This editorial by Suzanna Danuta Walters, the incoming editor of Signs, will appear in the Spring 2015 issue.
It is with great pride and pleasure that I join the distinguished ranks of editors of Signs. Along with my colleague Carla Kaplan, who will serve as Chair of the Board of Associate Editors, I am excited to begin this new endeavor. Under Mary Hawkesworth’s inspired editorship and with the steady support of the University of Chicago Press, Signs continues to represent the best of feminist scholarship and to offer a model of journal publishing to others. Mary’s staff and Editorial Board have most assuredly brought the journal into the twenty-first century, enhancing Signs’ digital presence and reach while at the same pushing the intellectual envelope with feminist scholarship of the highest caliber from an astoundingly diverse range of geographical locations and disciplinary homes. Under the ten years of Mary’s editorship, Signs has not only become one of the few academic journals to actually increase print subscriptions but has also deepened its feminist commitments to intersectional theorizing, transnational breadth, and robust interdisciplinarity. From the Catharine Stimpson Prize for Outstanding Feminist Scholarship to virtual issues and the launch of Films for the Feminist Classroom, the last ten years at Rutgers have been enormously productive ones, pushing the journal in ways both structural and intellectual and always substantively engaged with the changing terrain of both feminist theory and journal publishing. It remains, in our minds and undoubtedly in the minds of most feminist scholars, the internationally respected journal in the field.
So, in sum, what’s not broke doesn’t need fixing: we’ve inherited a gem. Therefore, a core component of our editorial vision entails preserving the traditions and heritage of the journal. At the same time, new leadership always provides an opportunity for new vision and for a reimagining of the project itself. Our cultural moment demands innovative strategies: feminism is increasingly stabilized in the (neoliberal) academy as it also finds itself fighting retrenchment around the world; attacks on women’s bodily autonomy move ceaselessly ahead even as young feminist activists find creative new strategies to resist them; gender becomes a more malleable and contested site, but gendered power and violence have hardly disappeared. And feminist currents now move in an ever more digital sea; how we read, how we know, how we teach, how we engage politically are being reformed by the Web, social media, and other forms of virtual communication. Any journal – and most especially a journal with profound commitments to social justice, sexual freedom, and gender equity such as Signs – must reckon with what it means to “think and do feminism” in an era of online everything, and in light of these and other contradictions and challenges.
That said, five core concerns broadly animate our editorial vision.
First, we believe that the field of women’s studies must substantively reckon with the provocations and contributions of gender and sexuality studies. The relationship between theories of sexuality and theories of gender has a long and productive history, arguably initiated by Gayle Rubin’s classic 1984 article “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” Since that moment, the relationship between feminist theory and what became known as queer theory has been debated and analyzed in journals, edited volumes, monographs, syllabi, and conferences. Signs is unusually well positioned to engage head on with the challenges of these discourses and to model queer/sexuality studies with a feminist lens. We intend to pursue this exceedingly fruitful dialogue, especially in thematic review essays and special issues devoted to the tough questions that come up when feminist theory and queer theory, gender and sexuality, productively engage.
Second, we are committed to recentering attention to local and transnational racial and ethnic difference, particularly as they circulate in and through those questions of sexuality/gender discussed above. Feminist scholarship has always been marked by encounters and emendations, the dual move of critical reflexivity and analytic innovation. These debates and revisions have come from many locations: from women of color who challenged the assumptions of whiteness implicit in much feminist theorizing, from lesbians who critiqued the heterosexism not just of mainstream feminist movements but of feminist analysis itself, from theorists and activists who insisted that “the West” not be presumed the automatic site of a privileged theoretical enterprise. These voices have been insistent and consistent, pushing feminist theory to interrogate its own lacunae and to engage in self-reflexive rethinking of the very project of feminist scholarship. From this ferment were born black feminist thought, radical feminism, transnational feminism, and— most pervasively perhaps— the very idea of intersectionality laid out first by legal theorist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. While these discussions have in no way disappeared, new ones have emerged, and Signs must pioneer ever more multivocal strands of feminist theorizing by creating increased opportunities for dialogue and debate.
Third, one hallmark of both Signs as a journal and feminist theory as a practice has been a commitment to inter- or transdisciplinarity. We envision a renewed dedication to this, urging submissions that push at disciplinary boundaries and provoke “gender trouble” both methodologically and theoretically. Interdisciplinary scholarship is frequently given mere lip service in the academy; too often we see it invoked rather than enacted. Robustly transdisciplinary scholarship is even more marginalized, as additive models push aside the taxing project of thinking outside of the confines of disciplinary knowledges. Given the historic centrality of intellectual and methodological border crossings for feminist theory, the need for a journal that foregrounds and even privileges disciplinary promiscuity is more pressing than ever.
Fourth, we see a need for systematic and institutional analyses that address pervasive (but not uniform) and persistent gender inequity, sexual and gender violence, and, indeed, misogyny itself. Feminist theorizing should not founder on the shoals of ever-narrower topics but should continue to ask the big questions about gender and sexuality in an attempt to make better, more convincing accounts of these formations, structures, and subjectivities and to continue our history of advocating for justice. Intricately woven accounts of small-scale sites are not to be snubbed here; rather, we imagine an invigorated and bold engagement with big theoretical and political questions that occupy feminists the world over. We envision special issues, therefore, on topics of broad interest to a wide range of feminist scholars. One such special issue will be our first, “Pleasure and Danger: Sexual Freedom and Feminism in the Twenty-First Century,” for which we solicit scholarship from theorists and activists around the world engaging with the linked questions of sexual freedom and sexual danger. More information about this inaugural special issue can be found in the Call for Papers.
And, fifth, we are committed to an enhanced and interactive digital presence for the journal. The journal has made enormous strides in refining its online presence, through virtual issues, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and the inclusion of varied visual imagery on the website. Building off this wonderful work, we anticipate creating important synergies with the digital resources of Northeastern’s NULab through feminist theory mapping projects, podcasts and videocasts, active links to digital archives, and other forms of dynamic social media engagement.
Several additions to the journal’s regular offerings will highlight and address the current contexts of feminism and our editorial ambitions. The first, “Key Concepts in Feminist Theory,” will bring more attention to the definitional landscape, in an era when the rapid diffusion and instantaneous retrieval of information through sources such as Google and Wikipedia can spread confusion as well as knowledge. In future issues of Signs, we will invite a senior feminist scholar to write a short article delineating a “key concept,” a foundational and/or highly debated concept in feminist theory (e.g. “performativity,” “heterosexism,” “compulsory heterosexuality,” “essentialism”). The Signs editor and staff anticipate supplementing this keyword with an extensive bibliography that would appear on the website and with interactive and visual features such as linked lectures and videocasts, art images, film and TV clips, digital archives, and so on.
In keeping with the identities of the new Signs leadership, and the consistent mission of Signs to matter in the world, we will introduce a new feature, under the rubric of the “Feminist Public Intellectuals Project,” that engages feminist theorizing with the pressing political and social problems across the globe through a dialogue on some aspect of feminist public intellectual practice – from feminist blogging to op-ed writing to DIY videocasting to public speaking and so forth. Given the current fragmentation of feminist activism and the persistent negative freighting of the moniker “feminist,” we hope these dialogues will genuinely reimagine what role a journal can play in activating activism. We envision a multipronged tack that interlocks with our social media platforms and also brings into conversation feminist public intellectuals with academic experts.
This innovation moves beyond simply addressing (again) the vexing divides between feminist theory and practice. Rather, we seek to engage a feminist journal in the project of building a critical mass of public intellectuals who speak with a feminist voice. We have more feminist scholars than ever before – and more social media outposts that host feminist voices – but very few widely known feminist public intellectuals. The punditry is still largely a preserve of white masculinity. Signs, in partnership with the richness represented on the Web in blogs, tumblrs, Facebook, and other social media platforms, can be a space for enhancing public discourse from a multivocal feminist perspective. Given that young people – including young feminists – live in and through these spaces of social media, it behooves the journal to engage with this more actively and to advocate for feminist voices that do not, as with the current promotion of Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in,” fit corporate models or sudden national fads.
So, a widely ranging approach to the topic of, say, a highly publicized event of sexual violence could involve theoreticians of sexual violence and sexualized media, hacktivists involved in making perpetrators visible, and bloggers pressuring mainstream media venues. This will allow Signs to create an ongoing conversation between and among feminist scholars, media activists, and community leaders. We are committed, therefore, to enhancing the journal’s role as a transitive space, percolating in and between the space of intellectual production and activist engagement.
Finally, we aim to make some additions to the book review section of the journal. Reviewing feminist scholarship is a central responsibility and one to be taken seriously. Indeed, there are far too few spaces able to truly and appropriately review inter- and transdisciplinary scholarly feminist work. We intend to reframe the book review process to include other forms of media that circulate or produce knowledge, experience, or discourse, such as performances, films, and events. In addition, individual book reviews will alternate with longer and more detailed review essays of multiple books, and these review essays will be supplemented with Web-based resources, including ancillary bibliographies and enhanced abilities to review scholarly enterprises in media other than print.
Drawing on the rich resources of both Northeastern University and the Graduate Consortium in Women’s Studies (GCWS), we have assembled a stellar Board of Associate Editors, representing a wide range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary expertise. The GCWS, a collaboration among nine colleges and universities, is the only such feminist collaborative graduate teaching institution in the nation. Our Board of Associate Editors takes full advantage of the range and depth of Boston-area feminist scholars – drawing on Northeastern’s long tradition of feminist scholarship alongside that of the affiliate institutions of the Consortium.
I want to thank the previous editors who have placed the bar so refreshingly high and to thank my coconspirator, Carla Kaplan, for thinking this through with me from the very beginning. We have an enormously supportive team at Northeastern, including the wonderful executive committee and affiliated faculty of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program and our supremely competent Program Coordinator Kiki Samko. The Dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, Uta Poiger, a feminist historian, has championed this effort, and the administration of Northeastern University has been supportive and forthcoming with the necessary resources. And Mary Hawkesworth and her staff have not only led the journal with intellectual sophistication and grit but have made this transition as smooth and seamless as one can imagine. We can’t thank her enough for her leadership and support. We applaud the continued commitment of the University of Chicago Press and look forward to an exciting collaboration with feminist scholars from around the world.
I end with a personal note: In 1996, I was thrilled to have an article published in Signs. In a special issue on “Feminist Theory and Practice” I offered a provocation of sorts on the (then just emerging) debates between feminism, queer theory, lesbian identity, race, ethnicity, and other assorted contentious intersections. My experience with Signs was indicative, I think, of the seriousness of this journal. First, the editing was painstaking, personally agonizing, and absolutely brilliantly done. And, second, initial editorial resistance to my title – “From Here to Queer: Radical Feminism, Postmodernism, and the Lesbian Menace (Or, Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Fag?)” – gave way to an understanding of the reasons behind my rather unconventional choice and the somewhat atypical (given that this was an academic journal!) genre in which I was writing. I took much heat for this piece – and my guess is Signs did too – but they were willing to hear me out and to put a toe over the line of academic propriety. So here is to a future of continuing to edge out past barriers of discipline, of propriety, of genre, in the ongoing project of making feminism.