What Does Digital Feminist Curation Look Like?

In The Archival Turn in Feminism, Kate Eichhorn notes that “…what might be properly described as ‘women’s archives’ or ‘women’s collections’ have long been governed by the teleological assumptions upon which most archival collections are structured, there is nothing necessarily teleological about the development of explicitly feminist archives and special collections” (Eichhorn, 2013, p.31). One might even say that feminist archives and special collections exist in order to complicate seemingly innate assumptions of a singular narrative of history. The question of how to ensure a feminist method of curation and even that the act of archiving itself is a mode of feminist action has been a prevalent dialogue among various publics.

[pullquote]The question of how to ensure a feminist method of curation and even that the act of archiving itself is a mode of feminist action has been a prevalent dialogue among various publics.[/pullquote]We hope to further this discussion by asking what digital feminist curation looks like using our recent work on Smith’s first Massive Open Online Course “The Psychology of Political Activism: Women Changing the World” as a case study.[1. This article is an overview of thinking and questioning throughout the process. Because of the limited scope of this piece, we could not fully represent all of our questions and challenges throughout our case study. Instead, we hope the points we’ve chosen spark dialogue to continue to think through all aspects of process.] Detailing how we worked with partners, in particular undergraduate students and activists, we were compelled to rethink the ethical boundaries in an exciting but risky public sphere. We carved out room for a dialogue for activists to “talk back” and work with us to locate critique and interpretation rather than merely producing a flat, transactional analysis. Through this model, we suggest that the application of “media translation,” as coined by media scholar Katherine Hayles, to digital formats must be as feminist as its product (Hayles, 2005).

In 2014, Smith College launched an initiative to create a distinctive, women’s-focused, liberal arts-grounded Massive Open Online Course, “The Psychology of Political Activism: Women Changing the World.” It launched in early 2016. The course is based off of a seminar that has been taught for over a decade by Smith Psychology Professor Lauren Duncan (who also is the MOOC instructor). Core to its MOOC iteration was inclusion of Smith undergraduates’ research.

Through the framework of psychological theory, students of Duncan’s Spring 2014 seminar mined primary resources from the Sophia Smith Collection of Smith College, the oldest and one of the largest women’s history collections in the United States and specializing in women’s activism, social justice, reproductive justice, rights, and equality across racial and class boundaries. Each student chose one of nine activists, Virginia (Ginny) Apuzzo, Byllye Avery, Joan Biren (JEB), Katsi Cook, Luz Alvarez Martinez, Loretta Ross, Gloria Steinem, Nkenge Toure, and Carmen Vazquez, selected from the Voices of Feminism Collection in the Sophia Smith Collection and spent at least four hours a week in the archives over the course of a semester. From the activists’ oral histories and donated papers, students used Trello and then Timeline JS to curate timelines, which highlighted key moments in the activists’ personal and political development. Their scholarship is central featured in the MOOC as each unit of the MOOC highlights a different contemporary activists. The timelines are foundational for each week in the MOOC course, which focuses on a different contemporary activist.

[pullquote]When we embarked on the MOOC, we made a commitment to our team—and to ourselves—that it would a feminist project. … Defining what a feminist project could be was a challenge.[/pullquote]When we embarked on the MOOC, we made a commitment to our team—those within special collections including a fifteen-person staff, those on the partnership MOOC production group, and to ourselves—that it would a feminist project.[2. Credit was another mediation. Our goal with credit has always been to acknowledge the foundations of other feminists’ work and scholarship we built upon. However, we also know that all histories elide labor. This endnote is an imperfect marker of collaboration to acknowledge the many hands across time and place of this work.] Defining what a feminist project could be was a challenge. From the outset, we knew that collaboration, co-creation, and focused attention on structure, especially the structure design which often equates to the representation or re-creation of power dynamics, would prove key. As part of a larger production team, bridged across College units, equally commingling faculty, staff, students, and activists, human collaboration pushed against theories, resulting in compromise. For example, the largely non-hierarchical structure lent toward creating literal and digital space for feminist methodology, but also fostered mediation. Design was especially crucial as we thought about working in a mode that thus far had been defined as less rigorous, less thoughtful modes of learning. In “Will MOOCs be Flukes?,” Maria Konnikova suggests MOOCs would likely be more effective if they didn’t shy away from challenging students, rather than presenting a fluid experience which gives the false impression of the learning and retention” (Konnikova, 2014). Through each phase of the project, we encountered an opportunity to wrestle with the practical application of feminist theory, ethics, and ideologies.

In her foundational essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House,” anthologized in the equally influential This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color (1981), Audre Lorde foregrounds how crucial the process of inclusion must be from the very seed of feminist project: “Within the interdependence of mutual (non-dominant) differences lies that security which enables us to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future, along with the concomitant to effect those changes which can bring our future into being” (Lorde, 1983, p.107). As a feminist collection and archive, the Sophia Smith Collection is rich with many women’s voices, documenting the diverse lived experience of women, especially through the Voices of Feminism Collection which the activists were selected from. As such, the seed project was feminist in concept and expression.

However, despite the misconception in some public quarters that archives are stagnant fragments of the past, we believe that archives must not only document the past and its silences but that they must also inform the present and guide us in crafting a future. As a result, the way we (re)present the digital manifestations of archives must revisit the kinds of questions asked when such collections were created as well as additional questions that address new capacities, especially circulation and scale.

[pullquote]We believe that archives must not only document the past and its silences but that they must also inform the present and guide us in crafting a future.[/pullquote]Inspired by media scholar Tara McPherson’s provocation to “design —from their very conception—digital tools and applications that emerge from cultural theory and, in particular, from a feminist concern for difference,” we undertook the challenge to “design for difference” in a collaborative approach to content strategy (McPherson, 204, p. 178). Essentially asking: Can we reclaim the structure of the MOOC and transform it into a feminist space that reflects the principles of access and intersectionality our archive is built upon?[3. We would like to note FemTechNet’s DOCC model (Distributed Open Collaborative Course) which revises the format of MOOCs in order to create a feminist distributive framework. We share the commitment of FemTechNet’s principles to learning, diversity, collaboration, history and transparency, and experimentation. We offer this MOOC as complementary model which does not change MOOC framework but rather turns it on its head.]

The “act of translation” in digitizing these women’s stories could have easily blunted the feminist foundations of these activists’ personal collections. To curate activists’ stories from their collections and display them without a dialogue would be recreating the dominant-submissive spectator dynamic that feminist critic Laura Mulvey exposes in her essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey notes that in the medium of film, “A woman performs within the narrative, the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters are neatly combined without breaking narrative verisimilitude” (Mulvey 1989). While the genre/dynamic of a male-female fictional narrative is not present, Mulvey’s work reminds us that the politics of viewing are inherent whenever we designate a “subject.”

Questioning dynamics of viewing, we began to consider: Whose feminism are we representing? Who has agency? How can the power of digital representation be distributed? Structures such as the legal obligation to filter activists’ materials through intellectual property (IP) rights were further challenges of mediation. Did these practices limit the self-representation of the individuals involved? Conversely was IP, exercised through a stringent feminist ethics sieve, a better way to ensure authenticity of self-representation?

Our answer was to co-create the content with students and activists. As noted earlier, students generated content in the form a digital timeline, making appraisal decisions that weighed content value against visual interest against creating signposts for psychological theory. Each of the nine activists to be featured in the MOOC were invited back to the Smith College campus to review and revise the narrative timelines students’ curated using each of the activists’ collections, to speak back to the psychology theories that were chosen as a framework, and to learn about signing off on this project would mean for the circulation of their collection. Continual feedback loops between all layers of the partnership affirmed the process as iterative and inclusive.

[pullquote]We knew that a feminist approach to labor, in addition to a less hierarchical structure, meant fully acknowledging and compensating our partners whether that be through honoraria, paid internships, or class credit.[/pullquote]CherrĂ­e L. Moraga and Gloria E. AndzalĂșda in This Bridge Called My Back, noted “This anthology was created with a sense of urgency…In compiling this book we both maintained two or more jobs just to keep the book and ourselves alive” (Moraga and AndzalĂșda, 1983, p. lv). Like Moraga and AndzalĂșda, we heard similar stories from activists we collaborated who jumped into their work because they saw/experienced a need but often still had to juggle jobs and family. We were sure to build labor into our budget proposal.Too often in collaborative projects, labor is expected but not fully valued. We knew that a feminist approach to labor, in addition to a less hierarchical structure, meant fully acknowledging and compensating our partners whether that be through honoraria, paid internships, or class credit. We were two of many.

Feminist theory should have the room to imagine perfection without constraint, because although we cannot ever reach it in practice, it suggests a vision that makes its realization worth grappling with. As we move into new modes of representation such as digitization, however seemingly “only” technical or easily translated, we must make space to do the hard work of theorizing alongside it. To do so is to fulfill the ethical obligations we have as stewards and feminists. To not do so is contribute to the building of a house we do not want to live in.


Eichhorn, K. (2013). The archival turn in feminism: Outrage in order. Philadephia, PA: Temple University Press.

Hayles, Katherine. My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2005. Print.

Konnikova, Maria. “Will MOOCs Be Flukes?” The New Yorker. N.p., 7 Nov. 2014. Web. 10 June 2016.

Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. By Gloria Anzaldúa. New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color, 1983. N. pag. Print.

McPherson, Tara. “Designing for Difference.” Differences 25.1 (2014): 177-88. Web.

Moraga, Cherríe, and Gloria Anzaldúa. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color, 1983. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Visual and Other Pleasures (1989): 14-26. Web.


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About the authors

Jen Rajchel is Archival Project Manager at Smith College Special Collections.

Elizabeth Myers is Director of Smith College Special Collections.