Emphasizing Embodiment, Intersectionality, and Access:
Social Justice Through Technofeminism Past, Present, and Future

Julie Collins Bates, Francis Macarthy, and Sarah Warren-Riley

Reclaiming Technofeminism

As we argue for the necessity of bringing technofeminist analyses into our current and future scholarship, we must acknowledge the important contributions of early technofeminist scholars. Initially, technofeminist scholars examined how networked computers and composing software were changing higher education and argued for the need to “pay attention” (Selfe, 1999) to how these technologies were influencing student writers as well as our own pedagogy and scholarship (see, for instance, Hawisher & Selfe, 1991; Hawisher, Selfe, Moraski, & Pearson, 2004; Selfe & Selfe, 1994; Selfe, 1999). These scholars made savvy observations about the acquisition of technological literacies occurring outside of classroom settings and the need to make apparent that technologies are never neutral.

Now, as we continue to look to this early technofeminist work in our current scholarship, we are particularly interested in recuperating these important values:

• reflexivity and reciprocal learning with the communities we are studying;

• a recognition of the ways that technological literacies are developed outside of the classroom in informal or non-traditional learning spaces;

• an understanding that technologies and their purposes are always already influenced by their designers and composers, as well as the historical and cultural contexts in which they are created and used;

• the need to remain vigilant in thinking in complex ways about issues of access, critical digital literacies, and lived, embodied experience.

In addition to being foundational to technofeminist thought, these values are essential to social justice work in digital and public rhetorics scholarship and pedagogy, which we value and prioritize in our own work.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, technofeminist rhetorical scholars identified best practices and established a value set for technofeminism that included (among others): being reflexive; recognizing embodiment and making bodies apparent; recognizing and making power relations apparent; prioritizing collaboration (teachers–scholars should be mentors not masters); and recognizing those who are left out or excluded (Blair, 1998; Blair, Gajalla, & Tulley, 2009; Grabill, 2003: Haas, Tulley, & Blair, 2002; Selber, 2004; Selfe, 1999; Selfe & Selfe, 1994). In this work, they shared critical approaches to teaching with technology—publicly and privately responding to gendered and oppressive technologies and technological spaces—and called attention to the ways that widespread public discourses about technologies and literacies were often oversimplified. Given that much of this academic and public pedagogy related to technologically mediated spaces and communication has stood the test of time, we argue that technofeminist approaches to digital and public rhetorics remain relevant and applicable today.

It is impossible, in the course of this short overview, to responsibly and completely elaborate on or cover all of the values established in early technofeminist rhetorical scholarship. As such, what follows is a brief discussion of what we see as key core values of this approach that we would like to enact in our own work. Although some of these values are not exclusive to technofeminism, in combination they create what we see as a uniquely useful methodology beneficial to those seeking to enact social justice through teaching and scholarship. As a constellation of values, these work together to focus our energies, inquiries, and considerations on “paying attention”—to ourselves, others, technologies, and the ways that social and cultural forces guide rhetorical practices.

Reflexivity and Reciprocity

Early technofeminists demonstrated commitments to feminist principles of reflexivity and reciprocity, which are core values that can be found throughout technofeminist rhetorical scholarship (see, for instance, any of the following collections: Blair & Takayoshi, 1999; Hawisher & Selfe, 1999; Kirsh & Sullivan, 1992; Markham & Baym, 2009; McKee & DeVoss, 2007).

Reflexivity asks the technofeminist rhetorical teacher–scholar to always remain cognizant of their own positionality and how that positionality affects their research or teaching approaches, influences the interpretation of data gathered, or may be influencing their perspective more generally (see Almjeld & Blair, 2012, for a discussion of reflexivity in relation to technofeminism, or Powell & Takayoshi, 2003, for in-depth discussion of reflexivity in relation to feminist research in composition generally). Reflexivity is a recursive process that must be continually revisited to be effective; that is, regularly revisiting the ways in which our positions are complicating our views is necessary for mitigating bias or prejudice (as well as helping us to realize those biased/prejudiced/privileged views when we haven’t previously considered them).

Coupled with reflexivity is the desire for enacting reciprocity. The technofeminist rhetorical teacher–scholar seeks reciprocity in research and teaching. This means that when we research or teach we take the time to recognize the many ways in which we also always learn and benefit from the communities we are researching or teaching. In addition, a focus on reciprocity means that when we publish our research we seek to give credit for the work completed with our participants and allow research participants (when applicable) an opportunity to share in the ways that we represent them. As Almjeld & Blair (2012) explained:

Despite limitations, feminist research methodology, not unlike other theories that disrupt static notions of subjectivity, representation, and knowledge, aims at reciprocity between researchers and subjects, privileging participant voices in ways that, if not providing direct benefit to the individuals we study and the spaces we jointly occupy, allow them to shape more precisely the representation of research and the knowledge resulting from it. (p. 101)

Reciprocity also means we value the ways in which students shape our perspectives in the classroom. We are never masters, we are “mentors” (Haas, Tulley, & Blair, 2002) who are also mentored by those whom we interact with. These two values (reflexivity and reciprocity) are intertwined, as we cannot enact reciprocity if we do not proceed through reflexivity.

Rendering Technologies Visible and Recognizing Technologies Are Never Neutral

As technologies embed themselves in everyday discourse and activity, a curious thing happens. The more we look, the more they slip into the background. Despite our attention, we lose sight of the way they give shape to our daily lives. (Bruce & Hogan, 1999)

Early technofeminists engaging with issues of technology and writing emphasized two critically important points about technologies. First, it is important to keep an eye on technologies and their influences—that is, to not let technologies become invisible. And, second, it is crucial to recognize that technologies are never neutral. Cautioning against the utopian vision of the democratizing potential of technologies, Gail Hawisher and Cynthia Selfe (1991) warned against falling into an overly optimistic account of the “rhetoric of technology” acknowledging that: “Unfortunately, as writing instructors, we have not always recognized the natural tendency when using such machines, as cultural artifacts embodying society’s values, to perpetuate those values currently dominant in our culture and educational system” (p. 55). Proceeding from an understanding that technologies and their purposes are always already influenced by their designers and composers, as well as the historical and cultural contexts in which they are created and used, these early scholars interrogated technologies in a variety of ways.

Some technofeminists, building off the work of feminist scholars such as Donna Haraway (1990) and sociologists such as Judy Wajcman (1991), examined the gendered nature of technology and the role of sociocultural forces in shaping technologies and their uses, focusing their research on the relation of gender to technologies and their uses (Blair & Takayoshi, 1999; Brady Aschauer, 1999; Hawisher & Sullivan, 1998; Takayoshi, 1994). Still others interrogated issues of power and agency in relation to technologies from other angles. For example, Bertram Bruce and Maureen Hogan (1998, quoted at the beginning of this section) discussed the broader ideological issues embedded in technologies themselves, while Joseph Janangelo (1991) highlighted the potential abuses of power (“technoppression”) in computer-mediated classrooms. Selfe (1998) brought attention to the national agenda for technological literacies as being politicized and directly related to issues of capitalist interests and power. And Selfe and Richard Selfe (1994), in an early highly influential piece of technofeminist work (“The Politics of the Interface”), systematically laid bare the ways in which white, middle-class business values were built into early Apple office software programs (with the use of “folders,” the “white-gloved hand” as a navigational cursor, etc.).

Attending to the cultural and ideological concerns of technologies in different ways, still other technofeminists considered how nondominant groups might subvert technologies and their purposes. As Mary Hocks (2009) explained, “When historically underrepresented or socially and economically deprived groups appropriate tools or power, they sometimes can change things or demonstrate resistance to the gendered and classed dynamics of the dominant culture” (p. 238–239). For example, when Hawisher and Patricia Sullivan (1998) asked, “If women are underrepresented in the shaping or use of electronic environments (i.e, e-spaces), how can the new networks accommodate women’s cultures?” (p. 173), technofeminist scholars proceeded to interrogate the ways that women might subvert technologies for their own purposes (Blair & Takayoshi, 1999; Blair, Tulley, & Gajalla, 2009; DeVoss & Selfe, 2002; Gajalla, 1999, 2002; McKee & DeVoss, 2012).

Interrogating Access, Literacies, and Lived, Embodied Experience

Early technofeminist scholars recognized the need to remain vigilant in thinking in complex ways about issues of access, literacies, and embodiment. While these are each individually (in and of themselves) core values of technofeminist work, we have chosen to condense them here deliberately due to the complicated, entangled nature of these concerns. Access, literacies, and embodiment are essential considerations of technofeminist research. And, as each concept is inherently fraught with differential experience, they remain complicated to theorize completely, which is why a constant method of “paying attention” is needed. Early technofeminist scholars raised concerns that alerted the field to the complexity of issues of access, literacies, and lived, embodied experience in a variety of ways by:

Complicating conceptions of access. Technofeminist scholars recognized that “access” isn’t simply about whether or not individuals have access to technologies. Pushing back against a wider social perception that access was about putting technologies (like computers and the Internet) into the hands of individuals or into schools, these scholars made it clear that the issue of access is much more complex. They noted that issues of access (and discussions regarding the “digital divide”) were oversimplified. Access is complicated by inequality of tools available to different individuals in different contexts (e.g., schools). Additionally, access isn’t simply about having the tools (or even equal tools), it is also about having the training to use the tools. It is also important to consider how people actually use tools, and to consider how and where they gain literacies with technologies. They also recognized that inequality of access (in a variety of forms) can exacerbate socioeconomic barriers to success (Grabill, 2003; Pandey, 2006; Selfe, 1999).

Attending to the ways that technology interacts with literacy. Changes to dominant forms of technologies used for communication necessitates the acquisition of new literacies and shifts both the definition of literacy and our understanding of these concepts as a whole. Early technofeminist scholars were keenly perceptive to the fact that technology and literacy were becoming intertwined. Selfe (1999) warned that “technology is now inextricably linked to literacy and literacy education in this country” and that “these two complex cultural formations—technology and literacy—have become linked in ways that exacerbate current educational and social inequalities in the United States” (p. 414). Beyond this, scholars brought attention to the ways that technological literacies were becoming increasingly connected to employment, socioeconomic concerns, and everyday literacy needs. In 2004, Gail Hawisher, Cynthia Selfe, Brittney Moraski, and Melissa Pearson noted that “the ability to read, compose, and communicate in computer environments—called variously technological, digital, or electronic literacy—has acquired increased importance not only as a basic job skill but also, every bit as significant, as an essential component of literate activity” (p. 642).

As such, technofeminist scholars also recognized that there was a need to foster multiple levels of literacies with technologies. Stuart Selber (2004) argued for a new way of conceiving of computer literacy that would expand the concept into what he deemed “computer multiliteracies.” He divided these multiliteracies into three forms (functional, critical, and rhetorical) which he saw as essential for achieving holistic literacy with computer technologies. Selber argued for an understanding of computer literacy that pushed beyond mere “functional literacy”—where computers are seen as tools to be mastered—to also include “critical literacy,” which encourages critical investigation of the technology in question as well as a “rhetorical literacy” that places students in the role of “producers of technology” (p. 25). Early technofeminist scholars also brought attention to the ways that technological literacies are developed outside of the classroom in informal or non-traditional learning spaces by recognizing that the “gateways” to technology and “cultural ecologies” that foster technological literacies are often found outside of school (Hawisher et al., 2004).

Valuing lived, embodied experience. Technofeminist scholars recognized that attending to lived, embodied experience is critical to understanding how access and literacies play out in real people’s lives. Annette Harris Powell (2007), for instance, brought attention to the fact that how people actually use technology is key to understanding access, literacies, and their broader implications for individuals and their communities. Harris Powell argued that “access is practice and that if we examine the ‘practice of access’ in our classrooms and in our research, we look not at the technology but at the practices—what gets reinforced, valued, and rewarded by local communities” (p. 18). Similarly, Ann Brady Aschauer (1999) cautioned against overly simplistic assumptions about gendered usage of technology and urged a focus on how women actually use tools, which she finds (in her research) reveal a “range of workplace experiences and practices, as opposed to a mere binary and essentialist set” (p. 8). One way in which early technofeminist scholars routinely worked to render the differing experiences with access, technologies, and literacies more visible was by gathering data and stories about these uses and by sharing literacy narratives showcasing a range of embodied experiences from a variety of communities (see Brady Aschauer, 1999; Hawisher, Selfe, Moraski & Pearson, 2004; Hawisher & Selfe, 2000; Pandey, 2006).

Expanding Notions of What Counts as Research and What Texts are Worthy of Attention

Early technofeminist scholars also worked diligently to “foster broader definitions of research” (Almjeld & Blair, 2012, p. 100) and to legitimize the scholarly nature of academic work produced in (and through researching in) new media and digital writing spaces. This work has taken a variety of approaches, including a push for recognition that nontraditional spaces for research (primarily Internet-based texts such as email, email list posts, websites, blogs, and personal networking spaces like MySpace) were indeed compositions worthy of study and that researching and publishing in digitally mediated spaces is, in fact, scholarly work. For example, see Jen Almjeld and Kristine Blair’s (2012) discussion of the resistance within the academy to Almjeld’s dissertation work on MySpace profiles and identity construction. They open the article with an apt quote from a skeptical reader, “But this isn’t research” (p. 97, emphasis ours) and proceed to discuss the opposition encountered at various levels to both Almjeld’s research methods and the results of her research. In their discussion, Almjeld and Blair highlight the importance of research into everyday computer-mediated communication environments (such as the types of texts discussed above), noting that “scholars find both rhetorical and anthropological worth in these everyday writings and artifacts and have set about, through both explicit research agendas and multimodal methodologies, to capture the voices of those long ignored” (p. 101).

To continue traveling through our webtext, proceed to our Present case study on technofeminist interventions in Flint or our Present case study on embodiment in virtual spaces. Or, if you’re ready, continue to the Future section to consider the possibilities for where technofeminist intervention may move next.