Feminism and Technology: Doing Active History at the Berkshire Conference

By Jenny Ellison

For only the second time in its history, the 2014 Berks Conference will feature a Digital Lab. Here, visitors can browse and interact with a selection of digital history projects, listen to project leaders talk about their work, and, on May 25, participate in a Wikipedia Hack-a-Thon to improve women’s history content online. Scholars and artists who use technologies like photography, film, and audio to interrogate gender norms, gendered spaces, and women’s absence/presence in history are also featured at the Berks. Technology, too, is being used by participants to talk about their research, to carpool, to live-tweet panels, and together with Activehistory.ca, to share podcasts of some of our keynotes.

By foregrounding technology and digital media in particular, the Berks is making space to think about contemporary aspects of feminist activism and women’s experiences. The role of Twitter and social media in feminist activism is the subject of debate. As Arit John explains in The Wire magazine’s review of Twitter Feminism in 2013, feminists on social media have used hashtags like #solidarityisforwhitewomen and #notyournarrative to debate gender, race, and class differences and to challenge white privilege. Bringing these longstanding debates to Twitter has been, for some, a productive way to challenge representations of feminism and vent frustrations about misogyny and patriarchy today. On the other hand, John argues, so-called #hashtag activism may result in further divisions because of the limitations of using 140 characters to discuss complex issues.

Twitter is just one contemporary instance of feminists using digital media to debate the experiences of women. Social media has also become an important site to expose discrimination and harassment of women in the technology industries, as well as to share stories of “everyday sexism.” In response to this ongoing problem, tech activists have created networking events and “Ladies Learning Code” events to educate women and girls interested in working in the field. I call this activism, though those doing code and networking at women and technology “power hours” may not see their actions as such. To my eye they are an example of the “long reach” of feminism, as A. Finn Enke has described it, the ways that notions of empowerment and liberation have reached into the lives of everyday women.

Feminists have a long history with technology and science that has not always been amicable. In the 1970s, for example, eco-feminists were skeptical of new reproductive technologies because they appeared to appropriate and denaturalize women’s roles. Challenging the medicalization of birth, some members of the women’s health movement expressed concern about the increasing role of technology and pharmaceuticals in the birthing process. Technologies and science, for some, worked against the goal of reclaiming an essential womanhood. Some feminists of the 1970s also criticized the masculinist culture experienced by women working in science and technology. Accounts of women’s marginalization and poor treatment in these fields were widespread. Famously, Rosalind Franklin’s contributions to the mapping of the structure of DNA were ignored, and the scientist denigrated, by James Watson in his account of the Nobel-prize winning discovery in his 1968 book The Double Helix.

Outside of these examples, however, since the 1960s many feminists have worked to claim and appropriate technology, to challenge the “male gaze” and assert female and queer perspectives in the field. This activism has taken many forms, including the work of women’s health movement activists to master medical technologies. Clinics by members of the self-help movement in Canada and the United States were set up in available rooms or houses to teach women reproductive practices, including abortions and pap smears. And while this practice of reclaiming the speculum was based on the principle that women are the experts of their own bodies, it should also be seen as laying claim to medical technologies, because, as Michelle Murphy has argued, it is an example of the belief that what “counts as truth or nature would look different if science were practiced otherwise.” This observation, about the impact of sexism on our understanding of nature, was popularized in the classic 1991 article “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles” in which Emily Martin exposed the ways that ideas about female passivity have incorrectly shaped scientific explanations of reproduction.

The self-help movement is one of many forms of activism that has worked to teach women skills and technologies from which they felt excluded or unwelcome. Another example is the work of feminist musicians of the 1970s, like the Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band, who made music because of their commitment to demystifying technologies and male-dominated spaces. Or, as Naomi Weisstein, after listening to the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb”, realized:

“Rock is the insurgent culture of the era! How criminal to make the subjugation and suffering of women so sexy! We’ve got to do something about this! We’ll… We’ll organize our own rock band!”

Though inexperienced as musicians, Weisstein pulled together a band because she believed direct cultural intervention was the way to change gender politics. Feminists continue to use music as a vehicle for criticism, dialogue and pleasure, and Friday Night at the Berks will feature Telmary Diaz, a Cuban hip-hop artist, who does just that.

Feminist films – documentary, narrative and experimental – will screen continuously at the Berks. Like other branches of feminist activism, filmmaking initially grew from a desire to name women’s oppression and to develop alternative woman-friend social and cultural practices. What constituted woman-centred and feminist film would eventually be subject to debate, but early film critics and filmmakers were concerned about the image of women in film, women worker’s marginalization within the film industry and the tendency to celebrate male auteurs for their complexity and to malign “women’s” popular culture. Feminist filmmakers of the 1970s saw their work as an urgent political act. It was necessary to transform film practice and to challenge the “male gaze.” As filmmaking has evolved it has sought to invent new ways to represent women and speak to female spectators, to represent women’s “reality” and to challenge gender categories, boundaries of race, and notions of truth.

At the Berks two National Film Board documentaries  that interrogate women’s history in very different ways will be screened. Métis filmmaker Christine Welsh’s 2006 documentary Finding Dawn examines Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women. Recently, it was revealed that there have been over 1,200 cases of missing and murdered indigenous women in the last 30 years. Welsh’s documentary shows the human face of these disappearances and documents the history of violence against Native women in Canada. Her film adds historical perspective and context to the problem of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada. Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012) approaches the past quite differently. The film follows Polley as she tries to uncover the truth about her biological father and her mother’s past. It combines real and imagined footage, juxtaposing sometimes-contradictory memories of Polley’s mother, ultimately showing that a single truth about the past is impossible.

Through contemporary feminist activisms and practices like filmmaking, the digital humanities reflect a debate of the last forty years on the role of technology in gender liberation. Feminist philosophers of the 1990s began to rethink the idea that technology was gendered. This work led to less effort to reclaim technology and a greater focus of thinking about the way that gendered experiences are mediated by technology. While technology has led to militarization, the concentration of capital, and environmental problems, it also opens up a space to denaturalize gender, race, and other social inequalities. Feminist Technoscience is the legacy of earlier feminist activism. It is a trans-disciplinary field that seeks to make the connections between science, technology, gender, and power visible. It is based on the belief that in a digitally mediated world women, queers, and marginalized people are able to intervene. It sees technology as an opportunity to intervene and transform, but also suggests that feminists have a responsibility to engage with realm, since it shapes our everyday lives. This includes #hashtag activism, but also other technological forms, from wearable technology to teaching our students to engage with digital mediums.

For my part, I see technology as something that has helped women to connect with each other, and to reach into the lives of people who never saw themselves as feminist or activist. Technologies as seemingly mundane as VCRs and Xerox machines have made it possible for women to communicate with one another, share videos, record their stories, disagree; to transform history as well as record it. The Berks brings this form of activism into the realm of public history, giving scholars the opportunity to transform what we know about the past, the practice of research and our pedagogy, through the collection of oral histories and the creation of digital archives that make women visible to each other. There is no perfect or ideal way to ask questions about feminism or history. The Berks, social media, the workplace, scholarly journals, and websites, are media of communication for continuing deep, if difficult, questions about gender and power.

Jenny Ellison is a Research Associate at the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies at Trent University. Her website is www.jennyellison.com and you can follow her on Twitter @thejennye

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