Refiguring Family:

Rhetoric, Feminist Voices, and Digital Publishing


After considering the submissions for Harlot's special issue on family and analyzing authors' responses to our survey questions, we are still left with the question of why this issue came to forward such a strong feminist agenda. Clearly, authors' submissions and approaches may have been inspired by many possible motives: the history of Harlot and what sort of responses it invokes in readers and creators, the CFS as inviting particular interpretations and calls for action, a changing communications landscape that makes the possibility of informal scholarship exciting and attractive, the need for academic writers to reach out to the public as a service, and maybe even the desire for academics to produce a work with scholarly leanings that their friends and families can find accessible.

Rather than tackle all these possible motives individually for investigation and considering that most of the works in the special issue came from academics, it is worth examining the history and ongoing relationship between feminism and scholarly publishing with regards to those motives. In what follows you will find a discussion of research in "Feminism and Academic Scholarship," "Feminism and Family Studies," and "Feminist Scholarship in Digital Spaces" and our understanding of how Harlot's special issue fits and, perhaps, fills a niche in the larger academic and feminist publishing landscapes.

Though the research cited below discusses findings on academic publishing and feminism, it is worth noting that the researchers do not necessarily share the same definitions of feminism or our own. In other words, what you'll find are findings for particular understandings of what counts as feminist. However, regardless of these differences, there does seem to be a consensus between researchers and their understandings of feminism's place in academia.

Feminism and Academic Scholarship

Views on the success of feminism in academia encompass a range of perspectives regarding its position and permeation into this community. In 1992, Patricia Sullivan wrote that feminist studies and composition studies grew at the same time, but while feminism traveled throughout academic disciplines, it did not make the same inroads in writing studies as it had in others (p. 37). Nearly twenty years later, Mary Sheridan-Rabideau (2008) believes the growth of sites and locations for gender and writing research show feminism has "made it." Her evidence is the number of national journals, anthologies, publications in academic presses, and presentations at FemRhet's biyearly conference that focus on the subject (2008, p. 321). Yet even this view of feminism is tempered by Jeni Hart's study (2006). She found that even though there are more women than ever in higher education, both in terms of undergraduate demographics and even in number of doctoral degrees conferred, the rate of feminist scholarship has not kept pace (Hart 2006). Hart conducted her study using publications from The Journal of Higher Education, The Review of Higher Education, and Research in Higher Education. She discovered that 9.8% of articles from these journals explicitly mentioned women or feminism. While this percentage is a considerable improvement over the 3.9% discovered by Barbara Townsend (1993) in a similar study, the growth in feminist publication does not correlate with the growth of women in higher education, which seems to be a faulty assumption shared by many (i.e. more women in higher education must mean more feminist scholarship). In Hart's words, "This shows that the role of feminism and women has neither waxed nor waned. Thus, the marginal status of feminism in higher education scholarship that Townsend found has continued. A backlash against feminism is not evident, but a continued backgrounding of feminism is" (p. 50).

In a follow-up article, Hart and Metcalfe (2010) measure the citation statistics of the feminist articles Hart discovered in her original research in order to better map out the post-publication life of these articles. Their findings regarding academic research databases were not positive. They concluded that the database, Web of Knowledge, failed to extract data from feminist journals, and while Google Scholar did a more commendable job of counting citations, in the end neither source was accurate, which ultimately meant that neither made it possible to understand what sort of impact feminist scholarship has in gender studies or higher education scholarship in terms of citation statistics. In short, even when feminist scholarship is recognized by the community, database technologies fail to document those instances. Overall, it seems that while feminism in scholarship has certainly grown, that growth is considerably tempered in both quantity and recognition.

Feminism and Family Studies

In their review of family studies scholarship between 1984 and 1993, Linda Thompson and Alexis J. Walker (1995) concluded that while the discipline “has created a legitimate place for feminism,” it is a marginal place, not a central one. In fact, they claim, “much of the scholarship that appears in family studies journals is gender neutral” (p. 860). Only in discussions of housework, they claim, has feminism taken a central position: “In most domains, authors consider gender to be irrelevant to their understanding of family life” (p. 847). They also found that the “handful of feminist scholarship on women’s experiences as mothers” was drowned out by the “plentiful literature” blaming mothers for family and marriage problems. “Of the mainstream scholarship we reviewed, we found the literature on mothers most resistant to change” (p. 857).

In another study, Fox and Murray (2000) concluded that “feminist sensibility has been reflected in family scholarship over the past decade” (1160). However, Wills and Risman (2006) concluded from their analysis of over three decades of family studies scholarship (1972-2002) that while about 25% of the scholarship considered gender to some extent, only 6% contained an explicit feminist analysis. Similarly, Ferree (2010) argues family studies scholarship has done more to recognize gender matters, but sees this recognition as limited in the ways gender matters in family. Family studies research contemplating “intersectional, multilevel questions about gender dynamics” is limited and mostly on the margins of the field (421). Walker (2009) has confirmed that little feminist research makes it into the major journals on family.

Scholarship on mothering and motherhood, in particular, has “drifted to the margins of feminist studies”—receiving little attention from academic journals, conferences, and syllabi (Kawash, 2011, p. 970-71). Kawash (2011) pointed to the discrepancy between this “marginalization” in academia and the widespread attention to mothering and motherhood in U.S. popular culture in the past decade. In a 2009 special issue on motherhood, Women’s Studies Quarterly noted, also, the rise of discussions of mothering in the popular media, including “mothers’ memoirs, collections of essays, publications by political groups, and alternative parenting magazines,” (Pitts-Taylor and Schaffer, 2009, p. 9). According to Kawash (2011), those academics who have produced scholarship on motherhood more recently have tended to get their work published by popular presses or less prestigious academic presses, “further marginalizing it from the center of academic feminism” (p. 972). This shift in focus, she posits, results from two things: 1) the subject of mothering and motherhood in recent years became “increasingly suspect, aligned with conservative ‘family values’ agendas that conflicted with feminist goals,” and 2) changes in feminist theory. In her words, beginning in the late 1990s “The deconstruction of ‘woman’ and the poststructuralist accounts of gender and power left motherhood to the side” (p. 972).

In their “Briefing Paper: A ‘Stalled’ Revolution or a Still Unfolding One?,” Lang and Risman (2010), implicitly summarize how the rhetoric surrounding family is connected so strongly to feminism. In their article, they debunk arguments that emerge every few years claiming the gender revolution is over and that couples want to return to “traditional” family roles where men are “breadwinners” and women are “homemakers.” As Lang and Risman (2010) point out, these arguments do not hold up since current research shows that “American women continue to show an interest in having greater autonomy in their lives, while men are increasingly interested in taking on tasks historically seen as ‘women’s work.’” (p. 411-412). For Lang and Risman the current trend in family relationships is toward gender convergence rather than divergence. They smartly observe

It would be a disservice to the families we study and with whom we work to continue to operate on the misguided assumption that there will be any revival of the 1950s male breadwinner family, or that such a revival is desired by most American men and women (p. 412).

For us the connection between writing about family and feminism has to do with disservices done to families rhetorically through outdated and inaccurate rhetorical figurings and arguments about “normal” or “traditional” families and what men and women want in a family. We think Lang and Risman’s work alludes to the need for continued re-figurings of families that reflect if not more accurately, then more diverse forms of gender performance, gender materiality.

Feminist Scholarship and Digital Spaces

Considering the history of feminist scholarship—the difficulty in getting published, the difficulty in getting noticed, and the necessary adjustments to research and writing methods in order to work toward publication—it would seem that feminist work most easily resides in publications that are open to and even celebrate non-traditional forms of scholarly argument. Ironically, because digital scholarship has forced tenure and promotion committees to reconsider the value of such work, it has opened up the possibility that digital spaces could become a new venue for feminist scholarship. Allison Warner's (2007) research on digital publishing inadvertently explains why:

A review of the relevant literature on hypertext composing reveals a consensus among scholars that web-based texts are new forms of rhetorical presentation that require revised assessment criteria to account for the ways in which they extend the boundaries of traditional scholarship. Assessing this relatively new and unique form of online text is challenging due to a general lack of established criteria for determining their scholarly value. While scholarly assessment criteria for print-based texts is widely (if somewhat intuitively) known, criteria for assessing web-based texts has not yet been explicitly articulated. Rather, these texts exemplify new standards of scholarship that are, as yet, merely implied in the publishing decisions of specialists in the field, namely online journal editors and editorial board members. (Warner, 2007)

But beyond the opportunities afforded by online publishing, also worth recognizing is the larger atmosphere of the Web, particularly social media and the opportunities it creates for self expression and self publication. The blogosphere is one area in particular that we can take into account. As Rachel Leow (2010) writes,

academic bloggers face and face down a myriad of ethical, professional, and personal difficulties in maintaining high academic writing standards and conducting themselves with dignity and civility online. Despite the lack of institutional support, the lack of peer review, and the wide-ranging nature of their public, in each case it seems clear that these and other academic bloggers have to, and do, handle themselves. The future of online academic publishing may come to depend on the experiences of these early trailblazers. (Leow, p. 238)

Blogging has opened up what we think is acceptable content for consumption. We can say the same of listservs and other informal social media venues. With more opportunities for scholars to interact informally, these easy interactions bleed into more stringent contexts. Further, as Leow explains, "the blogosphere offers new opportunities for fulfilling one of the more elusive standards of academic productivity: successful engagement with the public" (p. 235).

Harlot's Place

These findings help bring to the fore reasons why Harlot's general call for submissions on family rhetoric attracted so many non-traditional pieces with feminist perspectives. First, feminist scholarship (including scholarship on mothering) continues to struggle to find a home. Second, online publishing offers new opportunities for argumentation that break the mold of traditional scholarly expectations and create a space where it is (somewhat?) acceptable for scholarly work to be conducted according to varied methods. Third, the surrounding social media landscape of blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking, and the like creates an environment where new and emerging genres are embraced and informal writing styles are the norm. In all, these three points converge to position Harlot as a publication space for feminist agency.

Harlot offers a space for academic scholarship, but it follows a non-traditional peer-review process and requires works be written with a lay readership in mind. This means that Harlot is a location between academic publishing and less-formal social media interactions: On the one hand it allows interaction with the public; on the other, it attempts to ensure ethical and sound researched and analytical work by pushing each work through a peer-review process that includes both academics and lay readers. Basically, Harlot has become a place where much needed feminist research can reside and satisfy some aspects of academic requirements for faculty and perhaps offer some personal satisfaction considering that academics can offer scholarly interpretations of phenomena (in this case of familial life) and publish it in a site and form accessible to the public.