Communication Feminist Theory
by
Lana Rakow
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0093

Introduction

Feminist theory in communication is developed and used by scholars to understand gender as a communicative process, with the goal of making social changes important to the well-being of women and, ultimately, everyone. Despite a common purpose, feminist scholars differ on many grounds and typically work in subareas across the discipline of communication. Contemporary feminist theory blossomed among scholars interested in women and communication in the United States in the 1980s, with attention devoted to it in programming in academic communication associations and with a new wave of publishing that theorized, rather than assumed, gender differences. Its arrival grew from at least three inspirations over prior decades. First, developments in feminist theory in many disciplines were brought into the field by feminist scholars working across traditional disciplinary boundaries. When these developments made their way into the field of communication, they shook assumptions about women and men by rejecting the idea of an essentially gendered individual in favor of a view of gender and sexuality as culturally constructed and reproduced. Second, feminist communication activists, scholars, and professionals had laid important groundwork preceding the infusion of feminist theory into the field. They raised issues about media content and industry employers, questioned the androcentric nature of the history and research canonized in the field, proposed changes to media systems, and focused attention on women’s experiences with communication. Feminist theory, then, arrived in communication amid a strong record of research on women as speakers, organizers, and professionals and on sexist mass media images. Third, feminist theorizing, as it was undertaken in communication as well as in other disciplines, too often failed to consider its own theoretical assumptions about race and ethnicity, sexuality, class, and nationality, which, as a result, produced countervailing critiques of both white and Western feminist scholarship. These critiques pushed feminist theorists to reexamine assumptions about the universality of women’s experiences and the difficulties of solidarity in light of white privilege and Western colonialism. Because contemporary feminist theory in communication continues to reformulate taken-for-granted approaches about differences within and across gender systems and geographies, the choice of selections reflects the decision to reject canonizing texts and authors in favor of casting a wide net to cover the range of issues broached by, or that are important to, feminist scholars. Further, the selections that have been made address, or contribute substantially to, theory rather than primarily describe or summarize, and they include those that are focused on communication by communication scholars.

Critical Overviews

During the past twenty-five years, a number of scholars have attempted to capture, describe, and advance the state of feminist theory in communication in general. Some do so by making a case against “normal” disciplinary theory and practice, such as found in Spitzack and Carter 1987; Blair, et al. 1994; and Robinson 1998. Press 2000 and Dow and Condit 2005, on the other hand, summarize and review feminist work published by communication scholars, finding themes in what has been published. Rakow and Wackwitz 2004 is an argument for pushing the theoretical sophistication of feminist communication work, which is often uneven or uninformed by important relevant theorizing outside the field. Stanback 1991 and Hegde 1998, reviewing feminist scholarship, push white feminist scholars to be self-reflexive about their blind spots regarding race, culture, and global relations. Other works that lay out feminist theoretical critiques and positions, which are often counterposed to each other, are presented in Theoretical Positions, Difference, and Representation. All of these sources can provide an entrée into the work of feminist scholars in the field and the challenges presented to standard theorizing in communication.

  • Blair, Carole, Julie R. Brown, and Leslie A. Baxter. 1994. Disciplining the feminine. Quarterly Journal of Speech 80.4: 383–409.

    DOI: 10.1080/00335639409384084E-mail Citation »

    Demonstrating the obstacles to publishing feminist work up to that point, the authors use their experience with a rejected academic article to analyze disciplinary editorial practices. These practices, they argue, prevent a critique of masculinist discourse disguised as universal and objective.

  • Dow, Bonnie J., and Celeste M. Condit. 2005. The state of the art in feminist scholarship. Journal of Communication 55.3: 448–478.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2005.tb02681.xE-mail Citation »

    The article generates five categories of feminist work from twelve major communication journals between 1998 and 2003. The categories address women’s and feminist communication, sex/gender as a variable, dissemination of gender ideology, communication practices to change injustice, and feminist theoretical work. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Hegde, Radha S. 1998. A view from elsewhere: Locating difference and the politics of representation from a transnational feminist perspective. Communication Theory 8.3: 271–297.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.1998.tb00222.xE-mail Citation »

    Hegde reviews feminist communication theory, built from modernist assumptions, and proposes that postmodern and postcolonial thought is needed to move it to a global context and greater political engagement. This requires self-reflection about knowledge production, difference, and representation, she argues. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Press, Andrea L. 2000. Recent developments in feminist communication theory. In Mass media and society. 3d ed. Edited by James Curran and Michael Gurevitch, 27–43. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Press asserts that feminist communication theory has advanced from its early stages into three theoretical debates: feminism, difference, and identity; feminism and the public sphere; and new technologies and the body viewed from a postmodern approach.

  • Rakow, Lana F., and Laura A. Wackwitz, eds. 2004. Feminist communication theory: Selections in context. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    E-mail Citation »

    The editors argue that feminist communication theory needs to theorize gender, communication, and social change. Three key issues in feminist theory, namely, voice, difference, and representation, are represented in selections by writers from a variety of cultural and geographic contexts outside the field of communication.

  • Robinson, Gertrude. 1998. Monopolies of knowledge in Canadian communication studies: The case of feminist approaches. Canadian Journal of Communication 23.1: 65–72.

    E-mail Citation »

    Robinson argues that although gender is a structuring category of everyday life, feminist research has been marginalized and its contributions to understanding gender as a primary social organizer are absent from traditional approaches, including political economic analyses.

  • Spitzack, Carole, and Kathryn Carter. 1987. Women in communication studies: A typology for revision. Quarterly Journal of Speech 73:401–423.

    DOI: 10.1080/00335638709383816E-mail Citation »

    Using a typology adopted by feminists in other disciplines, the authors demonstrate assumptions brought to the study of women and communication in identifying five categories: Womanless Communication, Great Women Communicators, Woman as Other, The Politics of Woman as Other, and Women as Communicators.

  • Stanback, Marsha Houston. 1991. Follow us into our world: Feminist scholarship on the communication of women of color. Paper presented at the Southern Speech Communication Association, Tampa, FL. ERIC Document ED33716.

    E-mail Citation »

    Stanback reviews feminist scholarship in communication and reveals the lack of consideration of women of color. She recommends feminist scholars make women’s ethnic culture central to theorizing and that they follow women of color into their worlds to avoid ethnocentrism.

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