. Promising women’s seamless transition from domestic duties to factory work, this rhetoric is evident in diverse but structurally similar contexts from the first industrial revolution to the present, including the inner city, the colony, the reservation, and the free-trade zone (FTZ).5

The recruitment of “neophyte” workers into industrial forms of work may well increase women’s economic value.6 However, the use of cheap, high-turnover female labor to replace men in occupations that have been deskilled, partially automated, or flexibilized does not necessarily reorder gendered hierarchies. Rather, as Aihwa Ong has argued, the imposition of regimented routines, productivity quotas, surveillance, and other capitalist management techniques on women who are accustomed to working independently and at their own pace is experienced as traumatic and humiliating.7 Diane Elson and Ruth Pearson have suggested that the “self-repression” that women must impose on themselves in order “to achieve an adequate level of docility and subservience” may be just as stressful as externally imposed controls.8 In addition, they argue:

This recomposition of a new form of gender subordination in which young women are subject to the authority of men who are not in any family relation to them can also have the effect of intensifying more traditional forms of gender subordination of wives to husbands.9

By suggesting women’s innate suitability for labor-intensive work, the trope of “nimble fingers” downplays the changes taking place: the deskilling and devaluation of occupations, the intensification of gender subordination, and the profound social dislocation that occurs when women are newly recruited into wage labor, particularly where this involves physical dislocation (migrant labor) or novel subjection to rigid capitalist management practices.

The imagery of nimble fingers also obscures the technical proficiency that this work involves. Materials recruiting Navajo women to electronics work in the 1960s and 1970s, and Malaysian brochures for offshore Japanese factories in the 1970s used the language of “nature and inheritance” to describe the innate suitability of “Indians” and “the oriental girl” for microcomponents work.10 The training that women received in “women’s work” (sewing, weaving, embroidery, household management, etc.) and transfered to paid tasks was thereby rendered invisible by biological rhetoric invoking gender and racial difference. This rhetoric also presumed that women workers would be more docile, subservient, and emotionally invested in their work. This is why Elson and Pearson argue:

In objective terms, it is more accurate to speak of the jobs making a demand for easily trained labor, than for unskilled labor… The social invisibility of the training that produces these skills of manual dexterity and the lack of social recognition for these skills is not accidental. It is intrinsic to the process of gender construction in the world today.11

Given the broad range of these processes, it is no coincidence that the use of “nimble fingers” to explain women’s prevalence in technology jobs—ranging from electronics assembly to computer-facing clerical work—has been so widely noted in science and technology studies and media and communication studies.12

In each of these instances, the imagery of “nimble fingers” appears in advertising, investment, and recruitment materials—including in the Machine Wreckers, when the factory owner sings praises of the women to a visiting official. We now arrive at the heart of the matter: what is being argued, to whom? In a recent essay, “Computers Made of Paper, Genders Made of Cards,” Cait McKinney argues that there is a tendency to “domesticate” computational technology through the use of gendered imagery, because it familiarizes what would otherwise seem off-puttingly complex to would-be users.13 McKinney uses the example of the Knitting Needle Computer described in Robert Collison’s 1959 manual Indexes and Indexing (1959). The Knitting Needle Computer is an example of an edge-notched card system—a simple, manual version of a mechanized punched-card system. It could be used to store and sort records by using a long, thin rod (such as a knitting needle) to select cards. McKinney argues that since its central metaphor makes reference to women’s traditional handicrafts, the Knitting Needle Computer is a prime example of how feminine imagery is often used to familiarize users with nascent technologies. As a simple manual information technology, the Knitting Needle Computer makes more advanced systems tangible and, literally, easy to grasp. Drawing on Geoffrey Bowker’s concept of “legitimacy exchange”, McKinney suggests that the example of the Knitting Needle Computer

exemplifies gendered legitimacy exchange, where typically undervalued domestic work is capitalized upon for its craft authenticity to build trust in new database computing. In this scenario, ‘women’s work’ is understood as properly technological to the extent that it maps onto the tools and processes at play in emerging computing technologies.14

In other words, in exchange for conferring “intuitiveness” and “usability” on new technologies, women’s work gains a modicum of respect.

However, I would also argue that the appearance of tropes such as “nimble fingers” during periods of technological and economic transition indicates powerful anxieties about the very definition and stability of gender in times of technological and economic change. In The Machine Wreckers, the impact of industrialization on normative gender roles and sexual reproduction is depicted as just as concerning as capitalist exploitation. In fact, the play’s representations of premarital sex, prostitution, female wage labor, marital conflict, and male unemployment—all of which emphasize male disenfranchisement and a crisis in heterosexual relations—are its main arguments against capitalism. Accordingly, it is imperative that we recognize the wishfulness of the “nimble fingers” trope. This figure reflects a desire for women workers to remain docile, productive, and affectively invested in routinized tasks (all while prioritizing their unpaid domestic labor), even as the mode of production changes. Accordingly, “nimble fingers” not only mediates the social contradictions that arise in periods of technological and economic change—it is itself a symptom of the upheaval that is caused by shifting technical regimes and socioeconomic conditions. In other words, rather than merely confirming women’s identity and maintaining cultural continuity, the trope of nimble fingers is an indicator that existing identities and social practices are, indeed, radically transforming despite the assertion of conservative social values. At the same time, this transformation is not necessarily socially progressive, for it may result in the recomposition and intensification of unequal power relations. This is the case in The Machine Wreckers, where the imagery of “nimble fingers” is invoked ironically to highlight the boiling over of violent gendered antagonisms, family collapse, and rampant sexual disorder—as women come to be doubly exploited by kin and capital. It often remains the case today.


  • 1 Ernst Toller, The Machine-Wreckers: A Drama of the English Luddites in a Prologue and Five Acts. Translated by Ashley Dukes. New York: Howard Fertig, Inc. 1991 [1935], 18.
  • 2 Ibid.
  • 3 Ibid. 27.
  • 4 Ibid. 45.
  • 5 See, for instance, Maxine Berg, “What Difference Did Women’s Work Make to the Industrial Revolution?” History Workshop no. 35 (Spring 1993): 22–44; Janet Hunter, Women and the Labour Market in Japan’s Industrialising Economy: The Textile Industry before the Pacific War (London: Routledge, 2003); Mary Beth Mills, “From Nimble Fingers to Raised Fists: Women and Labor Activism in Globalizing Thailand,” Signs 31, no. 1 (2005): 117–144; Lisa Nakamura, “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture,” American Quarterly 66, no. 4 (December 2014): 919–41.
  • 6 Aihwa Ong uses the term “neophyte factory women” in order to emphasize the radical transformation of subjectivity, group identity, work patterns, and lifestyle that the induction of Malay women peasants into capitalist discipline involves. Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline: Factory Women in Malaysia, second edition (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010).
  • 7 Ibid. 162–70.
  • 8 Diane Elson and Ruth Pearson, “‘Nimble Fingers Make Cheap Workers’: An Analysis of Women’s Employment in Third World Export Manufacturing,” Feminist Review no. 7 (Spring 1981), 95–6.
  • 9 Ibid. 100.
  • 10 Nakamura, 926; Ong, 152.
  • 11 Elson and Pearson, “‘Nimble Fingers,’” 94.
  • 12 See, for instance, Simon Partner, Assembled in Japan: Electrical Goods and the Making of the Japanese Consumer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Jennifer Light, “When Computers Were Women,” Technology and Culture 40, no. 3 (July 1999): 455–83; Venus Green, Race on the Line: Gender, Labor, and Technology in the Bell System, 1880–1980 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001); Winifred R. Poster, “Dangerous Places and Nimble Fingers: Discourses of Gender Discrimination and Rights in Global Corporations,” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 15, no. 1 (September 2001): 77–105; Nakamura, “Indigenous Circuits.”
  • 13 Cait McKinney, “Computers Made of Paper, Genders Made of Cards,” Re-Understanding Media: Feminist Extensions of Marshall McLuhan, edited by Sarah Sharma and Rianka Singh (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022), 142–62.
  • 14 Ibid. 149.