TechnoFeminisms: A Conversation About Pasts, Presents, and Futures


Techno, Feminisms, and Futures

Dànielle:  We have a couple of minutes left and I actually want to drag us back to a provocative point that Lisa made, which was do we have to say technofeminisms? Because her argument was that especially our students today are so immersed in digital culture. So what does it get us when we explicitly anchor our orientations, our methodology, our work, our leadership around technofeminisms?

Radhika: That’s exactly what I was actually thinking this morning. Because a young active feminist from India who started her own feminist startup was asking, and if any of you in on FemTechNet you’ve seen that post, she wanted literature on cyberfeminism in South Asia. And I started to give her this stuff, and then I was looking at the historical literature, again going back to the 1980s and 1990s about women and nation and all the other stuff, and I’m like, “These people were negotiating the public space.”

And so for a lot of the youngsters, when they’re carrying around their gadget, and for us, we’re being shut out of public space. What is it when, for instance, in India the trolls come on and try to shut down the women feminists? Just today, last night, a really outspoken woman journalist was shot dead in India.

The point is, what’s at stake in using techno as a term or digital as a term? But on the other hand, I’m also seeing some of the digital feminists making the argument that there is no more separation between online and offline because we’re in the digital streets all the time. I think that’s an issue of subalternity. That’s an issue of access. Yes, a large portion of the women now that we can access are in the middle classes. But there are women and men who aren’t part of the space. So techno could very well be signaling that we are class-based; it could actually be signaling our privilege as much as anything else.

I’m also seeing some of the digital feminists making the argument that there is no more separation between online and offline because we’re in the digital streets all the time. I think that’s an issue of subalternity. That’s an issue of access.

Lanette: I’m going to be thinking about that most of today, Radhika, because I both came from privilege and not from privilege. Maybe that’s kind of normal. I came from a family of privilege but then raised my children on my own budget, pretty poor. But I like having technofeminism as one word because I want to claim the right to speak and think about technology. And if I don’t put techno with that feminism, it’s not as clear a claim. This is the world I do want to think about and theorize and live in, so I want both halves there.

Kris: I think it’s a matter of the nature of your research. So for example, I don’t want to lose sense of the techno in technofeminism because of the emphasis on the role of women in the history of information technology. I’ve been working on that project a lot. There are students who major in computer science who don’t know who Ada Lovelace is. They don’t know who Grace Hopper is. They don’t understand why a building at Yale was named in her honor. They don’t know who Hedy Lamarr is in terms of besides being an actress—being someone who’s responsible for wireless technology that she patented in World War Two. They don’t understand those histories and how they’ve led to the rise of a field that ironically is depicted as so white and so male that these histories are overlooked.

So I acknowledge, even as I mention those women’s names, that’s a white, Western historical trajectory of technology, but it is one particular history that we shouldn’t lose track of. And so in my own work, I don’t want to lose sense of the technofeminist because I think you’re aligning history with method. And so technofeminism becomes a type of historical recovery of women’s lived experiences and their contributions to the rise of computer culture in our society. And so you could take that from that global macro approach and bring it down to computers and writing as a discipline.

I’m always alarmed when I go to computers and writing and people say that we’re not feminist, we’re not a feminist field. And I’m like, “Well what about all these people who’ve come before you?” I think that we need to acknowledge those histories and technofeminism as a concept and as a way of doing activist work.

Radhika: That’s important, because we’re also talking about technofeminism as a way of shifting margins. Because just as we were hearing about Bletchley Park, we were also hearing about the five or other African-American women who were very important in NASA.

Dànielle: Megan and Barbi, I’m going to pick on you two because I think you’re younger than us elders. What’s your stance on the technofeminism as a term? Does it allow us this history and this methodological orientation? Are we over it?

Barbi: I do think it is important to remind people of the claims within these different areas and how we’re doing more microfocus feminism and specific feminist approaches in different areas. So I do think that is very important. But I also think using feminisms or feminists with techno and technofeminisms is also a reminder of uncovering what has been attempted to be erased in various different situations.

I also think it’s important to remember with techno that we also focus on technologies in the plural, because there’s so many technologies that don’t get taken up. I go back to social media and the representation of people who identified as disabled fighting for healthcare. Some of those people don’t even get to vote because of different laws and regulations but they’re doing this activist work that benefits so many people. And drawing attention to the fact that they’re in the margin is important, but the technofeminist side is what brings that out. So we can’t get away from having those terms but not forgetting what feminism and the work of feminism does.

Megan: I think that you put that so eloquently, Barbi. I would so agree that it needs to be there. And building off of what Kris said, that history is so important, but then coupling that with this idea of these spaces and technologies now give us the opportunity to make work more visible or to speak more and to get at understanding where those margins are. But I also think accessibility is a huge piece of that as well. How is accessibility a technofeminist venture?

Radhika: When you talk about women’s labor and technology, we have to go back historically to women spinners, and women factory workers, and talk about women and technology in the home space.

Dànielle: That’s a nice nuance, I think, to Lisa’s point, too. In claiming technofeminisms, we’re not just saying, “Yeah, you live in digital worlds now and everything’s online.” It’s calling attention to these other historical labor relations and really the expanse of technologies and feminisms in not just online spaces but exclusions in a range of different spaces.

Kris: So my hope is that women coming into the field of computers and writing understand that. That there is this feminist legacy that shouldn’t be ignored, and in fact I think as these special issues are doing, are working to celebrate that.