Breastfeeding, Authority, and Genre: Women's Ethos in Wikipedia and Blogs

Breastfeeding, Authority, and Genre: Women's Ethos in Wikipedia and Blogs

Alison A. Lukowski (Christian Brothers University, USA) and Erika M. Sparby (Northern Illinois University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2351-3.ch018
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This chapter is concerned with women's mis- or underrepresentation in knowledge creation, particularly when it comes to their bodies. In this chapter, the authors examine how Wikipedia's generic regulations determine that women's often experiential ethos is unwelcome on the site. Thus, women are often unable to construct knowledge on the “Breastfeeding” entry; their epistemological methods are ignored or banned by other contributors. This chapter also examines six breastfeeding-focused mommyblogs, proposing blogs as an alternative genre that welcomes women's ethos. However, the authors also recognize that such blogs are not a perfect epistemological paradigm. The chapter closes with an examination of the implications of this work for academic collaboration across fields and for women's agency.
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Women often struggle to find a place online to express themselves and to create credible knowledge. Whether women write about issues as mundane as wedding dresses or as important as health issues, they are often harassed and silenced by a variety of strategies as overt as trolling and as opaque as editing. Previous research about breastfeeding rhetoric (Koerber, 2013; Koerber et al, 2012; Koerber, 2006) demonstrated that breastfeeding is situated in disciplinary and discursive contexts that control women’s bodies, such as science, medicine, and education. One way discursive power manifests online is through controlling sources of knowledge. This chapter offers case studies of the Wikipedia “Breastfeeding” entry and six blogs written by nursing mothers, mommyblogs, to show how feminist standpoint theory (Haraway, 1988) and apparent feminism (Frost, 2015) reveal that some spaces use a guise of balance, impartiality, and free speech to hinder women’s processes of knowledge creation, while other spaces welcome experiential ethos. This study of knowledge production and ethos, which is grounded in the authority and credibility to create and evaluate that knowledge, reveals a reciprocal relationship between the knower and the known. The authors find that women prefer alternative ethea and are excluded because of cultural norms and hierarchies rather than truth or reality. Based on feminist standpoint theory and apparent feminism, this article rhetorically analyzes Wikipedia’s “Breastfeeding” entry and its Talk page and six mommyblogs.

Collaborative writing has the potential to provide multiple viewpoints, but Wikipedia contributors—nearly 90% of whom are male (Simonite, 2013)—dismiss the credibility of women, even on issues of women’s health. This work suggests that the design of Wikipedia’s site and the culture it supports enforce a “neutral point of view” (NPOV) that excludes women’s experiences because they are underrepresented in normative discourses of medicine, science, and philosophy. Wikipedia’s generic conventions necessitate that contributors engage in debates about epistemology, truth, verifiability, and validity (McIntyre, 2010; Kennedy, 2009; Garfinkel, 2008). These conventions lead editors to question, challenge, or dismiss women’s ethos when discussing an epistemology of their own bodies, thus silencing many female contributors. As a result of this persistent exclusion, women often avoid collaboratively curated sites like Wikipedia altogether (Hargittai & Shaw, 2015; Eckert & Steiner, 2013; Reagle & Rhue, 2011; Reagle, 2009). The consequences of these rhetorical moves have implications beyond digital spaces and contribute to society’s persistent negative view of breastfeeding as something that must always happen in the margins.

In contrast, blogs provide a refreshing look at breastfeeding and women’s digital ethos, giving women a forum in which to speak. However, the personal and individual nature of blogs prevents women from contributing to official narratives about their own bodies on a more public level: while their knowledge is marginalized, they continue to be ostracized for and banned from public breastfeeding despite the efforts blogs make to reverse such restrictions. The authors selected six mommyblogs—The Breastfeeding Mother (TBM), Chronicles of a Nursing Mom (CoaNM),, Unlatched, Dispelling Breastfeeding Myths (DPM), and Breast for the Weary (BftW)—because they appeared in a list of top breastfeeding blogs and/or were top results in a Summer 2015 Google search for the keywords “breastfeeding” and “blog.” The bloggers at TBM, Unlatched, and BftW no longer update their pages, but the information they provide therein remains relevant and sought after; CoaNM,, and DPM continue to post updates. A brief note on data presentation is in order here because the authors will reference multiple posts from each blog, the date of the post will appear next to its quote or summary, but no direct links will appear in the text or references.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Kairos/Kairotic: The ancient Greek rhetorical concept that describes a timely response or rhetorical opportunity in a rhetorical situation that is both realist and constructivist.

Collaborative Writing: A process of writing in which multiple authors, editors, and/or collaborators draft and revise a text.

Apparent Feminism: A methodology designed by Frost (2013 , 2014a , 2014b , 2015 ) whose goal is to make apparent instances of gendered marginalization.

Agency: The power a person has to act in a given situation.

Lactivism: A movement fueled by the belief that mothers should breastfeed their children. Many lactivists also believe mothers should be allowed to breastfeed in public.

Mommyblog: A genre of blog whose themes and topics pertain almost exclusively to motherhood.

Feminist Standpoint Theory: A method of knowledge creation first defined by Harding (1993 , 2003 ) that presupposes complete objectivity can never be reached because all knowledge is culturally situated. Instead, researchers can achieve “strong objectivity” that acknowledges and includes many perspectives.

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