“Entanglements between the Mass Media and Feminism” – Interview with Jane Freeland
We regularly introduce scholars that work in the project by letting them answer three short questions. Today, we talk to Jane Freeland. Jane is the postdoctoral coordinator of the International Standing Working Group on Medialization and Empowerment at the German Historical Institute London. Her research focuses on the history of feminism in modern Germany, and she is completing a book manuscript entitled “Feminist Transformations: Domestic Violence in Divided Berlin, 1969-2002.”
What will you be working on while being involved with the “Knowledge Unbound” project and what did you work on before?
As the postdoctoral coordinator of the International Standing Working Group on Medialization and Empowerment, I have been exploring the entanglements between the mass media and feminism. Women’s movements have relied heavily on the media to campaign for women’s equality. But this is not just a one-way street. As the media has grown, spaces of communication have become increasingly dense and interlinked, exerting pressure for other social sectors to conform to the conditions imposed by the media. Our Working Group examines this interrelationship, looking at how feminism has both shaped and been shaped by the media.
Alongside the project director, Christina von Hodenberg, I also manage and run the working group’s events. So far this has involved organizing our first workshop, held in November 2019 at the GHI London and putting together a plan for public engagement. I’m currently organizing the ISWG’s second meeting, which will be held in Delhi in December 2020. This conference will focus on the connections between archiving, the media and the history of feminism. In particular, it asks how both the media and the archive have shaped how we understand the history and impact of feminism globally. As a part of the project, we are also developing online modules offering scholars instruction in digital research methods and analysis. Given the project’s focus on the mass media, digital humanities methods offer an important tool for thinking about how media reporting on women’s issues has changed over time.
Before starting at the GHIL, I was a lecturer in Modern German History at Queen Mary, University of London. I have also previously worked at the University of Sheffield and the University of Bristol.
What role does the concept of “knowledge” play in your own research?
My work explores the history of women’s activism against domestic violence in East and West Germany. Part of this involves thinking about how feminist ideas, politics and practices (or “knowledges”) have transferred across international and Cold War borders. For example, feminist activists in West Berlin modelled their women’s shelter project on the work of the UK-based refuge Chiswick Women’s Aid. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, East German women activists working to open shelters in the former GDR adopted very similar models. But in each case, activists did not simply apply the knowledge and practices wholesale. Instead they developed and translated it to suit their unique social and political context. I think this process of transferal and translation is particularly important to study, as it encourages us to disrupt a Western-centric vision of knowledge, where women’s emancipation has been exported to the wider world from the US and Europe. By thinking about translation, we can see not only how feminist knowledge and practice has transferred between women’s movement, but also how in the process of this transfer it has developed and grown.
Have there been any surprising moments in your research recently?
Working on a project focused on the media has really made me reconsider my research. While I’ve always used media sources in my work, I had never considered it as an historical actor by itself. This was the challenge I set myself in organizing our Working Group’s first conference: I wanted to see what difference focusing on the media would have on the history of feminism I was writing. After reading various articles published across West Germany on the opening of the first domestic violence shelter in 1976, I was suprised to see how few articles actually linked this project to feminism or the women’s movement. Indeed, there is a remarkable absence of references to feminism, women’s emancipation or gender inequality in mainstream media reporting on domestic violence. This is particularly striking, given that the shelter was fundamentally tied to feminist politics and activism. I think it is worth asking why the media was so reluctant to link domestic violence activism to the women’s movement – was this something advocated by the activists themselves, or was this something developed by journalists?