Features

XXIII.5 September + October 2016
Page: 36
Digital Citation

On the production of the spirit of feminism


Authors:
Ingrid Erickson, Libby Hemphill, Amanda Menking, Stephanie Steinhardt

References to feminism in our community are usually triggered by the appearance of something controversial or seemingly atypical, like sexism in the comments section of a site. Feminism also gets invoked when recognizing the inequities between male and “Other-ed” developers, or when acknowledging the asymmetries intrinsic in modern realities such as algorithmic culture. Here, the moniker feminist is pointedly used to distinguish something from the mainstream, from the “normal” way of doing things. It also immediately charges what is to come with an alternative set of logics and values.

Insights

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This piece is no exception.

Yet the tale we tell here is not another report of inequalities uncovered. Instead, it is a story of an awakening, a story that takes place within an already feminist-identifed group about how we came to a different way of thinking. This transformation took place in a series of workshops on feminism and social media at the Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) conferences in 2014 and 2015. In putting ideals into practice in these events, we as organizers gained insight into what the word feminist means to us and what we think it can mean more globally within the tech communities of which we are a part.

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Like most opportunities for learning, our insights were born from the work of creating and implementing with others. Together we were able to produce and reproduce a spirit of feminism as a collective activity, not just as a lens through which we gazed upon an object of study. And yet it is important to note that rarely were we all of one mind; the diversity of collaborators over these two years is a significant part of our story. While the reflections we present here are not meant as a totalizing voice, we do think we have something interesting to say as a group that learned to live its feminism together.

Defining a Few Terms

Feminism has meant (and continues to mean) many different things to many different people. And while feminist studies is often presented as a bounded field of knowledge in university departments and classrooms, it consists of a multiplicity of diverse and often conflicting perspectives. Primarily in the U.K. and the U.S., the development of feminist thought came to be characterized by waves. First-wave feminism occurred during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was marked by a concern for formal, public inequalities between men and women. Second-wave feminism began in the 1960s and was primarily concerned with broadening the discussion of inequalities to include gender-based disparities in private, informal roles and relationships. Finally, the third (and current) wave of feminism began in the 1990s and is marked by a concern for intersectionality (i.e., the connections between race, class, gender, and other socialized identities) as well as a reflexive interrogation of the construct of gender altogether.

Within the field of HCI specifically, a small community of researchers who identify as feminist HCI scholars has challenged how gender is conceptualized and operationalized in recent years. Shaowen Bardzell [1] and Jennifer Rode [2], for example, outline feminist agendas for design that incorporate many of the values of third-wave feminism. Evoking the spirit of Simone de Beauvoir—“One is not born a woman, but becomes one”—they suggest that the concept of gender should be understood as an ongoing performance rather than as a fixed, biologically determined state. Both scholars also call for HCI to develop a domain-specific theory of gender and to recognize feminism as a mode of inquiry.

Building on the Shoulders of Giants

In touch with these emerging ideas in the field, Libby Hemphill recruited Ingrid Erickson, David Ribes, and Ines Mergel to co-facilitate a workshop on social media and feminism at the 2014 CSCW conference. In addition to acknowledging salient work by Bardzell, Rode, and others in the CSCW community, it was scheduled to correspond with a series of workshops organized by media scholar Laura Portwood-Stacer, who was seeking to promote feminist approaches to social media research across various disciplines. Our aim for the CSCW workshop was to support a nascent community of feminist scholars while addressing a recognized lack of feminism in both practice and product in the field. This reality reverberates throughout the original drafting documents, which referred to the event as the CSCW Exclusion Workshop.

Beyond focusing on its central theme, we actively eschewed organizing around authoritative voices of any kind; we wanted to recognize that there was ample expertise distributed throughout the community. Our vision was to create a program in which attendees felt open to bring and share their knowledge, stories, and experiences. The initial agenda revolved around position papers, short presentations, and discussion, but in the end we decided to ask only that potential participants explain how their work fit into and prompted discussion in line with the workshop’s goals. All submissions were accepted.


In knowingly promoting this feminist value of pluralism, we inadvertently silenced several student participants who felt shut out by the authoritative, if diverse, voices of the guest speakers.


The day ended up being a generative series of discussions and activities among 20 or so scholars that produced not only a welcome moment of communion and a set of sharable resources, but also a committee to organize another workshop in the following year. The 2015 workshop was envisioned to build on the generous spirit of its predecessor and to allow for a new and distinct type of engagement. The organizing team, which includes some of the authors of this article, eventually decided that potential attendees should submit traditional position papers and that the day itself should also include a set of invited guest speakers, including Hemphill (also a coauthor).

Following its strong initial showing, the 2015 workshop began with high anticipation; however, what unfolded looked and felt quite different from the session we had experienced the year before. There were a slate of great attendees and a set of excited guest speakers, but none of the energizing ethos that had animated the session the year before. Upon much reflection, we believe we understand some of the causes of this omission—it is this insight that we want to develop in the remainder of this article. We now see that what we lost in the making of the day is the spirit of producing feminism, not just identifying as feminists. We develop this idea of “producing a spirit of feminism” in the three points below.

Defying the Tyranny of a Correct Feminism

Producing feminism requires addressing the reality of multiple feminisms. Organizing a workshop at a conference like CSCW makes this challenge especially salient because things have to be organized in a way that achieves some sort of coherence. At times, multiple feminist priorities come into direct conflict, and it’s not always clear how to best prioritize competing strategies. For instance, few would argue against the contention that feminism, at its heart, is about equality. Yet, just by organizing, we actively reproduced inequalities facing participants of various racial, economic, ethnic, sexual, and ability groups. CSCW’s registration, hotel, and travel costs were prohibitive for nearly half the people interested in participating in our workshops, so we amplified the voices only of those who were able to afford the journey. We also confronted racial, sexual, and ableness diversity and stumbled in actively marginalizing several participants during an opening ice-breaker activity. We chose to involve the body in praxis and to make diversity visible by forcing people to get up and move about the room, yet this overlooked intersectionality and reinforced power inequalities. The physicality of the activity enacted a participatory value on the part of the organizers, but not, as we now see, a universally inclusive one.

In trying to do feminist work, we often fear doing a disservice to feminism, of perpetuating inequalities, and generally being “bad” feminists. Roxane Gay, in her book Bad Feminist, suggests we avoid holding “feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices. When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement” [3]. With Gay’s words in mind, we note that we are some of the flawed people who act in the name of the movement. But did we fail with these missteps? We don’t think so. Producing feminism means taking advantage of opportunities to recognize one’s own biases and assumptions. In our session, we recognized the marginalization occurring and immediately shifted course to create more inclusive modes of participation. To pause and reflect on the activity took moments. The shared experience and refection served as a reference point for conversations later in the workshop and at once undercut the notion that a single feminism should prevail.

Breaking Open the Echo Chamber

Producing feminism is also about moving our conversations out of environments that engender little controversy. Playing it safe too often results in silos and echo chambers—that is, people who identify as feminist or who are interested in feminism tend to be the only people engaging in conversations about and attending workshops devoted to feminism.

We encountered this reality as we planned the 2015 workshop. In trying to address the challenge of including a wide array of voices and perspectives, we asked ourselves about the merits of using the word feminist in the proposed title for the event. We also asked ourselves whether we should invite participants who do work on gender and/or equality but who do not explicitly identify as feminists and/or use feminist theories. In the end, we elected to keep the moniker, particularly to align with the prior year’s workshop, and to throw open the doors to all. We worked hard to create a call for participation that appealed to seasoned scholars but also had a low barrier of entry that would encourage more junior researchers to feel equally welcome. In the end, these decisions proved powerful and resulted in a very diverse crowd ready and willing to share differing perspectives about power, gender, equality, and identity.

And yet, in knowingly promoting this feminist value of pluralism, we inadvertently silenced several student participants who felt shut out by the authoritative, if diverse, voices of the guest speakers, all of whom were established scholars. While it can be argued that one of the great successes of the 2015 workshop was its broad inclusivity, this range proved to be a double-edged sword. Recognizing the unintended imbalance of power in the room, we shifted away from featuring authoritative guest speakers in the morning to having them facilitate small group sessions in the afternoon—a decision that seemed to be welcomed by all involved.

The lesson here is that pluralism is difficult to architect and even more difficult to achieve in practice; at minimum, it requires the agility to change course smoothly in midstream. While it might be easier to avoid all this messiness by keeping like with like, we have come to feel this approach risks the loss of potentially substantive interaction and engagement. Embracing the power of the unexpected, we now know, means learning to align a value for diversity with an interaction protocol that ensures access for all potential voices. This is about making feminism happen despite, or even because of, the associated difficulties.

Continuing the Conversation(S)

Finally, our experiences organizing these two workshops convince us that cultivating the production of feminism in our midst requires spaces and forums for ongoing collective sensemaking. What this orientation to feminism means for the CSCW and CHI communities is not necessarily the establishment of a new journal or special interest group, but rather a commitment to produce all types and sizes of environments that encourage the continuance of difficult, pluralistic conversations; inclusive, diverse arrangements; and participatory, accessible activities. We need to keep learning about what we believe in and who we are as feminists by putting our feminism continuously into practice.

We think such a commitment could propel the health of any academic community, whatever the topic. This may seem like a problem to be solved but we believe this perpetual lack of stability is an asset, for it forces us as individuals and collectives not to rest on preordained ways of thinking but to pay attention to the complex realities that surround us and to act dynamically. This approach reminds us to look for inequities of all kinds and seek to design tools and systems that encourage equity, pluralism, and universal agency. In striving to do this, we cannot help but morph, change, and grow to remain sharp and impassioned scholars.

In conclusion, this story of transformation affirms our newfound belief that feminism is not just a word to put on endeavors to gain kudos or to signal that women are involved or to appeal to social justice. Rather, feminism lives in how we design, organize, adjust—in how we act. We encourage you to embrace and acknowledge the hard work of producing the spirit of feminism in your own work and look forward to attending one of your own events in the near future.

Note: Authors’ names are listed alphabetically to showcase each person’s equal contribution to the production of this work.

Acknowledgments

We are grateful to Morgan Ames, Rena Bivens, Stuart Geiger, and Max Klein for their feedback on earlier drafts of this essay and to all our participants in the 2014 and 2015 workshops.

References

1. Bardzell, S. Feminist HCI: Taking stock and outlining an agenda for design. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2010, 1301–1310.

2. Gay, R. Bad Feminist. Harper Perennial, New York, 2014.

3. Rode, J.A. A theoretical agenda for feminist HCI. Interact. Comput. 23, 5 (2011), 393–400.

Authors

Ingrid Erickson is an assistant professor in the Department of Library and Information Science at Rutgers University. She studies how mobile devices and ubiquitous digital infrastructures are influencing how we work and communicate with one another, navigate and inhabit spaces, and engage in new types of sociotechnical practices. ingrid.erickson@rutgers.edu

Libby Hemphill is an assistant professor of communication and information studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology. She is especially interested how people marshal information and communication technologies in service of social change. lhemphil@iit.edu

Amanda Menking is a Ph.D. candidate in the Information School at University of Washington. She is interested in women’s participation in online spaces, digital territoriality, online hostilities, and feminist epistemologies and research methods. amenking@uw.edu

Stephanie B. Steinhardt is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication at Cornell University. Her research focuses on the relationship between big data and big science development, policy, and politics. sbg94@cornell.edu

Copyright held by authors. Publication rights licensed to ACM.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2016 ACM, Inc.

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