Feminist Approaches to Communication

Bonnie J Dow. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. 2009. Sage Publication.

Feminist approaches to communication constitute a broad area of study that has developed over the past 30-plus years. We can trace the origin of feminist work in communication to the influence of the late-20th-century feminist movement, what historians have termed the second wave of U.S. feminism. Although the second wave of feminism, generally dated to a period between the late 1960s and the early 1980s (with the end date linked to the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment ratification campaign) was a movement with a variety of goals, factions, and ideologies, it brought issues such as gender discrimination, equal opportunity for women in education and employment, and the cultural influence of what were then called “sex role stereotypes” to the forefront of U.S. public consciousness.

Such issues were quickly taken up in academic work across fields of study, and communication researchers began to study what were then called “sex differences” in communication. Early research on sex differences promoted a deficiency model, within which characteristics of speech typical of men set the standard for competent interpersonal communication and characteristics of speech typical of women were judged negatively as a result. So, for instance, such research would report on women’s lack of assertiveness rather than men’s aggression and would note women’s lack of confidence rather than men’s overconfi-dence or arrogance in conversation. Importantly, such research stimulated by second-wave feminism had an implicit (and sometimes explicit) political dimension not only because of its origins in a movement dedicated to social and political change but because of its recognition that sex differences were linked to power; for example, men’s communication style was perceived as more powerful and was thus more desirable.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, feminist researchers were questioning the simplistic rooting of such differences in biology. Rather than understanding communication patterns as a “natural” outgrowth of biological sex, they began to ask questions about sex role socialization, about the relationship between power and gender in communication, and about the problems of using men’s behavior as the standard for “good” communication. They argued that different styles of communication had different strengths and weaknesses in different contexts (e.g., a less assertive style promoted empathy and turn taking) and should not be placed within a hierarchy. Moreover, they also contended that different communication styles were more linked to power and status in particular contexts (often themselves linked to gender roles) than to sex. Importantly, these developments heralded a move toward a perspective in which “gender,” a set of cultural constructions about expectations for men and women, replaced “sex,” a biological category, as a variable in understanding communication. Feminist researchers began to conceptualize gender as socially constituted through communication and performance and not reducible to biological sex. Some recent research in interpersonal communication has taken a more sophisticated approach to measuring gender identity independently of sex rather than simply assuming that biological sex equals gender (for more discussion of the research on gender and interpersonal communication, see Julia Wood, “Gender” this volume).1

At the same time that interpersonal communication scholars were turning their attention to issues raised by the cultural influence of the contemporary feminist movement, rhetorical scholars were doing so in an even more specific way: by studying feminism itself. Karlyn Kohrs Campbell’s path-breaking essay, “The Rhetoric of Women’s Liberation: An Oxymoron,” published in 1973, not only drew attention to the rhetoric produced by second-wave feminists but also argued that such discourse deserved attention because of its differences from traditional (men’s) public discourse. She explicated the rhetorical strategy of consciousness raising, which relied on personal examples, a peer tone, and an inductive structure, and she argued that it was a response to the unique situation in which women/feminist rhetors operated. Campbell’s claim that such a context produced a kind of rhetoric that could not be understood using traditional rhetorical theories was a powerful feminist intervention into the study of public discourse, as it called into question the standards used to designate what was worthy of rhetorical study and why. Other studies of women’s liberation rhetoric, as well as studies of specific feminist issues, such as the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights, continued to appear in the 1970s and early 1980s. Although this work did not necessarily announce itself as specifically feminist in perspective, it was an important foundation for the feminist work that would follow. First, it established that feminist rhetors and rhetoric were worthy of study, which was not an inconsequential thing in a field in which rhetoric produced by women had, to that point, rarely been studied because of its ostensible inferiority, a state of affairs that shows linkage to the deficiency model that prevailed in interpersonal communication scholarship. Second, scholarship about feminism circulated and analyzed feminist ideas and did so sympathetically. Finally, most evident in the case of Campbell’s essay, this early work provided critical frameworks, such as the explication of consciousness raising, that would be useful to later feminist scholars.

The discourse of and around feminist social movements has continued to be a focus for feminist work. For example, the study of second-wave feminism has continued since the 1970s, although it is not as well developed an area of rhetorical study as is the rhetoric produced by women in 19th- and early-20th-century reform movements (commonly called the “first wave”), which I will discuss in the next section of this chapter. More recent studies of second-wave feminism have examined not only the rhetorical discourse of feminists but also the representations and rhetorical practices of second-wave feminism in the mass media. Moreover, feminist communication scholars also have recently turned their attention to the study of third-wave feminism, a movement that generally dates to the 1990s.

The Development of Feminist Approaches to Communication

Understanding the roots of feminist scholarship in relationship to the late-20th-century rebirth of feminism helps us understand that feminist approaches to communication are simply one manifestation of a larger and continuing social and political movement targeted toward gender justice, which, as Celeste Condit and I have observed, “may include but can also go beyond the seeking of equality between men and women, to include understanding of the concept of gender itself as politically constructed” (Dow & Condit, 2005, p. 449). Despite differences in the varieties of feminism that I will discuss below, this broad definition recognizes that feminist work always understands gender as a political concept—that is, a concept that functions within, as well as functions to create, maintain, and challenge, power relations.

Much of the early work by feminist researchers in communication enacts an impulse toward equality in that it works toward righting an imbalance in the attention given to (and value ascribed to) men’s communicative practices rather than women’s. This impulse is characteristic of liberal feminism, a powerful strain of feminist thought since the first stirrings of feminist movement in the 19th century. Liberal feminism prizes equality of opportunity between men and women, although it tends to use men’s experiences as the standard to which women aspire. For example, 19th-century feminist demands for opportunity in education and employment, at a time when women were denied access to higher education and the professions, assumed that equality would result when women had the same prospects in the public sphere as men. Liberal feminism, because it is the basis of visible feminist issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment, is often held to be the only, unitary, meaning of feminism.

Yet even within the liberal feminist project in communication, gestures toward other understandings of feminism have emerged, understandings that lead to the latter half of Condit’s and my formulation of gender justice: an understanding of gender itself as politically constructed. For example, as I discuss in the following section on the “recovery project” in feminist rhetorical study, feminists’ attention to women’s rhetoric challenges the historical imbalance in the study of public discourse produced by men and also challenges the traditional ways of understanding rhetorical excellence that have worked to create that imbalance (Campbell’s work on the rhetoric of women’s liberation is an example of this dual effect). The latter challenges are consonant with a radical feminist orientation, which, following a meaning of radical as “going to the root,” seeks not just to level the playing field but to question the layout of the field and the rules of the game as well. Thus, it is a liberal feminist impulse to insist that women’s communication is as worthy of study as men’s, but it is a radical feminist impulse to argue that we need to revise our standards for what makes some communication practices more worthy of study than others.

During the second wave, radical feminists went beyond decrying discrimination to interrogate the origins of cultural notions of sex differences and sex role stereotypes. They argued that public, legal remedies for sex/gender discrimination would not be enough and that a total transformation of social structures and practices around gender—from sexuality to reproduction, to child rearing, to education, to work, to politics, and so on—would be necessary to achieve true freedom from sex/gender constraints for both men and women. In its insistence on challenging taken-for-granted assumptions around sex and gender, the radical feminism of the 1970s forecast the development of poststructuralist feminism in the 1980s, an academic theoretical movement that has deeply influenced the development of third-wave feminism outside the academy. Poststructuralist gender theory (which Wood discusses as “gender performativity” theory in “Gender,” this volume) holds that neither sex nor gender are natural categories but that the categories themselves, and their meaning in any given context, are created and sustained by discourse—speech, behavior, and social practices—of all kinds. In the simplest terms, then, working from a poststructuralist orientation means to move one’s focus from “How does this communicative practice reflect (an already assumed, preexisting) gender difference?” to “How does this communicative practicecreate or constitute a particular understanding of what gender difference means in a particular context?”

In the remainder of this chapter, I discuss three kinds, or phases, of feminist work in communication: recovery, representation, and reconceptualization. These are not entirely discrete categories, and they do not follow one another in a neat timeline—they simply constitute one schema (among many possible ones) for organizing feminist approaches to communication. They also do not neatly align with the varieties of feminist theory discussed above but, as I will note, show the influence of all of them at different times and in different ways. What I hope to demonstrate is that feminist approaches to communication have evolved incrementally over the past several decades and are driven by a variety of factors, including but not limited to sociopolitical changes outside the academy, theoretical developments within the academy, and changes in communication technologies and practices. However, they all share a commitment to the basic question that, implicitly or explicitly, motivates feminist approaches to communication: “How do understandings of gender, and their relationship to power, affect (and effect) communication practices?”

Feminist Approaches to Recovery

The recovery project in feminist communication studies has taken different forms, but it is generally characterized by a focus on asserting the importance of “recovering” communication practices that have been ignored or incompletely studied because previous scholarship has not accounted for the role of gender within them. Thus, a central concern of recovery scholarship is “correcting” or fleshing out the historical record so that it accounts more completely for the role of gender in understanding communication practices.

In feminist communication studies, the most visible recovery efforts have been in the area of public address; that is, the study of persuasive public discourse, traditionally oratory, in American history. Feminist scholars have argued that the rhetorical tradition has focused on the discourse of white men with national political power and/or status, such as presidents and social movement leaders, but that a complete understanding of American public address necessitates the study of women’s rhetoric. This is not simply because history has produced talented women orators worth studying, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Sojourner Truth, but also because women rhetors have faced different rhetorical obstacles than have their male counterparts, making their discourse uniquely strategic and inventive. Studies of women’s historical rhetorical practices vary in the materials on which they focus and the degree to which they are presented as specifically feminist analyses. In general, recovery scholarship is understood as feminist because it grows from a commitment to recognizing the contributions of women to rhetorical history and because it operates from the premise that past scholarship has, wittingly or unwittingly, been sexist in its definitions of what counts as public discourse worth studying.

Although a few studies of women orators have existed since the mid-20th century, the publication of Karlyn Kohrs Campbell’s Man Cannot Speak for Her: A Critical Study of Early Feminist Rhetoric in 1989 rejuvenated this area of scholarship in contemporary rhetorical studies, serving as a foundational text and leading to a surge of research that continues today. Man Cannot Speak for Her appeared in two volumes: one that analyzed important rhetorical acts produced by women (such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Angelina Grimké, Sojourner Truth, and Susan B. Anthony) between the early 19th and early 20th centuries and another that included a collection of speeches by women during this same period. As Campbell’s work exemplifies, much of the work in the recovery project has focused not simply on women rhetors but on women rhetors who have argued for women’s rights. Women’s exclusion from the political system, because they were not granted suffrage (the right to vote) until 1920, means that, until the 20th century, women’s rhetoric tended to emerge from social movements challenging the status quo. Many of the rhetorical analyses of women’s rhetorical activities deal with their involvement in 19th- and early-20th-century reform movements focused on issues such as abolition of slavery, civil rights for African Americans, temperance (the prohibition of alcohol), woman suffrage, labor, and birth control.

In addition, such work has contributed new ways of understanding public discourse by arguing that the unique obstacles faced by women rhetors necessitated the development and deployment of specific strategies that addressed these obstacles. For example, in her 1989 book, Campbell describes the concept of “feminine style” (similar in some ways to consciousness raising)—characterized by identification, inductive reasoning, personal tone, and treatment of the audience as peers, which, she argues, was effective in empowering traditionally passive 19th-century female audiences. Yet feminine style also has been usefully employed to illuminate contemporary women’s (and men’s) rhetoric, demonstrating its utility as a critical tool beyond a 19th-century context.

The influence of the recovery project has been wideranging. From the initial efforts to understand and elucidate the contributions of women’s oratory to rhetorical history, it has led to a range of scholarship that treats women’s rhetorical practices in a variety of time periods, social and political contexts, and discursive forms, as well as uses an array of rhetorical and feminist theories to elucidate them. So, for instance, there is a stream of scholarship focusing on the rhetorical strategies of women as participants in 20th- and 21st-century electoral politics, including as First Ladies. Moreover, feminist scholars have moved beyond a focus on oratory to study the rhetorical practices of women and feminists (and sometimes antifem-inists) in other discursive forms such as books, newspapers, manifestos, letters, and petitions, as well as in nondiscursive forms including cartoons, postcards, and parades.

The work that has grown from the recovery project in women’s rhetoric and public address has used various theories and methods to analyze the rhetorical practices that it examines, and in many cases, these theories and methods cannot be categorized as specifically feminist. The primary difference that this scholarship presents is its emphasis on the role that gender plays in constituting the rhetorical situation and in influencing the form and function of the rhetorical strategies used by women rhetors. Importantly, gender has tended to be operationally defined as “women” in this stream of scholarship, leading to two problems: First, it treats gender as stable and as an unproblematic outgrowth of sex; second, it creates the impression that only women are gendered, just as uses of the term race often leave the impression that only those who are not white are “raced.” However, in recent years, scholars have begun to examine the role of masculinity in the discourse of and around male political candidates (and particularly U.S. presidents). For example, in an essay examining Elizabeth Dole’s truncated campaign for the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency in 2000, Karrin Vasby Anderson concludes that the “ceremonial and symbolic role of the U.S. president is tied up with traditional masculinity,” but her study is one of only a few in public address that study masculinity from a feminist perspective. The feminist study of men and masculinity in public address is an area that needs growth, but other areas of critical scholarship, most notably media study and queer studies, have recently begun to emphasize the role of masculinity in their analyses. I discuss such work in feminist media studies below, and John Sloop discusses the study of masculinity in queer studies of communication in the following chapter.

In much of the past work on women’s rhetoric, then, gender is understood as a stable identity rather than as something that is performed and constituted through rhetoric itself. However, recent work has demonstrated that “the import of feminist rhetorical study goes beyond the evaluation of the efficacy of rhetorical strategies in particular situations and provides insight into how gender and symbol use constitute, challenge, and constrain our identities and possibilities as political actors” (Dow & Condit, 2005, p. 451). Susan Zaeske’s (2003) book, Signatures of Citizenship, which studies the rhetoric of white women’s antislavery petitions in the early 19th century, is one example. It studies important nonoratorical texts produced over a number of years, offering a complex analysis of the ways in which the language of the petitions, and women’s choices to sign them, offers an insight into the development of a gendered, raced, and classed political identity, or citizenship, for a group of women who had no political power beyond the right to petition.

More recently, Angela Ray’s (2007) essay on women’s collective voting rituals between 1868 and 1875, “The Rhetorical Ritual of Citizenship,” is another example of the study of nonoratorical forms that emphasizes how rhetorical activities constitute particular gender identities rather than simply reflecting the assumed preexisting gender identity of a specific rhetor. As Ray explains, in the years after the Civil War, woman suffragists became energized by a new set of arguments that held that the Constitution should be interpreted as allowing women to vote simply because they were citizens. Across the country, dedicated suffragists attempted to assert their citizenship rights by going to the polls and demanding to be allowed to register and to vote at election time. Few were successful, but Ray’s central point is not about the efficacy of the strategy; rather, it is about how the performance of their attempts to do so, and the contemporaneous accounts of those attempts, highlights the ways citizenship was inescapably defined through gender (and race and class), despite the suffragists’ reliance on universalist arguments for the franchise. In work such as Zaeske’s and Ray’s, the use of poststructuralist feminist theory demonstrates the growing sophistication of research within the recovery project, as scholars investigate historical women’s rhetoric for its role in the constitution of gendered identities.

Thus, the recovery project, initially (and still) driven by a liberal feminist impulse to correct for the omission of women rhetors from the study of public address, has traveled in directions that focus on how public discourse functions as a grounding for the very meaning of gender. In this movement, from the study of women to the study of gender, the feminist recovery project in communication is aligned with the trajectory of feminist work across the academy.

Feminist Approaches to Representation

Early feminist studies of mass media representation were stimulated by the same liberal feminist motivations that characterize feminist work in other areas of communication research. In the late 1970s, quantitative researchers studied “sex roles” in mass media, which usually meant that they measured the level and types of representation of women on, for instance, television, arguing that women were represented less than men and that their roles (primarily as housewives, mothers, teachers, and nurses) were limited and stereotypical in comparison with men’s. A central concern of such early work was how well mass-mediated representation of gender reflected “real-world” conditions; for example, did the percentage of women characters on television match the percentage of women in the actual population? Thus, initial research in this area was driven by a belief that mass media were important forces of socialization, particularly for children, and that a critique of sex role stereotypes in mass media could lead to improvements in mass media representations and thus a lessening of the power of stereotypes in the larger culture.

As I will detail in this section, feminist analyses of media representation have grown and developed in many directions, but they are united by a concern with how mass media communicate ideology about women, gender, and feminism. In this work, ideology is generally understood as “common sense” or naturalized understandings of how the world works; for example, traditional gender ideology maintains that men are masculine and women are feminine and should be expected to perform as such. Over time, as the examples I discuss below will illustrate, feminist analysis of mass media has gone beyond the initial questions about how well mass media reflect conditions in the real world. Instead, akin to current work in the feminist recovery project, current feminist media research asks questions about how mass media work to create, challenge, and maintain cultural meanings of gender.

Contemporary studies of representation use a variety of methodological approaches. One strain of research uses quantitative (usually content analytical) measures of the amount, type, and effects of representations in media such as television entertainment, news, and advertising. Such work is feminist in that it often argues that the low level of female representation, as well as the quality of that representation (e.g., portraying women in music videos as highly sexualized), works against feminist goals of representing women as self-determining, competent, and multifaceted individuals. For example, in a study that treats the representation of feminism itself, Lind and Salo’s (2002) examination of 35,000 hours of television and radio news and public affairs programming between 1993 and 1996, reveals, among other findings, that feminists are rarely represented in the news, that when they are they are likely to be demonized, and that they are depicted as different from ordinary women.

A second methodological approach in studies of representation, generally referred to as audience reception studies, uses ethnography, interviews, and sometimes online fan discourse to investigate how audiences process and interpret media messages. This work is feminist not only in its use of feminist theory but also in its emphasis on the ways women audience members use media products to understand—and sometimes to challenge—their place within patriarchal cultures. Such research has addressed a variety of media forms, including television, popular films, toys, and advertising. For example, in a 2003 essay, Yeidy Rivero interviews both Latin American and Puerto Rican women viewers of the popular Colombian telenovela, Yo soy Betty la fea (of which anAmerican version, Ugly Betty, was produced in 2006 by NBC). She reports that the study’s participants did not take the program at face value, instead understanding the “ideologies of gendered ‘beauty’” (p. 78) in the telenovela’s narrative as social constructions that were constituted in relationship to dominant notions of femininity, class, and race and that were strongly influenced by beauty standards promoted by mass media.

Rivero’s essay is an example of a welcome trend in this research: the study of international media products and their interpretation by international audiences. It appeared in Feminist Media Studies, an academic journal founded in 2001 (indeed, the existence of such a specific journal demonstrates the maturation of this area of scholarship), which has become an especially rich outlet for international work. Although feminist research in communication studies, especially in rhetoric, tends to be overwhelmingly Americanist, feminist media studies are becoming more global in orientation, a shift no doubt influenced by the increasing globalization of mass media itself.

The third, and largest, area of feminist study of representation is critical/textual analyses, which includes much of the work with an international focus discussed above. In such studies, scholars use a variety of analytical techniques to examine the communication of gender ideology in a variety of media texts. Such work has become quite explicit in its feminist commitments since the 1990s and demonstrates growing theoretical sophistication by attending to the ways in which dominant notions of gender are constituted by media discourse.

Because feminist work on media representation represents such an enormous area of scholarship, it is difficult to characterize completely. In recent years, it has included work on a staggering array of media forms, including television entertainment, news, films, advertising, magazines, new media and the Internet, books, cartoons, and music, and this list is certainly not exhaustive. Generally, feminist studies of representation tend to emphasize the conservative function of media texts—that is, the ways they tend to discipline “improper” gender performances (by, e.g., punishing and/or marginalizing assertive female characters), but there is also a strain of research that analyzes the ways in which some media texts can be read as offering progressive gender performances—that is, representing gender as fluid and foregrounding gender-transgressive characters in positive ways. Moreover, although studies of mass media reflect a dominant focus on whiteness that mass media itself perpetuates, a growing body of work examines representations of race and ethnicity in an American context.

In general, feminist research on mass media takes note of the polysemous nature of media texts—that is, their capacity for offering multiple meanings that can be “read” or understood in disparate ways by both media critics and media audiences. Some of the most interesting feminist work on media texts offers complex readings of the mixed messages that popular media present: messages that account for the ways feminism has changed cultural meanings and practices (by, e.g., including feminist issues in storylines or including powerful female characters) and yet undermine that progressive content at the same time. A recent example of such research is Lisa Cuklanz and Sujata Moorti’s (2006) analysis of television’s “new” feminism in the popular crime drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU). Cuklanz and Moorti argue that SVU, while generally relying on feminist understandings of violence against women in its narratives (e.g., by insisting that women do not bear responsibility for rape), simultaneously offers plotlines in which femininity is denigrated through characterizations of the program’s police officer protagonists as well as in its frequent use of female villains who represent the “monstrous maternal”—that is, women who fail in their maternal roles so grievously as to cause serious harm or even death to their children or others (p. 314).

In recent years, feminist media scholars have widened their purview beyond representations of women, femininity, and feminism, the traditional focus of earlier work, and have begun to produce feminist analyses of the role of masculinity in media texts. Recent noteworthy examples include Fahey’s (2007) analysis of the ways in which the 2004 presidential campaign coverage “emasculated” the Democratic candidate John Kerry by depicting him as “French and feminine,” and thus lacking the masculinity necessary to serve as president, and Johnson’s (2007) essay “The Subtleties of Blatant Sexism,” an analysis of the ways in which the overt sexism of The Man Show relies on accepting its constructs of masculinity as imperiled by an “imagined dominant female authority” (p. 166).

Current feminist work on mass media representation is diverse and wide-ranging, and it is by far the most eclectic body of work in feminist studies of communication. It is particularly noteworthy for its attention to the intersections of gender, race, class, nationality, and sexuality in media texts, as well as for its growing attention to the constitution of masculinity.

Feminist Approaches to Reconceptualization

In the sense that I use it here, reconceptualization refers to the ways in which feminist approaches to communication have functioned to question and revise received knowledge about how communication works as well as about how we produce knowledge about communication. At a basic level, the simple existence of feminist approaches to communication is a reconceptualization, because such approaches did not exist 30 years ago and because their presence asserts that the absence of attention to gender in the past rendered our understanding of communication incomplete.

One of the central ways in which feminist approaches have reconceptualized research in communication studies is through the demand for inclusivity. Initially, as I discussed in the recovery section, inclusivity took the form of arguing that women rhetors must be included in our understandings of rhetorical history, with the implication that such inclusion would fundamentally reconceptualize that history. At the same time, some feminist scholars have argued that the inclusion of women also requires that we revise our limits on what “counts” as communication and that we recognize nontraditional forms of communication, such as sewing, gardening, or fashion.

Over time, calls for inclusivity have expanded to include not just gender but also the ways in which gender intersects with other identity constructs, such as race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and nationality. Just as men have too often been treated as though they represent all humans, feminist scholars have too often presented the experiences and behaviors of white women as though they represent those of all women, and feminist scholars continue to grapple with this issue. I noted in my section on representation that media studies is an arena of feminist study that has been especially attentive to issues of difference among women and feminisms, but the developing area of feminist intercultural and cross-cultural study of communication is an important source for this kind of work as well. Continued awareness about issues of difference across feminist work should lead to further reconceptualization of the feminist project in communication.

Feminist approaches to communication also have spurred reconceptualization in the area of theory. Although it is the case that feminist studies in communication have not produced a body of theory that can be specifically labeled as “feminist communication theory,” feminist scholars in different areas of the field have made various attempts to integrate theories from across the academy into frameworks compatible with the study of, for example, rhetoric, organizations, and communication practices across contexts, as is the case with feminist communication scholars’ engagement with standpoint theory. One of the central issues in feminist communication scholars’ engagement with feminist theories from elsewhere in the academy has been the issue of essentialism—that is, the degree to which a particular theory or approach relies on an assumption of women’s or gender’s “essence” and implies that all women, or men, possess certain characteristics or behave in certain ways. Such assumptions are often labeled as “cultural feminism,” a variety of feminist thought that emerged in the 1970s and whose proponents argued that women were more likely to hold values such as pacifism, cooperation, and nurturance, which should be seen as superior to traditionally masculine values such as aggressiveness, competitiveness, and individualism. The debate over essentialism, however, has largely evaporated since the 1990s, as feminists have generally rejected the notion of a stable, universal gender identity that is unaffected by the issues of difference that we discussed above. In addition, the recent integration of feminist poststruc-turalist theory, especially work on gender performativity, into feminist work in communication has, as I have discussed at various points above, led to a profound recon-ceptualization of how we think about gender. Cutting-edge feminist work now tends to ask questions about how communication constitutes, maintains, and challenges gender identities rather than how communication reflects a preexisting, stable gender identity. As is evident from Sloop’s discussion of queer reconceptualizations in the following chapter, this poststructuralist emphasis on the instability of gender is a central theme that unites recent developments in the feminist and queer projects in communication.

As feminist approaches to communication continue to grow and develop, they will continue the process of recon-ceptualization, because it is generally the case that new insights arise from case studies of particular communication practices, a characteristic that feminist and queer studies in communication share, as John Sloop discusses in the following chapter on queer approaches to communication.


Feminist approaches to communication are somewhat unique because they developed from a political movement that began outside the academic realm (as Sloop discusses in the next chapter, the same is true for queer approaches), and the connection of feminist research to feminist politics continues to be important for communication scholars. Ultimately, feminism’s relationship to communication studies can be broadly understood in three overlapping ways. First, feminism itself, and the communicative practices emerging from its various manifestations, has been a focus of study for communication researchers. Second, feminism has produced a variety of theoretical perspectives for understanding the relationship of gender and power that have been influential in the study of all kinds of communicative practices, not just those emanating from feminist politics. Finally, feminist goals continue to operate in various ways across the broad field of communication studies, such as through an insistence on the importance of studying gender in our research and in our classrooms, through continuing attempts to ensure gender parity among communication faculty, and through attention to feminist issues that are of concern to all academics, such as sexual harassment.