chapter  5
Mothers, bodies, and breasts: organizing strategies and tactics in women’s activism
Pages 24

There is an increasing trend in public relations scholarship to consider how activist groups use strategic communication to achieve their goals, and yet the discipline pays no attention to how activist communication is gendered. This chapter draws on the themes of voice, image, and identity to explore how the New Zealand group Mother’s Against Genetic Engineering (MAdGE) campaigned against the use of genetically engineered (GE) products in food and the environment. The chapter examines MAdGE’s use of motherhood, the female body, and nudity in their protest campaign, and how groups of New Zealanders responded to some of these tactics. The investigation highlights how women activists can creatively and symbolically attempt to influence social, political, and cultural meaning-making processes, and also the challenges they face in promoting new and unorthodox ways of thinking about social issues. Public relations is most commonly researched as an activity conducted by

commercial corporations and other forms of organizations such as not-forprofits, governments, political parties, and the education and health sectors. It is less commonly analysed and theorized as a practice of social movement and activist groups. According to Edwards, this reflects the ‘continued dominance of empirical work based on commercial or government organizations and the relative lack of attention paid to activist groups, community groups, and non-government organizations’ (2011: 30). Yet activist groups clearly do strategically manage communication in order to increase their public visibility and support, in fundraising, and in engaging with stakeholders (Bob 2005; Hansen 2000; Henderson 2005; Kavada 2005; Motion and Weaver 2005; Reber and Berger 2005). Recently there have been increased calls to examine how activists use

strategic communication and to explore how this can contribute to the body of public relations knowledge (Coombs and Holladay 2012a; Demetrious 2006; Derville 2005; Weaver 2010). Some of the attention given to activism in the public relations literature has focused on how corporate and commercial organizations should best respond to criticism and attack by activist groups (Grunig 1992; Smith and Ferguson 2001). Other researchers have argued that through the investigation of activist groups and their

communication practices, we can widen the ‘conceptualisation of public relations communication’ (Weaver 2010: 35) and diversify public relations theory to take on board notions of resistance and difference (Derville 2005; Dozier and Lauzen 2000). However, while the past decade has seen more attention given to activism and activist groups in public relations literature, there has been no specific exploration of women as activists and women activist groups within public relations research, or, indeed, how activism is gendered. This is despite women’s activism having a vast history of scholarly literature devoted to its analysis in disciplines such as women and gender studies, sociology, and cultural studies (e.g. Naples 1998; Ricciutelli, Miles and McFadden 2004; Miethe 2009). The importance of considering how activism and its communication are gendered is further underlined when we consider that ‘all struggles for social change, not just women’s movements, are highly gendered’ (Motta et al. 2011: 2) In this chapter I discuss how women’s activist groups have specifically

used their identity as mothers to communicate about social causes and how groups have deployed quite specific communication strategies which mark them out as maternal and, at times, unruly, as they challenge established ideologies, ethics, and patriarchal ways of governing the word. I also explore how groups have used the naked female body as a site through which to communicate their concerns. Such use of the female body and nudity raises interesting questions in terms of what this is designed to achieve. Is it a tactic that plays into the media’s thirst for spectacle and controversy, or does it work to communicate meaningful messages to audiences? In the second half of the chapter I focus on one New Zealand-based

activist group – Mothers Against Genetic Engineering – in an assessment of the communication strategies that this group used to mobilize the public, and particularly mothers, against the introduction of legislation to allow the commercialization of GE technologies in New Zealand. As well as exploring how the group used motherhood as a strategic focus for its campaign, I examine its use of a controversial billboard depicting a naked genetically engineered woman, its censorship by the New Zealand Advertising Standards Authority, and interpretative responses to this representation by selected groups of New Zealanders.