Feminist movement adapts to digital media platform

Photo by Carolina Cuartas |

Compelling visual images are essential to the spread of a movement, but the medium of the message is subject to change.

A panel of three leading women’s rights pioneers discussed the role of visual elements in activism during the event “Digitizing Activism: The Visual Culture of Transnational Feminism,” yesterday in the Alexander Library on the College Avenue campus.

The Center for Women’s Global Leadership in collaboration with the University Libraries has developed an award-winning online poster collection that provides access to about 300 posters published by women’s activist organizations worldwide, said Kayo Denda, a University librarian.

Charlotte Bunch, founding director and senior scholar of CWGL, said posters and postcards had an influence on the feminist movements prior to the conception of the Internet.

Photo: Carolina Cuartas

Panelists Charlotte Bunch and Brittney Cooper highlight the visual culture of transnational feminism at Alexander Library on the College Avenue campus.

“The posters, postcards, flyers, newsletters were generally relatively simple graphics ... but I think that what they stood for or what they mean to me most importantly is [women] exist, it was a way of stating that we exist,” said Bunch, a professor in the Department of Women and Gender Studies.

She said in contemporary society, people often forget the importance of non-digital communication.

“We need to remember the ways of communication, the personal trust building, the ways of learning about each other that aren’t just digital, that I think are actually the fundamentals of a successful transnational movement,” Bunch said.

She said transnational feminism existed before the Internet, but many activists were not aware that other groups were fighting for the same cause.

“We took them from one project to another. We took materials from Latin America to South Asia to say ‘We have a movement here. We are also raising these issues,’” she said.

Bunch said spreading these messages gave confidence to women who were told by oppressors that they stand alone fighting for their issues.

“It was a way of telling each other that we were global,” she said. “All of these images and posters were the basis of saying that we are very diverse.”

Panelist Brittney Cooper, an assistant professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, said she saw digital activism when working with working with Crunk Feminist Collective, a hip-hop blogging crew.

“Digital feminisms has become one of the terms for thinking about online feminist activism, online feminist communities, and also tries to get us into the ways that work in past feminist activism IRL, or ‘in real life,’” Cooper said.

She said one of CFC’s biggest movements in digital activism involves leading a public outrage in response to a widely circulated photograph in New York City’s SlutWalk, a public demonstration that challenged the notion that women are responsible for being raped because of what they wear.

The poster read “Women is the nigger of the world,” she said in a PowerPoint slide.

“One of the things that racially diverse feminist organizing communities yields is this notion that there are not universal categories of feminist experience around which we can organize,” Cooper said.

She said the notion that all women are called sluts and degraded in the same way was a notion that women of color fundamentally resisted.

CFC did a great deal of blogging and social networking to prevent this image from being misinterpreted out of context and harming the black feminist community, she said.

“There’s a way in which images circulate, and without proper context they can do a lot of work and a lot of harm at the same time,” Cooper said.

Digital activism has a huge influence on media content, she said.

Social networking played a necessary role in publicizing the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin last February. Cooper said news outlets had not given attention to the incident prior to the public response circulated on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

“What is being talked about on Twitter often determines what you’re going to hear about in your news cycle, which is a really significant shift,” she said.

Mary Hawkesworth, a professor in Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, said the visual culture is a field of academia that studies visual images and determines how they affect perceptions, identities and structure.

“Visual culture can help us to challenge some of the views about what’s activism, what’s culture, what do we see, how do we understand the world around us,” she said.

Denda, head of the Margery Somers Foster Center, said libraries play a vital role in archiving visual resources for the transnational women activism.

“They are created by nontraditional and noncommercial means of production by activist organizations with limited distribution to a specific audience,” she said. “The posters reveal experiences, concerns and perspectives on gender politics, human rights, campaigns against gender violence.”

Historically, libraries have always collected this type of unconventional material, Denda said.

But new Internet technologies have changed this landscape, she said.

“Unique resources such as the poster collection are now disseminated across institutions and audiences, enabling innovative intellectual inquiries,” she said.

Denda said these posters capture sensibilities and strategies that go beyond what is archived in textual resources. Such historical analysis can be important for today’s feminist movements.

“To me, this collection is dialectical,” she said. “Not only are they artifacts of the past for future generations, but tools from the past to use today.”

By Alex Meier

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