Feminist Scholarship and Communication

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Feminist scholarship has an active presence and strong tradition in the field of communication. The National Communication Association (NCA) includes a Feminist and Women's Studies Division that promotes feminist scholarship in communication and a Women's Caucus that lobbies for the advancement of women in the organization, profession, and world at large. The International Communication Association (ICA) has an equally active Feminist Scholarship Division that sponsored its first conference program in 1986. Communication scholars interested in feminist research may also interact with their colleagues through the Organization for Research on Women and Communication (ORWAC) and the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language, and Gender (OSCLG). Although feminist scholarship has appeared in various communication journals, two journals, Women's Studies in Communication and Women and Language, are devoted solely to publishing the results of feminist scholarship on communication issues.

In 1989, Karen Foss authored an article in Women's Studies in Communication that discussed the contributions of feminist scholarship to research in communication. Foss defined feminist scholarship as that "which brings to research the self-consciously political values of the women's movement and challenges traditional notions about research" (p. 1). In this conceptualization, feminist scholarship in communication includes the idea that gender is a critical component of human life and is seen as a filter or lens through which all other perceptions pass. According to Foss, "feminist inquiry is concerned with how gender is socially constructed, the process by which women's experiences have been subordinated to men's, and the implications of this subordination for the communication practices of women and men" (p. 2). In other words, feminist scholars in communication believe that gender is not an absolute set of physical characteristics or behaviors but is made up of actions that are learned and created through social interaction. This research is based on the assumptions that women's perceptions and experiences should be valued, that learning about the world is based on acknowledging the perceptions of individuals, and that society cannot be truly understood without knowing about the experiences of women as well as men. In addition, Foss calls for activist research that can be used to improve the place of women in society. In other words, feminist research in communication is "research done not just about women but for women" (p. 3). In a 1989 article in Critical Studies in Mass Communication, Andrea Press emphasized the fact that feminist scholarship should include "a commitment to the primacy of gender in analyzing individuals and society and a political concern with the alleviation of women's oppression" (p. 199).

Feminist scholarship in communication focuses on many important issues. Four of the most prominent conceptual and research areas are (1) language, (2) media, (3) voice, and (4) organizational communication.


Feminist scholarship on language has a long history that focuses primarily on the status of women in society as reflected in the language used to describe them. For example, the masculine form of a word is often taken as the standard (e.g., "actor," "executor," "prince") and the feminine form is derived from it (e.g., "actress," "executrix," "princess"). The masculine form of a word is usually used before the feminine when individuals describe pairs of masculine and feminine roles (such as "husband and wife," "brother and sister," "king and queen"). The marital status of women can be identified through the use of terms such as "Miss" or "Mrs.," while the marital status of a "Mr." is unknown—indicating that this distinction is important for women but not for men. Although standard occupational titles have been revised to indicate gender neutrality (e.g., "police officer," "firefighter," and "mail carrier"), terms such as "chairman," "congressman," and "businesswoman" can be heard in everyday conversation. In this way, language can reinforce gender stereotypes that relegate women to the private/domestic realm and confine men in the public sphere.

Although contemporary researchers have argued against specific differences in the language used by men and women, acknowledgment should be paid to Robin Lakoff for her work in Language and Woman's Place (1975). Lakoff's conceptualization suffered from a view of women's language as being distinct and subordinate to men's, but she did begin a long line of inquiry in this area by discussing the use of tag questions, qualifiers, hedges, and other forms of speech that are stereotypically associated with women's language. Subsequent research has identified these forms of speech as being more typical of subordinated or marginalized individuals instead of women in general, but Lakoff's work provided a forum for sparking discussion of these important issues.


Numerous studies have examined the portrayal of women in the media from a feminist perspective. These studies are particularly important because the media both reflect and affect people's cultural values and images of each other. Researchers in this area have focused on the images of women in the popular media, the role of women producing mediated images, and the audience for particular media. Images of women in the media have been examined in film, television, radio, and music among other media. Molly Haskell, the author of From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (1987), provides a historical overview of the changing role of women from the earliest days of film to contemporary times. While early images of women conformed to the stereotypes of the chorus girl/vamp, old-fashioned girl, mother, or working girl, modern images include "bad guy/girl" who harms men, sexual objects, and confused teenagers, as well as competent women who overcome both personal obstacles and even alien invaders. Nevertheless, contemporary roles for women in films are more likely to be offered to younger actresses who conform to societal expectations for femininity and traditional beauty.

Roles for females on television are equally stereotyped. Numerous studies of children's cartoons, for example, have found a lack of female characters in popular children's entertainment programming. Roles for women in television programming for adults have ranged from positive role models such as competent physicians and lawyers to typical images such as the girl next door, the beautiful but stupid teenager, and the helpless sidekick. Studies of radio have noted the relative absence of women disc jockeys and on-air personalities except as traffic reporters or side-kicks for male broadcasters. In addition, male voiceovers are more likely to be heard in commercials both on television and on radio. Although women in music have received an increasing amount of attention, in general, rock music continues to be dominated by men, while pop music remains the purview of women. In particular, music videos continue to present women in highly sexual roles.

The role of women in creating popular media has received less scholarly attention than the images being presented of women by the media, but it is clear that women participate less in creating mediated images. Women are underrepresented as film directors, cartoonists, and record producers, for example. Because the creators of the images transmitted through a particular medium may have a tremendous amount of influence over those images, it is important for women to gain places of power in the media industries. The expectation is that images for women in the media will change as more women exert power in these industries.

Women as audience members for popular media have also received attention from feminist scholars in communication. Studies have been conducted that focus on the readers of romance novels, individuals who watch soap operas, and fans of Star Trek and other cult film and television programming. Each of these studies has been characterized by an emphasis on seeing the phenomenon from the point of view of the audience member and giving voice to people who otherwise would not have been considered in traditional research paradigms.


Both methodologically and theoretically, feminist scholarship in communication shares a concern with the concept of voice. Methodologically, as discussed above, one of the principles on which feminist scholarship is grounded is the desire to have a positive effect on the lives of the participants in the research, in particular, and women, in general. One way to accomplish this goal has been to make sure that the research is true to the voices of the research participants by making sure that their viewpoints are represented well and honestly valued. Feminist scholarship methodologies, therefore, tend to be more participative than the traditional positivist research that privileges the researcher over the researched (as is the case with research based on the scientific method).

Theoretically, the concept of voice in feminist scholarship can be seen in Carol Gilligan's noted work In a Different Voice (1982), in which she expands the understanding of human development to include a consideration of women that was missing from previous conceptualizations. Gilligan believes that their early social environment is experienced differently by female and male children because of their connection with the primary caretaker (usually the mother) and that this situation leads to differences in personality development. According to this theory, women are more likely to voice their concerns in terms of conflicting responsibilities and their effect on relationships with others, while men are more likely to view the world in terms of hierarchical principles that determine what is right and wrong. Although Gilligan's theory has been criticized by some scholars for what they believe is a lack of methodological rigor and for defining women's roles in limited ways, this work is important from a communication perspective because Gilligan reminds scholars that "the way people talk about their lives is significant, that the language they use and the connections they make reveal the world that they see and in which they act" (p. 2). In addition, the "ethic of care" decision-making style ascribed to women is considered equivalent to men's "ethic of justice" and is not considered a less-developed mode of reasoning as earlier developmental theorists contended.

Organizational Communication

Feminist scholarship in organizational communication focuses on both the perceived and actual differences in ways in which women and men communicate in organizations and on organizational issues that primarily affect women, such as sexual harassment. Research has examined bias in employment interviewing, issues of access to formal and informal communication networks in organizations, stereotypes of female and male organizational employees, gender differences in managerial communication, and the glass-ceiling effect. The glass-ceiling phenomenon, for example, occurs when women are blocked in some way from reaching the top levels of organizational hierarchies. Although numerous laws exist to prevent discrimination in the workplace and some authors contend that women's tendency to take time out from their careers for child raising legitimately limits their potential for advancement, feminist scholars have demonstrated that subtle discrimination may impede women's abilities to succeed at the highest corporate levels. As Julia Wood notes in her book Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture (2001), a woman's inclusive, collaborative style of communication may be seen by organizational decision makers as an indication of a lack of initiative and, therefore, will not be rewarded by promotion. In addition, feminist scholarship in communication on sexual harassment, characterized by the work of Robin Clair (1998), has defined sexual harassment as a communication issue because it involves a discursive process that serves to maintain organizational hegemony.


As can be seen from the above discussion, feminist scholars have contributed much to the field of communication and continue to emphasize the potential of their scholarship to contribute to significant changes in society and in women's lives.

See also:Gender and the Media; Interpersonal Communication; Intrapersonal Communication; Organizational Communication; Sex and the Media.


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Lea P. Stewart

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