The Media, Feminism and Women’s Emancipation: The International Standing Working Group on Medialization and Empowerment

In late 2017, #MeToo began trending on Twitter. Taken up in response to growing allegations of sexual harassment in Hollywood, it quickly became a tangible way for women to show the pervasive nature of gender-based violence and harassment. #MeToo sparked a movement and global reckoning with gender inequality and revealed the mass mobilizing power of social media.

But the ability of the media to politicize, mobilize and radicalize issues of women’s rights is not new. Telenovelas and radio shows in Brazil, Tanzania, Ethiopia and South Africa have been used to educate women on sexual health, HIV/AIDS, contraception and domestic violence. In the 1970s, reproductive rights activists in France and Germany developed provocative media campaigns in illustrated weeklies to advocate for the decriminalization of abortion. Votes for women activists in the late 19th century published newsletters, journals and were even captured protesting on newsreel as a way of building an international movement and forging solidarity.

Despite these historical connections, we still know very little about the interrelationship between women’s rights activism and the mass media. How has the printed press, television and radio advanced or hindered women’s emancipation historically and in a global context? How have feminists used old and new media to create counter-spaces for advocating, discussing and debating women’s issues?

These are some of the questions explored by the International Standing Working Group on Medialization and Empowerment at the German Historical Institute London, in collaboration with the Max Weber Stiftung India Branch Office, German Historical Institute Washington DC, German Historical Institute Rome and the Orient Institute Beirut. Our group examines the intersection of women’s rights and the media, assessing how the media has shaped ideas and practices of women’s empowerment and mobilization. We look at the media circulation of ideas, concepts, images and films, and how they were received and actively appropriated by women. In so doing, we focus on the function of modern media in spreading knowledge that guides action, but also on the ambivalence and limitations of this circulation of knowledge. For example, in what ways has the media supported women’s rights, while simultaneously undercutting women’s emancipation? To what extent did mass media coverage dilute and de-radicalize feminist agendas?

Participants at the ISWG Medialization and Empowerment workshop at the GHIL in 2019.

We particularly draw from the concept of ‘medialization’, a term that refers to the way spaces of communication have become increasingly dense and interlinked with the rise of the mass media, but also to the increasing pressure for other social sectors to conform to the conditions imposed by the media. Our project asks what medialization has meant for women’s emancipation: in what ways has the media set the agenda for debates of women’s rights? And what space is there for activists to influence or shape these discussions?

As a part of this project, we organize yearly meetings aimed at bringing together junior and senior scholars actively researching in the areas of history, gender, cultural and media studies, sociology and anthropology. Our next conference will be held virtually in early December 2020, and you can find out more about it (and how to register) here. In connection with this conference, we will be holding some online seminars in early 2021 on the history of feminism.

We also have some exciting side projects in development. In 2021, we will be launching an online exhibition exploring the nexus of women’s activism and the media, and across 2021-22 we will be creating modules offering instruction to historians on digital humanities methods. We will also be posting monthly blogs highlighting some of the most innovative research to come out of our project. Stay tuned for more!

The International Standing Working Group on Medialization and Empowerment is part of the international project Knowledge without Borders: Internationalisation, Networking, Innovation in and by the Max Weber Stiftung. It is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.


Published by

Jane Freeland

She is a historian of feminism and gender in modern Germany. Her research examines the impact and meaning of 1960s feminism on contemporary discussions of gender and women’s rights. Prior to joining the GHIL, she worked at Queen Mary University of London as a Lecturer in Modern German History. She holds an MA in European Studies and a Ph.D. in History from Carleton University, Canada. Jane Freeland joined the German Historical Institute London in July 2019.

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