Tag Archives: feminism

Doing Feminism

I am very excited to be part of a new special issue of Feminist Theory called “Doing Feminism: Event, Archive, Techné,” edited by Carrie Rentschler and Samantha Thrift, and featuring contributions from Kate Eichhorn, Anna Feigenbaum, Elizabeth Groeneveld, along with an article on feminist meme culture by Carrie and Samantha. This issue takes up questions of feminist historiography and movement-making in relation to a wide range of media practices, as Carrie and Samantha outline in their introduction. My contribution examines networks in building feminist history through a study of 1970s newsletter culture.

Feminist Computing #5: Martina Navratilova’s Tennis Computer

Last month I gave a lecture at Toronto’s Trampoline Hall titled “The Many Wives of Martina Navratilova.” The talk, part of a night curated by Jon Davies, had little to do with my “real” research but it was a lot of fun, and what came out in the wash was this quite lovely entry for my collection of feminist computing stories.

The Coaching Computer

“Robert Haas, the man who programmed my nutritional needs, and an associate of his have designed and programmed a tennis computer that I have used from time to time. The computer is fed an entire tennis match about thirty times, analyzing and breaking down the points stroke by stroke until previously unseen patterns become evident. What we look for in this breakdown are my patterns and those of my opponent. We find tendencies. Perhaps one top player will continually hit a return to the same spot at break point, or hit the ball harder, or perhaps slice more when down. What the computer has pointed up is that when the pressure is on, players stay true to their tendencies, and this knowledge is helpful against patterned players such as Chris Evert Lloyd and Tracy Austin. By understanding both my game and that of my opponent, I feel as though I have a far clearer insight into what my future matches might hold. The computer is a good accurate scout.”

– Martina Navratilova, Tennis My Way (1983), p. 190.

The Circle of Lesbian Indexers – Book, Card, Computer

Tomorrow I’ll be giving a paper on The Circle of Lesbian Indexers here in Toronto at what looks to be a great symposium organized by Emily Drabinski: Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies.

This is new work, part of my almost-finished final dissertation chapter. In the paper I consider  The Circle of Lesbian Indexers, a group of six feminist information activists scattered across the U.S., who indexed hundreds of lesbian periodicals by subject between 1980 and 1986. Specifically, I examine The Circle’s manuals and correspondence alongside histories of computing from that era to examine how these women thought about emergent database computing and its potential for organizing their growing index. I argue that three “materials” critical to The Circle’s work—the book, the card, the computer—create a tension that is key to the promises of  information activism, and to creating a heterogeneous, feminist media history of emergent computing.

Circle diagram

Here’s an excerpt:

Cards allowed the index to be revised and re-sorted, and it allowed Potter to facilitate the Circle’s collaborative workflow, bringing multiple batches of cards into the fold of one growing index. This was no small task: In the Circle’s guide to indexing, Potter writes, “the numbers of cards we can safely manage without the help of machines seems finite. We can keep on top of hundreds (no problem), or a few thousand cards, but even dykedom has its limits” (Potter 1979a: 9).

At the limit of “dykedom” likes emergent database computing. The Circle used cards, but they thought about computers, discussing the merits of going electronic often in their correspondence and training manuals. Potter invested a great deal of hope in the possibilities that computer databases might present for managing the Lesbian Periodicals Index. She spent many evenings and weekends at Stanford University’s Computer Center, trying to learn how to use WYLBUR.

WYLBUR illustration

WYLBUR was a text-editing program that ran on the time-sharing system pictured here—this is when a big, central mainframe computer is shared by multiple users at individual terminals. This is an illustration from the hand-drawn manual to WYLBUR, created by one of the scientists who worked at the lab. The figure in this drawing is smiling at her terminal, but Potter was not. She describes learning the system with frustration in a 1981 letter to one of the other indexers: “I find I just can’t spend my every night and weekend at the Stanford center learning and then inputting. I need to spread some of the parts of this others!” (Potter 1981c). Potter didn’t want to be working alone at her keyboard in the sterile computer lab that was such a far-cry from the warm, domestic scenes she describes in The Circle documents. Scenes of workshoping subject terms with other Circle members in rocking chairs on her porch.

No More Potlucks

An essay I wrote on the digitization of oral histories tapes at the Lesbian Herstory Archives just came out in No More Potlucks. You can read it here. This is the first piece of writing to come out of my research at this archives in 2012/2013.

An excerpt:

Colette shows me the digitization system she researched and designed, which includes a digitizer that connects a basic tape player to a laptop via USB, the free and open-source audio software Audacity, two hard drives for storing files, and a CD folder where the compressed versions of each tape are cataloged for visiting researchers who would like to listen. Colette talks with pride about her ability to design a system that was in budget and works just as well as professional equipment: we “realized we could do it on the cheap because this thing [pointing to the digitizer] cost ten dollars and we get the same quality.” The system is, above all, good enough—the audio quality is remarkable, actually, and the portable hard drives are a decent substitute for the stable online repository that the archives would love to have but can’t afford. Colette showed me how to set up the digitization station, how to watch for and eliminate clipping, and how to noise-reduce the files, all of which she learned through a process of “trial and error,” made possible by a willingness at this archive to try something at which one is not an expert, to be wrong, even to fail.

Thank you to Maxine Wolfe, Colette Montoya, Anthony Cocciolo, and the volunteer staff at the LHA for their hospitality and help with the essay. And thank you to SSHRC who supported the research.


Black Lesbians: An Annotated Bibliography (1981)

I’m working on research for a dissertation chapter about lesbian feminist information activism in the 1970s. The collecting, archiving, indexing, annotating, and circulating of information about lesbian feminism amongst women across the United States and Canada was an elaborate system linking archives, periodicals, and academic, and activist organizations. As glamorous as this network sounds, the mailing lists and bibliographies that formed its infrastructure depended on the hard work of unpaid women who spent countless hours working alone with stacks of paper and xerox machines, in hopes that the hard-to-find information to which they improved access might lighten the load of others, and facilitate political change.

JR Roberts (Barbara Rae Henry), a self-described “Reliable Lesbian Information Dealer,” published Black Lesbians: An Annotated Bibliography in 1981. Roberts, who was also involved with the Circle of Lesbian Indexers (Spread across the U.S.), the Lesbian Herstory Archives (New York), and The New Alexandria Lesbian Library (Chicago, later Massachusetts), solicited contributions to her bibliography through word-of-mouth and by publishing classified ads in lesbian periodicals during the 1970s.

From the Introduction:

“Lesbian, for the most part has connoted white, middle class lesbian to the exclusion of other realities and perspectives. This bibliographic situation mirrors the denial and invalidation of Black lesbian experience and uniqueness… Because catalogs, indexes, and bibliographies do not usually reflect Black lesbian content, my main methodology has been to peruse large quantities of materials always on the alert for Black lesbian references…. Clearly, one of my most fruitful sources of information was other lesbian and gay researchers and readers who often alerted me to items of interest. The bibliography owes much to grassroots communication networks and newsletters, and special lesbian and women’s libraries and archives.”


Audre Lorde Goes Fishing – Recreation and the Feminist Body

This is very minor but very wonderful piece of information uncovered during my current archival research at the New York Public Library:

In 1981, Audre Lorde was presented with the Gay Book Award of the American Library Association’s Gay Task Force (now the Stonewall Book Award), for her memoir, The Cancer Journals. The adjudication committee described the book as having, “the poignancy and immediacy of this black lesbian poet’s responses to physical and emotional trauma… This effort to retain control of her body, to preserve her sense of herself in a changed body, is intelligent and inspiring.”

Instead of a trophy or certificate, the Gay Task Force would present each recipient with a personalized token to honour their achievement. Audre Lorde was presented with the following “token”: “a set of fish hooks (for her favorite pastime).”

Forty Years Army

PRIDE week and all the ambivalent feelings it brings. What is the work that we continue to ask queerness to do, in relation to homonational formations like PRIDE? What might we learn from looking back at a longer history of queerness as an idea developed in relation to PRIDE?

This 1973 interview with Rita Mae Brown is now forty years old. Brown’s call for an alternative culture—an “army of lovers” who “shall not fail”—in response to the inadequacies of gay rights for gay whites movements is a popular reference point for contemporary queer subcultures. I especially like her “five or ten” year prediction for this army’s conquest; an army whose arrival we are forever anticipating.

Civil rights is a reformist measure. Revolution is what counts, not civil rights. You’re going to buy people off with civil rights. That’s the lesson of feminism. We got bought off with that vote. Don’t waste any time on civil rights. It’s a big political mistake.

You build an alternative culture within the existing culture. I think people are going to be motivated by an alternate culture instead of civil rights. We’re not going to solve this tonight. I think probably over the next five or ten years if we all do our homework, we’ll come up with something.”

– Rita Mae Brown, interviewed in The Lesbian Tide April 1973, AN ARMY OF LOVERS SHALL NOT FAIL

Barbara Gittings, Radical Lesbian Librarian (1971)

From: Gays in Library Land: The Gay and Lesbian Task Force of the American Library Association: The First Sixteen Years by Barbara Gittings (1990).

What a heady time! We were activists. We were innovative, bold, imaginative, full of fun and energy, full of love for promoting our cause.

Predictably, it was our gay kissing booth that really threw us into the limelight. All the SRRT task forces had been invited to use a booth in the conference exhibit hall for a couple of hours each. We could have devoted our turn to a nice display of books and periodicals and our “Gay Bibliography.” But Israel Fishman decided to bypass books and show gay love, live.

We called it Hug-a-Homosexual. On the bare grey curtains forming the back wall of the booth, we hung signs reading “Women Only” at one end and “Men Only” at the other, and there we waited, smiling, ready to dispense free (yes, free) same-sex kisses and hugs.

The aisles were jammed. But no one entered the booth. They all wanted to ogle the action, not be part of it. Maybe the Life photographer and the glaring lights from the two Dallas TV crews made them feel shy.

Hundreds of exhibit visitors crowded around and craned their necks as the eight of us in the booth hugged and kissed each other, called encouragement to the watchers, kissed and hugged each other some more—and between times handed out our bibliography to those in the throng.

Librarians at that 1971 conference learned fast that lesbians and gay men are here and everywhere, that we won’t go away, and that we will insist on our rights and recognition. Result: In the last days of the conference, we got both the Council (the elected policy-making body of ALA) and the general membership to pass our pro-gay resolution. Maybe some librarians voted for it because it seemed innocuously vague, and maybe others voted for it in hopes we wouldn’t embarrass ALA with another Hug-a-Homosexual stunt. Still, the resolution did become official policy of ALA.