AAR Series: Feminism, Religion and Social Media: Expanding Borders in the Twenty-First Century


by Mary E. Hunt and Kate Ott

Posted originally on Feminism and Religion.


This is one of four papers presented in Chicago at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, November 17, 2012, in a session entitled  “Feminism, Religion and Social Media: Expanding Borders in the Twenty-First Century,” organized by Gina Messina-Dysert and chaired by Rosemary Radford Ruether with Mary E. Hunt as the respondent. What follows is the general response followed by, after each of the contributions, Hunt’s appreciative analysis. Two of the papers will be posted here on Feminism and Religion and two will be posted on the Feminism in Religion Forum

General Remarks by Mary Hunt:

The stated purpose of the panel is to discuss “how digital projects are remapping the feminist theological terrain and creating opportunities for a wide range of voices to participate in ongoing and new conversations related to feminist issues in religion.” These writers have done that and more.

Several things stand out: first, two vital blogs exist that deal with exciting, new material which I recommend highly. Their very existence is reason for celebration. Second, their creators are sufficiently evolved to work together to promote their own, each other’s, and many other forms of social media as pedagogical and organizational tools. This is reason to rejoice. I can recall previous projects that I will not cite in which leaders whom I will not name worked with different results. They competed with one another in unhelpful ways, destroyed the very work they created, and ruptured the fabric of the field they wished to enhance. So the cooperative model manifest in this work is reason enough to commend it.

We never scratched in the sand with a stick. But when the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) began in Silver Spring, Maryland (suburban Washington, DC) in 1983, typewriters, albeit electric ones, were essential equipment. I write this response on a MacBook Air, same basic keyboard but a far cry from the old machines.

The founding document of WATER was a three-page proposal for the “Women’s Theological Alliance” which I typed complete with White Out. For the uninitiated, White Out is a liquid correction fluid applied to paper when one makes a typo, allowed to dry, and then typed on again. We made copies of the original document at the neighborhood print shop for distribution. Voilà, we were in business.

Thirty years later, we handle routine communication on iPhones, Apple laptops and iPads, and printers that scan and fax. We utilize social media including Facebook and Twitter. We maintain a website and strategize how to move our newsletter from print to digital mode. Google groups are tools of the trade; flash drives are indispensable.

The evolution has felt seamless if obligatory at times—from floppy disks to compact ones, from fax to email, from printing photos to carrying them around on the phone. We plan to embed videos soon in our web site. The implications at each step are not trivial, and the gestalt is telling. More people are aware of our work and involved in parts of it than ever before. This is how a 21st century non-profit functions.

In the midst of enthusiasm for techno wonders, it is wise to remember, however, that the pioneers in the field of feminist studies in religion—including Georgia Harkness, Nelle Morton, Pauli Murray, to name just a few—never sent an email. I am quite sure that Mary Daly never blogged a day in her life. Ideas still trump technology. Hard work is all. But technology plus ideas and hard work can change the world as we know it.

Thanks again to each of these writers, and to all who have shaped and contributed to the FIR and FAR blogs. I hope that this discussion will pave the way for dozens more blogs to come. The more media the merrier.

Re-envisioning the Academy as ‘Open Source’ Community

by Kate Ott

Kate OttFeminist theo-ethical discourse has from its beginning been concerned with how communities ‘ought to be,’ and, perhaps more importantly, how we go about getting there.  For example, early feminist scholars in religion did more than work to support each others’ publications, they collaborated on texts and published together; they created new spaces of publication that expanded the canon of appropriate topics and style.  It is in this tradition that I turn to questions of how new social media shift assumed values about knowledge production. In other words, how might feminist religious scholars further shift the academy through their engagement with new social media?

This very blog is an example of what I’m talking about.  Feminism and Religion is a space that values inclusion, encourages difference, and promotes shared knowledge in an effort to minimize (if not eliminate) closed systems of power. What is unique is that this blog, and others (including websites, microblogs, etc, like this one) are founded not only in feminist theological values, but also technological values.  I see this blog functioning as a space of just hospitality, often articulated by my mentor Letty M. Russell.  It is also based in an open source platform (WordPress) and relies on the values inherent to that software to build and be community.

Open source praxis is based on inviting an ever widening circle of people to participate in creation and development.  In this process, open source projects include different agendas and approaches working in chorus (or cacophony). A metaphor used by proponents of open source software development is thebazaar—a scene which mimics the settings of just hospitality where strangers are welcomed in their difference, unaware of the outcome.

Open source creates a space where humans become produsers (producer + user) and prosumers (producer + consumer) of technology, and information more generally.  This concept and others are discussed in the new book, Digital Media, Social Media and Culture: Perspectives, Practices and Future.  It is an explicitly interactive and co-constitutive process between technology and humans. In other words, can we imagine how open source technology might bring more just and hospitable praxis to knowledge production? In what ways would inclusion, difference, and shared knowledge be part of dismantling patriarchy everywhere (including digital worlds)?

I like to start at “home” with my criticisms.  In my view, the 21st century 2.0 feminist community must start counting four key aspects of knowledge production from an open source value framework:

  1. creativity (new idea, not just in organization, but in structure/theory);
  2. collation (which is new in the sense of organization, not development);
  3. improvement (which is taking the original source and repurposing, patching, etc);
  4. and access (providing avenues and translations).

The academy (that’s the home I was referring to) has a practice of only identifying creativity – New idea, in structure and theory – as true knowledge production.  The rest are just seen as additive instead of equally valuable.

How would we begin to “count” and value all four forms of knowledge production? I’m going to focus on one example that I think is most relevant to this platform and my location as a junior tenure-track faculty.  Specifically, is blogging a form of scholarship? More broadly, what do we mean by scholarship in an open source community.

Collaborative writing instead of a finished book product has significant implications for current practices of copyright, tenure systems based on publication of single-author print books, and the assumptions of authority embedded in both.  For example, could the user generated content like a blog and comments serve as evaluated scholarship?  Are comments peer evaluation?  How can you make a well-crafted argument in 800 words? Is a link really a citation?  What about an e-book that is open access via an internet connection, where students around the world could add papers on the book’s topic, insert footnotes that connect classroom ideas, and where other scholars could amend, dispute, or add ideas?

Behind these questions are issues of authorship standards or discipline specificity that begin to erode when we produce knowledge in an open source format.  It also begs the question of how current print publication systems are expensive, untimely, and restricted by overly proprietary copyright laws.  I do believe we still need some level of copyright.  Within the definition of open source is recognition of the integrity of the author’s source code, not to mention open source supporters like Creative Commons.  Open source knowledge production means we would have to change our academic values (and evaluation) of collaboration, hierarchy, and ownership of ideas.

Knowledge will be understood differently in the future.  There are certainly positive benefits and negative outcomes to these changes.  I do not hold technology up as a cure all for any issue. In fact, I have tried to stress that the moral values upon which a technology functions, and is engaged, matter.  In Russell’s work on just hospitality, she does not suggest that such praxis is without risk or without limitation.  There is vulnerability implicit in the opening of any door or system.  And of course, there is always a question of capacity that is set by personal limits, social structural limits, and in the case of just hospitality, limits of the theological tradition.  The real question is whether we have the will to try to live into or beyond those limits and vulnerabilities.

Appreciative Analysis by Mary Hunt:

Kate Ott’s essay is a creative and provocative linking of open source software with Letty Russell’s concept of “just hospitality.” I like to think that Letty would have enjoyed the connection and used it. I appreciate Kate’s focus on the “process of achieving” a feminist vision of community which leads to her speculative work on this intersection of technology and religion.

I also like her critical angle on the questions. As we find out when trying to use Wikipedia for better, and all too often for worse, there is something to be said for peer reviewed materials for accuracy, balance, and reliability. This is like the caution Kate offers on “just hospitality” that it must be understood in a nuanced way. Those of us who live in the city, for example, might think twice before simply opening our doors to anyone who calls. So too, we need to bring a critical lens to all online materials, exacting the same rigor we expect between hard covers. Ironically, the limitations of online materials also underscore the limits of what passes for excellent scholarship in other media. The key issue is high standards throughout the field. Just because something is printed in paper or between hard (or soft) covers does not mean anything about its quality.

Those caveats aside, I want to highlight three of Kate’s important points to push this analysis further as she invites us to do. First, I think the question of when a link is a citation is a very useful framing of a dilemma at hand. When I wrote my chapter for Gina Messina-Dysert’s forthcoming book on feminism and technology, I purposely avoided footnotes. I decided that links were more than enough, allowing the reader to decide for her/himself if I grounded my content sufficiently so that readers can find background materials. This is the role of notes. I can imagine circumstances where notes would trump links. But my sense is that we are moving away from one form of citation to another as the sources we rely on change. I think we need not apologize or hesitate as long as the content is clear. I look forward to discussion on this.

Second, I applaud Kate’s creative pedagogy to invite her students to use social media to contact friends/family as resources for their education. I agree that in doing so one is inviting those persons to “be students” as Kate notes. But I think it also invites those consulted to be teachers and that role ought to be acknowledged. Issues of power and authority need to be rethought in this new cyber world with emphasis on how just power and just authority are exercised. Again, this is a good topic for discussion.

Third, this analysis raises the economic questions that lurk not so deeply under the surface of this whole approach, namely, how does the economic balance shift as we become increasingly involved in cyber work? What about the new importance of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), the new, wholesale availability of some courses at large universities for non-matriculating students. Kate says, and I agree that, “They have simply allowed for a co-existence of open source intellectual commons and the already closed system of the university. One lesson to be learned here is that these two objectives are not mutually destructive.” Perhaps not. But I wonder how this will play out in the market place. Will students who can get instruction for free ever want to pay for it, especially if ways of certifying training shift? Do we really want knowledge or will degrees suffice?

A look at how the Internet has changed publishing provides a cautionary tale about justice. Now that so much information is available for free, no one wants to pay for it. This means that the very people who produce knowledge—like so many of us—are without revenue streams to keep doing so. It is a conundrum for which we need Kate’s kind of complex ethical thinking.

Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D. is the co-founder and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. A Roman Catholic active in the women-church movement, she lectures and writes on theology and ethics with particular attention to liberation issues.

Kate Ott is editor of the Feminism in Religion Forum blog affiliated with the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion.  She is Assistant Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Drew Theological School.  Kate’s research is in the fields of Christian social ethics, moral theology, and childhood/youth studies.  She is particularly interested in issues of sexuality, race, and global consumerism as they shape our sense of moral agency and choice.  Her recent academic and activist work place children and youth at the center of inquiry using a feminist and critical social ethics lens.  Kate is co-editor of Just Hospitality: God’s Welcome in a World of Difference and Faith, Feminism, and Scholarship: The Next Generation.