“Gender Bodies and Technology” Conference Puts Transdisciplinary Feminist Research Center Stage

Gender Bodies Technology conference logo

-- by Amanda Modell, PhD candidate in Cultural Studies and FRI graduate affiliate

What do sex-selective abortion, transhumanism, genetic technologies and femme songwriters all have in common? They were all engaging research topics at Virginia Tech’s Gender Bodies and Technology Conference in Roanoke, VA, April 21-23. GenBodTech featured some outstanding feminist researchers working in Science and Technology Studies, as well as some inspiring examples of transdisciplinary feminist research.

The conference featured key note addresses from Michelle Murphy of the University of Toronto and Eesha Pandit of the Crunk Feminist Collective, as well as interactive workshops, performances, and panels of academic work that considered topics as diverse as the BBC America program Orphan Black, to data science and gender, to gender and musical practices.

Christine Labuski, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and the Director of the Gender, Bodies and Technology Initiative directed the conference, supported by a planning committee that included Rayanne Streeter, graduate student in Women’s and Gender Studies and Sociology; Claire Kelling, a graduating senior in Statistics and Economics minoring in Women’s and Gender Studies and Women’s Leadership; Ali Neff, Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies; and Donna Riley, Professor of Engineering Education.

The conference’s innovative format featured many interactive workshops, with topics that ranged from feminist pest control, to altering barbie dolls, to robotic women in Western science fiction film. One standout workshop was “From Idea to Launch: How to Start a Revolution through Podcasting,” facilitated by Dawn Serra. Serra hosts the hit podcast “Sex Gets Real,” which its website describes as a “no holds barred resource for all things sex.” Inspired by the fact that 88% of all podcasters are cis white men, Serra conducts podcasting workshops at feminist events around the country. She led participants through developing a theme, considering their audience(s), marketing strategies, platforms and titles, all the way to editing.

In her keynote address “The Girl Effect: Transnational Paradoxes and Paradigms of Sex-Selective Abortion,” Eesha Pandit examined how the legacies of racialized eugenics and population control continue to resonate in rhetoric around sex-selective abortion in India. If this practice is framed as a cultural tradition rooted in Indian sexism, then giving Indian women access to reproductive health care becomes part of the problem. Pandit highlighted some of the tensions between the reproductive justice and disability justice movements, in that arguing for access to abortion for any reason might enable abortion based on disability discrimination. She also explained how ‘race selective abortion’ is a term that’s now used by anti-choice advocates to shame those who seek abortion services in communities of color.

Michelle Murphy of the University of Toronto also gave a tour-de-force keynote address titled “Chemical Exposure and Decolonial Potential.” Murphy discussed the enfleshed politics of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls. PCBs are industrial chemicals that alter organisms’ metabolisms in ways that are then heritable to the next generation, and it was PCB dumping in North Carolina that prompted the coining of the term “environmental racism.” PCBs comprise a site from which Murphy theorizes ‘alterlife,’ life already altered or open to alteration, life conceived as biotechnology, life that exceeds the body, a non innocent, entangled life. Focusing on Indigenous water rights activism in the Great Lakes area, Murphy considers alterlife from the forefront of feminist postcolonial science and technology studies, a site from which to refuse to participate in research based in damage, and one from which decoloniality might be possible.

The individual research presentations also featured some extremely exciting transdisciplinary feminist research. Alexandra Fine presented her research on the “Auroratone,” a disability rehabilitation tool from the postwar period. Jessica Herling, Talitha Rose and Rayanne Streeter put together a panel on the BBC American program “Orphan Black,” teasing out issues of queerness, kinship, reproduction and bodily autonomy while representing enthusiastic fans of the show and inspiring new ones. NYU postdoctoral scholar Laure Noren presented work in progress from her ethnographic work with data scientists; how do these data scientists grapple with gender as a variable, and a value?  And Ronna Popkin of Columbia considered how gender influences the ways in which at-risk populations are constructed in genetic cancer screenings.

All in all, GenBodTech combined an innovative conference format and engaging workshop facilitators with inspiring feminist researchers, activists and performers, to demonstrate what’s possible when feminist praxis meets Science and Technology Studies.

**Gender, Bodies & Technology (GBT) is an initiative within the Women’s and Gender Studies program at Virginia Tech that aims to creatively and intellectually explore the multiple, proliferating, and gendered dimensions of technologized bodies and embodied technologies.