This article is a preview from the Spring 2018 edition of New Humanist

Xenofeminism (Polity) by Helen Hester

Among the political frustrations of the 1990s was the retreat of feminist ideas of liberation and resistance into accommodation with the status quo. The trend was to venerate individualism and empowerment through choice and consumerism (“because you’re worth it”), oblivious to the socioeconomic inequality that left vast numbers of women unable to meaningfully choose or consume.

This was never the only option available. As internet access increased, “cyberfeminist” networks began to explore the radical and subversive possibilities of digital communication and online space. Sadie Plant’s Zeros and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture (1997) is a still exhilarating read on the historical intertwining of women and technology, from Ada Lovelace to the Bletchley Park codebreakers, and its potential for future liberation. Twenty years on, with much of this potential unfulfilled, the links between technology and gender politics are reassessed in Helen Hester’s Xenofeminism.

Hester is a member of the collective Laboria Cuboniks, who in 2015 produced the online manifesto “Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation”, on which the book builds. Why xeno? The prefix conjures – and reclaims – ideas of the alien, foreign and culturally “unnatural”. Rejecting the claim that science and technology are inherently masculine or patriarchal, Xenofeminism looks at attempts by second-wave feminists like Shulamith Firestone to repurpose technology in order to grant women greater free time and control of their own bodies. Hester advocates the further reengineering and redeploying of existing technologies to regulate menstruation or manufacture hormones, widening ownership of medical and pharmaceutical expertise to individuals rather than the state or corporations.

Xenofeminism stresses that the forces of technology – like any given individual – do not operate in omnipotent isolation but within a complex web of power dynamics. Liberation through technology will therefore work in tandem with changes in political, social and interpersonal relations. The spheres of family and reproductive justice – often dismissed or ignored in politics – are emphasised as sites of potential emancipation, offering opportunities to develop alternative methods of reproduction and collaborative strategies of care and childrearing.

Hester recognises that, as greater connectivity and technological advances have broken down barriers and networked the world, so exploitation exists – and must be resisted – on a global rather than local scale. The ways forward that she tentatively identifies are conscious of gender’s intersections with race and class, for instance around access to health services and the racially inflected history of medical intervention and experimentation. Xenofeminism’s “gender-abolitionist” feminism goes beyond a call for parity between binary genders and anticipates a future in which differences proliferate infinitely, rendering gender decreasingly relevant as an axis of oppression – about as significant as the colour of one’s eyes.

There is a lot to appreciate in Xenofeminism. Its arguments are generous and curious, and its abundant ideas concisely packaged. Its final section identifies areas in which the book’s occasionally dizzying visions are being translated into contemporary practice, such as the development of open-source tools for medical self-diagnosis. This goes some way towards addressing the obvious question of whether “xenofeminism” can present itself as practically applicable on a scale that matches its ambition. By challenging its own conclusions, the book strengthens its case for deeper exploration of the issues it presents.