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.