From Silence to Impact: Women Rhetors and Activist Discourse in Networked Spaces

My dissertation examines case studies of three hashtag movements focused on women writing about lived experiences online. I approach the hashtag movements of #YesAllWomen, #SayHerName, and #FemFuture using the rhetorical terms kairos (an opportune moment) and muthos (narrative storytelling) as tied to users’ approach to social media technologies. Though rhetorical scholarship has explored people’s writing habits in the workplace and the academy using myriad technologies (i.e. Blair, Takayoski), less attention has been paid to everyday people using technologies to write, share, and organize toward public action. Hashtags are just one aspect of an array technologies used for such purposes and I argue they are influential rhetorical devices that sustain social movements and influence public discourse.

Two tweets representing the vast #YesAllWomen hashtag movement.

A central attribute to these social media movements was the practice of tagging (or using hashtags) to spread news and information, a practice The practice of tagging is not bound to the digital realm—hashtags often bleed into spoken discourse, appearing on news programs, talk shows, apparel, accessories, windows, and more. Working from a perspective of hashtag movements as a viral meme event, I synthesize users’ writing to argue that this tagged discourse in networked spaces can “mobilize new modes of feminist critique and collectivity” toward lived experiences of individuals, essentially providing a megaphone effect that users share repeatedly in the cyclical arena of online discourse (Thrift 2014).  The context surrounding each hashtag movement offers a unique kairotic look into how women write in networked spaces both in response to cultural events and as a means to share stories and information.


My dissertation demonstrates that hashtags are central to activist literacy, specifically how women read and write online when participating in social movements related to their lived experiences. Through the three case studies listed above, I analyze how feminist rhetorical practices such as muthos and call-out culture contribute to a notion of community and narrative traditions in networked spaces. I chose these movements because of their wide usage, mainstream media coverage, and shared theme of capturing women’s experiences in regards to race, class, and gender. I am studying online feminist activism because I want to find out whether users’ critique of structures of power online impacts social change and public narrative, in order to understand how networked discourse affects the material lives of everyday people. Graphic of a hashtagThe aim of online activist discourse is not inherently feminist, but the three case studies I examine have intersectional feminist goals and employ feminist rhetorical practices: raising awareness of women’s experiences with misogyny (#YesAllWomen), subverting erasure of Black women’s confrontations of state-based violence (#SayHerName), and re-branding perceptions of feminism to become more inclusive, while grappling with white, majority feminist ideals (#FemFuture).


At the time of this writing, many of the platforms I analyze through the three case studies are on the brink of their 10-year anniversary: Twitter emerged in 2006 and Facebook, launched in 2004 as a university student network, became available to everyone with an email address (age 13 and over) in 2006.  With the broadcasting power of cross-platform discourse between these two entities and the potentials of viral movements into other networked spaces, activist movements garnered attention and seeped into media cycles, propelling citizen-generated information into public focus. People use social media as a technology for shaping the world around them and my dissertation studies how women in particular use social media technologies and activist hashtags to raise awareness about their lived experiences.

Chapter 1

In Chapter 1, I contextualize online social movements and their impact on the public sphere while defining my treatment and focus of the terms activist literacy, activist discourse, and feminist social movements.

A collection of feminist activist buttons from the second and third wave movements. I examine how previous tactics of feminist activism are reflected in networked spaces.

Some feminist activist buttons from the second and third wave movements. I examine how previous tactics of feminist activism are reflected in networked spaces.

I work from Symon Hill’s analysis of activism in the Internet age in addition to new media scholarship on virality and circulation (Gries, Brooke). Additionally, I contend with these new media theories to investigate the holistic lifespan of a hashtag and the transient nature of social media posts, archives, and barriers of user access. This this chapter details my research questions, which posit: What types of activist literacies are emerging in response to online and public attempts of erasure, violence, and exclusion?

To what extent are these emerging activist communities successful or sustainable for ensuring an equal discourse? What are the side effects of activist communities and how do users and the media respond? 3. How does social media activism affect the lived experiences of every day people?

Chapter 2

Chapter 2 outlines my methodological approach, centering upon a feminist content analysis of social media discourse to investigate the historical emergence of these hashtag movements and a sociological perspective of networked social movements (Castells 2015). I use the results of my content analysis to focus on larger rhetorical trends apparent in these hashtag case studies, inspired by Castells’ traits of networked social movements. I map such traits to rhetorical tactics reflected in activist discourse, including kairos, performative utterances, and storytelling (muthos) as coalition building. Themes across each case study that became pertinent in my content analyses included grouping hashtag discourse under these categories: narrative, responsive discourse, political, feminist, and racial experiences as articulated in each hashtag. These categories allow the hashtag movements to be grouped by common threads of activist public discourse, showing relationships among how user-writers express their lived experience and communal goals.

Chapters 3-5: Case Studies

Postcard image, text reads: "You can't fight new problems with old tools. Join the movement: #femfuture". courtesy of the #FemFuture report, Valenti & Martin, 2014.

Postcard image courtesy of the #FemFuture report, Valenti & Martin, 2014.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 present the case studies of #YesAllWomen, #SayHerName, and #FemFuture, offering a historical analysis of the emergence of each hashtag as related to a cultural event central to its appearance in cross-platforms spaces online. For instance, the #YesAllWomen movement began in the aftermath of the University of California, Santa Barbara campus shootings that targeted college women, sparking women around the world to share their experiences with gender-based violence and misogyny. #SayHerName emerged as a response to state-based violence against people of color, akin to #BlackLivesMatter, specifically aimed at raising awareness for the deaths and mistreatment of cis and transgender women of color. Finally, the #FemFuture case study analyzed in Chapter 5, explores the institutional motivations for the Barnard Center for Research on Women’s report promoting the #FemFuture initiative and complications of a hegemonic feminist organization seeking to engage a new generation of feminists.


Chapter 6

Chapter 6 synthesizes the rhetorical forces made apparent in each case study and considers the rhetorical impact of these hashtag movements for additional research in rhetoric and networked social movements. These impacts include the shaping of cultural narratives around women’s lived experiences, a reexamination of technology use in social movements, and a look ahead to how activist influences the field of rhetorical studies, specifically technological literacies. As rhetorical scholars, we must pay attention to the manner in which users write about their lived experiences, using networked tools and communities to influence cultural narratives and social movements.