Feminism and Digital Humanities

I’m currently working on an article that considers certain digital archives and their technological structures from a feminist perspective. Of particular interest to me is the possibility of feminist technologies – can XML or the TEI (!) or some other markup specification *be* feminist? I’m not sure.

As I’ve been working on this essay, I’ve noted a relative absence of questions about the politics of particular tools within the DH literature. This continues to surprise me given that scholars have been asking such questions within STS fields for a long time now. Alan Liu drew attention to a broader absence of cultural criticism in his 2011 MLA talk and Jaime Skye Bianco’s piece in DH Debates, “This Digital Humanities Which Is Not One,” begins to fill the lacuna in feminist critique. But there hasn’t been much that I’ve been able to find beyond our canonical philosophical texts like those of Donna Haraway that addresses DH tools and their feminist politics or lack thereof (please pass along citations that I’m missing!). This isn’t to say that feminist concerns have not been front and center for those working to build digital archives like Orlando or Women Writers Online (which is free in honor of Women’s History Month starting tomorrow). But these have largely engaged with feminist motivations – important to be sure, but not the same as identifying technologies as feminist.

In her chapter in Feminist Technologies, Deborah Johnson enumerates four working definitions of feminist technology:

  • technology that is good for women (which is to say that it improves the lives of women, no small thing to suss out)
  • technology that participates in or constitutes a gender equitable system
  • technology that favors women (thus attempting to redress a longstanding imbalance where technology is concerned)
  • technology that constitute more equitable social relations than were previously possible

As Johnson’s definitions make clear, technologies are not simply artifacts which open themselves up to study – instead, we have to think of technology in terms of sociotechnical relationships, in terms of “systems” and “social relations.” So an analysis of feminist technology is always also going to be an analysis of technological practice and culture. As Miriam Posner points out in her post today on code culture in DH, the practice of, access to, and culture of coding broadly writ  is not gender neutral. This is only one subset of the large and varied DH toolbox, but Posner is right to draw our attention to the ways in which these tools in particular are becoming part of how we claim authority within DH. As tools become part of accreditation or access, gendered differentials begin to have larger scale impacts, shaping a field, important centers, and grant funding streams in ways that are downright exclusionary. Suddenly the “big tent” becomes (or remains) a far less interesting place than it might be.

So can XML be feminist? I’m still working on that. Can C++ or Python be feminist? – someone else should tackle that (and many other someones should go at the rest of the toolbox). What is clear to me at this point is that questions about tools are critical because they are questions about both the technical and social culture of our field – about how we make, how we know, and how we assert and deploy authority. I’d like to think that there is a place within DH (an everywhere kind of place would be great) for tools that empower women…but would I say that we are currently in a situation where the tools we’re using or wishing to use help to create “equitable social relations” or “more equitable relations”? I’m not yet sure.

7 thoughts on “Feminism and Digital Humanities

  1. Jacque, thank you for writing this. You’re spot on. I’d add to that list — corpora. How are we constructing a digital replication of history? Does it merely regurgitate the canon (which is filled with the canonical literary men primarily, even now)? Or has it promised the access we wanted to those unwanted, uncharacterized, un-poetic (even) sets of texts? There’s a recent example of this type of corpora, but I’m left with asking how do we rectify this oversight? Is it notifying practitioners of the slight? Or is it doing the work ourselves? (And, this is assuming that some practitioners of DH don’t realize that they’re creating these divisions.)

  2. Thank you for this provocative essay! I’m currently interested in how technologies can be put to feminist uses; in my doctoral work I use DH methods to analyze gender and the body in European fairy tales, and I’ve found that the technology helped highlight gender inequities in bodily representations. I don’t think it means the technologies are themselves feminist (at least not the ones I used), but rather, that they can be put to feminist uses, or really any use. I think we will uncover more feminist aspects of the Digital Humanities the more we look for and create them, but only time will tell.

    1. Thanks Jeana for your comment – It seems to me that “feminist uses” is most of what I see as well. I’m really curious if there can be a feminist technology that isn’t sex based (like tech for women’s reproductive health). If not, it leaves me wondering about the kinds of relationships btwn women and tech. Do you have a site for your work? I have a student writing on modern retellings of Cinderella. J

      1. Hi Jackie – as far as “feminist uses” of tech, I think we’re getting ensnared in deep-seated Western assumptions that women “have” gender or “are” their gender, whereas men are neutral, the universal, the unmarked (Simone de Beauvoir articulated a lot of this, I think). So while I believe we should definitely be investigating feminist uses of tech right now, as they’ll undoubtedly benefit women, the search to go beyond simple binaries will take longer, but will totally be interesting and worth it.

        I blog over at http://jeanajorgensen.com/wordpress/ (some of my articles are listed on my CV, and may be of interest to your student) but I’d also be happy to answer any questions as jeanaj AT gmail DOT com since I’ve done a lot of work on contemporary fairy tales.

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