TechnoFeminisms: A Conversation About Pasts, Presents, and Futures

Technology and Feminism


Dànielle: The first question that we wanted to pose to the group and get some talking around today is what initially drew you to feminist work with or around or on technology.

Cindy: When I came aboard in the computers and writing community, I did so because the women were doing some of the most interesting work in that field. And the reason they were doing some of the more interesting work is that they were often in positions that allowed them a little more marginality in the community and thus a little more freedom of operation along the margins to do the kinds of interesting things that other people might not risk. So they were employed in writing centers or they were employed as lecturers or they were just women in a profession that paid attention to men.

Gail: Or they were in computer labs.

Cindy: Or they were in computer labs or designing computer labs or working in computer labs as Gail says. So to me, when you look and you see your peeps, people like you, people who do kinds of things you like to do, Helen Schwartz, for example was a great. Lisa Gerrard was another early innovator. You say, "I want to be like that person." And that's why I came aboard.

Pam: And for me, that sense of the women being the outsiders was for me kind of the thing that brought me into it because Helen Schwartz was the first person to put a computer in my hands. My autistic brother stuffed a Pop-Tart or a sandwich, I don't remember now, into the disk drive the second week I got it at home. I had no experience with technology whatsoever. I was not interested in it but I wanted to work with Helen and then I wanted to work with Pat Sullivan. The technology for me was just the price I had to pay to hang around all of those women. And then it became this really interesting thing for me.

Donna: I think of myself as the next generation after… I got into it more because I was interested in those feminist issues that Gail just talked about. And technology, for me, was a place to explore them. I thought what we could do in terms of identity digitally was different than what we could do face-to-face. I don't believe that anymore, but I did then. And so the digital was a way for me to be a better feminist. I wasn't actually interested in technology; I was interested in being a feminist. And so the tech has always been second for me after the feminist issues.

I wasn't actually interested in technology, I was interested in being a feminist.


Kris: I think the other thing about the 1990s, too, is if you think about it historically in terms of technology it was the advent of the World Wide Web, right? And so for me at the time, I was interacting with fabulous people like Pam at Purdue and working with Pat Sullivan and having great mentors like Cindy and Gail come and visit and help us formulate these ideas and understand women's role in the field in general.

I was also writing a cultural studies dissertation that looked at the image of women in popular media. And what we saw happening at the time was that the ways in which popular media images of women were migrating to digital space. And I think of some of those old sites like “Babes on the Web.” People were saying, “Oh, look. We can go online and it's all so empowering.” And then you would go online and you would find yourself as sexually harassed online as you were in real-time spaces (though I think that's a false binary).

Looking at what was happening culturally and the extent to which some of the things we thought we were trying to escape by going online as women and feminists was actually being reinscribed—those power dynamics were translated from the larger culture to the classroom. And that's where I think the mentorship of folks like Pat and Pam and Gail and Cindy was so critical for me as I started making that pedagogical connection that I hadn't when I started doing my dissertation.

Pam: It was critical, too, because we could be angry with each other behind the scenes. I can remember Kris and I being just outraged by things and being very upset and taking it really personally. But having each other to work them out with before we then did something constructive and intellectual with it.

Lanette: I've been listening to all this and thinking, “Oh, the 1990s were so full of scholarship and what was I doing?” I was selling real estate and raising two kids as a divorced mom and keeping a fairly active, creative life and being intensely involved with things tech. I'm the daughter of an engineer. And then feminism, well, that's life's blood. I was a charter subscriber to Ms. And I'm not exactly tall. So I'm used to being discounted because I'm just easy to overlook, literally.

So all of that probably came into play, and the field of computers and writing was a revelation to me because it combined so many of my interests—my obsession with digital spaces, my obsession with identity, my obsession with creation and creating. I'm thinking creative writing, specifically. And then of course there's the science fiction thing. I never thought I'd be teaching literature but I do teach science fiction, but I teach it from a rhetorician's point of view and a feminist's point of view. That was the start.

Dànielle: It almost sounds, Lanette, like you came to technology and feminism parallel, whereas others came to technology from a feminist vantage point. Did anyone come the opposite route, technology first and then feminism?

Barbi: I think that would be me. For me, growing up during that technology boom, starting off with the Ataris and the Commodore 64s and the Netscape Navigators, the technology was sort of the easy part. The not-asking-questions was easy. And then, as I became more ingrained in having access to the wealth of scholarship from mentors and role models, it was basically giving me the responsibility of asking more questions. And that's what continues to drive me within this area, is the fact that there are always the questions of what the technology does work for. Who does it work for? Who does it work against? And who does it erase? I think those are separate questions, and every technology and advancement is a step forward but it's also two steps back.

…there are always the questions of what the technology does work for. Who does it work for? Who does it work against? And who does it erase?