Given feminism's explicit remit over gender politics, it would be easy to point to every feminist media scholar of the past century as having an implicit standpoint toward media politics, whether it be around issues of representation, institutional dynamics, or uses and interactions. Yet a genealogy of feminist scholars who explicitly address media law and policy—the study of media and governance—well, that's a rarer breed. The governance guys tend to flock together, flapping their white papers and cooing in the strange undertones of technocratic discourses. Women who historically distinguished themselves in the field tended to fly alongside, and were not feminist per se in their scholarship.

Which raises the question, What are feminist studies of media governance? Surely among the normative theories of the liberal state, civil society, information, and the public sphere, there have been approaches that debunk the universal subject while attending to gender as one of the forces that structure unequal access to those ur-democratic ideals. Still, a genealogy feels like divining for water. In just the last decade, Carolyn Byerly pointed to a continued lack of academic research into women's place in media policies or as policymakers.1 Leslie Regan Shade shouted out to feminist digital policy geeks to dissect the policy-speak, distill it for activists, and remake those media policies into feminist issues.2 Yet here we are in the wake of the repeal of net neutrality in the United States, amid continued corporate consolidation of the internet and entertainment with the blessing of the World Trade Organization, and at the buffet of Swiss cheese policies to protect media and data privacy rights internationally. Where are women's voices? Are any media governance voices feminist? O Sister Where Art Thou?

What makes media policies feminist is not a settled matter. For some, just having women in the covey of policy scholars in the genus of wonk is enough. It is assumed that women would somehow have a unique policy standpoint. Still much of the political energy that has gone into academic calls for redistribution of media ownership or for executive leadership in regulatory agencies has not leveled gendered inequalities in terms of representations, access, or even voice. Not to say these goals are not worth fighting for, but just that the presence of women in media policy circles is the lowest bar for what feminist studies of media governance could achieve.

A more expanded view beyond the narrow realm of policy might simply ask, When does gender matter to media governance? One of the striking things about mainstream media research is how little it captures the geography of gendered media activism that has shaped policy initiatives globally. Hilde Van den Bulck charges the field of policy studies as having a shortsighted focus on quickly outdated case studies based on expert stakeholders and official document analysis.3 Critical approaches to media governance have spotlighted a greater array of ordinary people as stakeholders in media movements, from the anti–Jim Crow to the pro–family values crusaders. In each of these movements, gender intersected with other social identities in shaping what activists valued and how ordinary people considered media reform a path to greater social equality and recognition.4 

What the focus on national media reform movements misses is the wider array of spaces in which media is governed through institutions. At the local level, there are school boards, public access and community media organizations, libraries, universities, and an array of public institutions delivering media through broadband and telecommunications infrastructures. The stakeholders for local media governance can be quite diverse, and gender also matters there. Who represents and speaks on behalf of whom in these public spheres of oversight and maintenance points to an identity politics that must consider local histories and social hierarchies in specific places. Field research in the United States on daycare and schools reveals how people, shaped by their ethnicity, religion, cultural capital, and gender, create the rules by which local institutions allow media to be accessible and in what ways.

The growing global corpus of work on the legal frameworks to protect and operationalize local alternative media outlets also have at their base a concern with how ordinary people set the policies for media representations and their production or circulation. Regina Festa and Luiz Santoro's work with grassroots video movements in Brazil and Clemencia Rodriguez's participation in a variety of alternative radio and video projects in Colombia demonstrate how media policy is set “from below” through the media practices of civil society groups.5 Finally, decentralized governance processes in many regions and localities also sweep ordinary people into the governing process through focus groups and interactive forms of messaging. Work by Karen Donders and Hilde Van den Bulck in Belgium has explained how these participatory processes have moved the scope of media policy research into the phases that precede the period of actual legal wrangling and into ways people's voices are articulated into new regulatory initiatives.6 What from above might look like the governmentalization of media users can often look like a new social imaginary to those from below.

Beyond an expanded focus on the gendering of stakeholders in media reform and spaces of media governance, feminist studies of media governance draw on the work of scholars who interpret concepts of governing itself more broadly. As Paula Chakravartty's damning critique of the negotiations at the 2003 and 2005 World Summits on the Information Society lays bare, the normative approach to media and communication policy overemphasizes a Western and masculinist model for civil society.7 A feminist approach must then reevaluate how media rights claims can or cannot be made in the public sphere and the myriad ways in which informal networks articulate alternative demands from those proposed in international treaties. The largely nationalist rhetoric that still dominates the discussion of the government's role over media papers over the real meanings that everyday citizens attach to both their media access and the “right to communicate”—the rallying call for nations since the beginnings of broadcasting. Michele Hilmes has shown that far from describing the reality of transnational flows and hybrid identities, the discourses of media governance in each country generate imagined Others which must be feminized, domesticated, and marginalized in constructing the heroic universal citizen.8 Feminist studies of media governance should imagine better, more inclusive, futures. In the words of Lisa McLaughlin, “The majority of scholars have remained so tied to a notion of the public sphere as a nation-centered arena that they have not been able to offer a significant contribution to our understanding of the current status of, or the democratic prospects for, transnational public spaces.”9 To this agenda, media policy and law are vital.

This perspective makes it interesting to reconsider my somewhat dismissive comments at the beginning of this short essay. They were birds of the same scholarly feather, but maybe the gendered plumage did matter, at least to this chick. I remember observing them when I was in graduate school, and I was taking mental notes. Divina Frau-Meigs, Ulla Carlsson, Pat Aufderheide, Sylvia Harvey, Sandra Braman, Leslie Regan Shade, Carolyn Byerly, Regina Festa, Dorothy Kidd, Lisa McLaughlin, and the list goes on. They defended communication as a global right, public service values, authorial and labor rights, and transparent democratic structures. They were visible in communication research conferences, for sure, but also in less insulated venues, such as the Alliance for Community Media. Those trailblazing women of media governance research may have squawked liked the other birds, but it was music to me. They were women insiders who reminded elected officials and government bureaucrats of the world outside. They embodied the difference that reminded their fellow fliers that these laws were made for women too. And that makes for a beautiful lineage of a feminist studies of media governance.


Special thanks to Miranda Banks for her editorial eye.
Carolyn M. Byerly, “Behind the Scenes of Women's Broadcast Ownership,” Howard Journal of Communications 22, no. 1 (2011): 24–42.
Leslie Regan Shade, “Wanted, Alive and Kicking: Curious Feminist Digital Policy Geeks,” Feminist Media Studies 11, no. 1 (2011): 123–29.
Hilde Van den Bulck, “Tracing Media Policy Decisions: Of Stakeholders, Networks and Advocacy Coalitions,” in Routledge Handbook of Media Law, ed. Monroe Price (New York: Routledge, 2012), 17–34.
Allison Perlman, Public Interests: Media Advocacy and Struggles over US Television (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016).
Regina Festa and Luiz Santoro, “Policies from Below—Alternative Video in Brazil,” Media Development 34, no. 1 (1987): 27–30; Clemencia Rodriguez, Fissures in the Mediascape: An International Study of Citizens’ Media (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2001).
For example see Donders and Van den Bulck's citations in Van den Bulck, “Tracing Media Policy Decisions.”
Paula Chakravartty, “Who Speaks for the Governed? World Summit on Information Society, Civil Society and the Limits of ‘Multistakeholderism,’” Economic and Political Weekly, January 21–27, 2006, 250–57.
Michele Hilmes, Network Nations: A Transnational History of British and American Broadcasting (New York: Routledge, 2012).
Lisa McLaughlin, “Feminism and the Political Economy of Transnational Public Space,” Sociological Review 52, no. 1 (2004): 156.