Expanding Our Academic Engagement (@ the Table: Feminism Online)
By Arminta Fox.
The risks are great for online feminists, as Megan Goodwin’s recent blog post argues. In some circles, adding religion to the conversation makes it riskier, even if being undone by the feminist religious other is desirable. The risks for feminists of color and non-cisgender feminists, who face multiplicative levels of oppression, can be even greater. Academics are not spared from the risks, especially when they blend their academic work with activism.
While I certainly agree that feminists need to be present and engaged online, I also agree with Goodwin that it is constructive to identify and critique the particular forms of oppression that online feminists can face. Doing so allows for creative connections that can lead to new forms of feminist academic engagement and activism. In this post I will analyze the force of the risks to online feminists, especially those within the academy, before turning to consider possible responses and ways forward through academic engagement with the broad range of feminist resources.
Much of the threatening power of doxxing and trolling is in how they can destroy their victim’s sense of certainty. As Goodwin remarks, the Internet is other people. They are threatening for how they can make someone feel vulnerable: alone, humiliated, and in real danger. They are threatening because, aiming at their target, they claim to use the limitlessness of the Internet: beyond known space, time, and people. In doxxing, these efforts often take advantage of the very things that individuals may think are private or personal, including private pictures, home addresses, personal emails, jobs, family members, etc. They often seek to control the narrative that an individual can present in these spheres. Beyond doxxing, this same fear haunts feminist academics when they cannot control how potential employers view their online content and histories. This is especially a factor in fields such as religion in which the job market is slow and highly competitive. Even within feminist conversations, there can be the fear that toxicity and trashing will result in the loss of a feminist safe space, or the revelation that it had never truly been safe for everyone.
Additionally discouraging is the perpetuation of existing stereotypes about women engaging in technology. Part of the perceived risk of engaging in online feminism is the notion that women don’t belong online or that women are not good at computers, or technology. Additionally, sexism is rampant within the tech industry and within many online platforms. Yet, lack of participation in the tech world often comes with real costs for women. By not participating in tech industries, women are missing out on their share of one of the highest earning industries today. Beyond the tech industry, feminist academics who don’t engage in online networking opportunities in their own fields can miss out on important collegial relationships and connections that might lead to jobs and publishing opportunities.
As feminist academics in religion, how should we respond when hearing horror stories? How should we respond to the risks?
As trolls and doxxers use the threats of unknown space, time, and people to target their victims, feminists can look to these same sites for inspiration and to take back control of those narratives. As Joseph Marchal suggests, feminist academics bring the ability to think in “larger trends and longer arcs” to online conversations. A consideration of other places, times, and peoples suggests that it is not the fact of these offenses but the form that is new. Women and feminists have been responding to gender-based violence and efforts to silence them throughout history, and they have made impressive strides.
In responding to the horror stories that claim limitless time as a risk for feminists online, women and feminists can look to strong women and minorities of the past. For example, as a feminist biblical scholar, I take some inspiration from marginalized female leaders of early Christ communities. By reading the biblical texts as reflective of one side of multiperspectival debates, feminist biblical scholars and other readers of the biblical texts can assume that women and slaves were always active participants in early Christian conversations. Stories of the Corinthian women prophets, Junia, Thecla, Perpetua, and Felicitas, to name a few, demonstrate the resistance of women against the imperial and patriarchal forces of their day. Their strength can continue to inspire feminist academics thousands of years later.
Through the Internet feminist academics in religion can also take encouragement and inspiration from feminist initiatives in other disciplines and areas. Rather than feeling alone in a boundless Internet sea of strangers, a feminist blogger should be able to find support through vast feminist networks. Rather than envisioning the Internet as a hellscape of enemies, can it not be a haven of supportive feminists? In the tech industry, women are fighting back against trenchant misogyny through online organizing efforts. Media critic Anita Sarkeesian, a major target in the recent #Gamergate scandal, and her partner have developed an on-going video series that investigates the role of women in pop culture. There are frequent online discussions and round tables that are focused on responses to the online trolling of feminist causes. Within the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the development of Twitter bots who respond to trolls frees up time and energy for meaningful activism. Online platforms that host crucial conversations about race and gender within feminism make feminist efforts stronger and more diverse. Feminist comedians regularly push back against stereotypes that women aren’t funny. Additionally, women have initiated Twitter hashtags and online non-profits that use crowd-sourcing to stop street harassment in New York City and elsewhere. In reality, there is so much feminist organizing online that some have tried to organize the feminist organizing. By being present and engaged in online organizing efforts, feminists in religion and in the academy support and encourage each other. By joining in solidarity with a diversity of feminists outside of the academy or outside of the field we can strengthen our networks and more adeptly communicate our causes.
Yes, there are risks, but feminism, with its diversity of people and efforts, is strong. Expanding into this online realm through blogging and other forms of engagement as feminists resounds the call for courage, strength, and community in the face of silencing efforts and persecution. To reframe the narrative from one based on fears and risks, I propose thinking of online feminist engagement as courageous, in the way that feminist engagement has always been courageous.
Arminta Fox recently earned her PhD from the Graduate Division of Religion at Drew Theological School. She currently teaches courses in religion at Kean University and in the Core program at Seton Hall University. Arminta will also teach at Drew Theological School in the spring. Her research uses feminist and decolonizing approaches to consider early Christian texts and histories. Her current project examines dynamics of community identity and leadership within discourses of power in 2 Corinthians.
For more information on this @ the Table topic: Feminism Online.