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Cyberfeminism: Networking on the Net
by Amy Richards and Marianne Schnall

Excerpted with permission from SISTERHOOD IS FOREVER: THE WOMEN'S ANTHOLOGY FOR A NEW MILLENNIUM, compiled, edited, and with an Introduction by Robin Morgan (Washington Square Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, March 2003).

Imagine in one room: a forty-year-old female truck driver struggling with childcare issues, a teenage boy worrying girls won't like him because he has acne, a bride deliberating how to address wedding invitations, an insurance broker in Canada concerned that obstetrical cases have a higher amount of claims than motor-vehicle accidents, and the director of a rape crisis center in South Africa. It's hard to imagine these people in one room--less because of diversity than simple logistics. Yet this room exists--though only virtually--and illustrates the potential cyberspace offers for mainstreaming feminist issues and linking them to solutions.

As we go on-line to check e-mail or surf favorite sites, it's easy to forget we're part of a social transformation affecting how we live our lives. But as we appreciate the Internet making our day-to-day existence easier--how we shop, communicate, search for information--we need to recognize and take advantage of its enormous potential to facilitate social change.

When Internet communications technologies were in their infancy, they were described as "new media," obscuring Internet capability for being more than just a new way to access news and events. The Internet does provide some media unique to it, but its real power lies in its ability to interconnect people and ideas, as its name implies. Misunderstanding it merely as "new media" means we've missed its capacity to be a dynamic source for networking and activism. It might be more appropriate to call it a new medium, a new means toward feminism's goals.

An initial feminist Internet aim was simply to get women on-line. In 1995, only 15 percent of Internet users were women, but by early 2000, women comprised 50 percent of users (a 32 percent increase since 1999). Yet patriarchy has never been absent. Men controlled the content, men earned the profit. Similarly, a gender gap emerged in how women and men accessed the Internet: men surfed, hopping from site to site; women went directly to certain sites or searched for information on specific topics. Making the Internet more women-friendly required easing the process of associating women with each other and the information they sought. Once "arrived," they'd connect with women's organizations, announcements, and resources, as well as with each other. Linking sites through hyperlinks (plus web rings, list serves, etc.) has become the ultimate in virtual sisterhood: we can steer one another to like-minded sites and organizations in order to better educate ourselves. The nature of the Internet makes being on-line a natural for women: expressing ourselves through words--as we do now in e-mail, list serves, or websites--is an extension of our own tendencies to communicate.

At first, there were relatively few women's sites on-line, the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the Feminist Majority Foundation among them. One of the first feminists to recognize the absence of feminism in cyberspace was Marianne Schnall (co-author of this article), who became fluent in cyberspace through her experience in 1994 co-founding EcoMall.com, a portal for environmental information and resources. Marianne realized feminism needed this same type of one-stop central location, registered the domain name "Feminist.com", and contacted friends and colleagues - in feminist activism, law, television, journalism, music, marketing and communications - to elicit their input about what Feminist.com should be. In time, Feminist.com would offer a free web presence to those women's organizations not yet on the web. Meanwhile, less politically progressive women's sites (Ivillage, Oxygen, Women.com) were only a glimmer in capitalists' eyes. In a few years, they went from raising millions of dollars--by imitating the content and advertising-based model already entrenched in conventional women's magazines--to verging on bankruptcy.

Soon after Feminist.com launched in 1995, it began receiving e-mail queries from visitors on a variety of topics. Amy Richards (co-author of this article), a feminist activist with contacts and resources, began answering the questions; questions and answers were then posted and formalized under the heading Ask Amy. These e-mails reveal who's going on-line and why. Many are from people looking for ways to become activists, so it's useful to offer suggestions based on each person's interest, location, age, and background. (The single most asked question at Feminist.com is: "What is feminism?") Some e-mails are from raped or abused women, so a sensitive response is necessary, with suggestions for books, organizations, and other resources of comfort and support. E-mails from women experiencing such workplace problems as pay inequity or job discrimination require advice on concrete actions they can take. Feminist.com also gets e-mails from men, asking how they can help support women's causes or comfort a family member or girlfriend who's a survivor of sexual violence, so the site now has a Pro-Feminist Men's Groups section. The Internet encourages reaching out in ways people might not traditionally be inclined to do: they can write in anonymously. Over time, Ask Amy has become an information exchange: visitors discover feminist resources, and Feminist.com learns from visitors what issues feminism should be highlighting.

In this process, we also learn who is going on-line and what she/he is hoping to gain there. From e-mails, as well as logs that record some of our visitors' vital statistics (such as country of origin), we know that Feminist.com's constituency is as diverse as the Women's Movement itself. Teenage girls visit from Pakistan, adult men write from Texas, women seek out resources to help themselves and others. They represent a range of ages, ethnicities, classes, abilities, sexual preferences, and cultures. Many are working-class people living in isolated places around the U.S. (and the world), seeking advice and support; for them, the Internet is a lifeline. Some go on-line from work, some from home, some from public venues like their local library. Because the Internet is a young medium, it's popular among younger people (although the fastest growing group of on-line users are now women over the age of 35 ). The majority of women who visit Feminist.com are 18-25. Feminist content arriving via e-mail gets a warmer welcome by them precisely because it's in a newer medium. Result: the Internet helps attract younger women to feminism.

The Internet's international scope means it can help women feel part of a global sisterhood. Approximately 20 percent of visitors and e-mails to Feminist.com are from outside the United States. This is a natural opportunity for activism: to learn about and act on issues affecting women around the world. International atrocities sometimes anger people more than what happens in their own backyards; these exchanges provide a means to alert them to both.

Subjects people address are indicative of issues feminism needs to address, issues sometimes outside the parameters of a focus as dictated by major foundations and advocacy organizations. For example, after numerous job-discrimination e-mails complaining that federal legislation doesn't apply to companies with less than 50 employees, it becomes clear that feminist institutions should create alternative watchdog groups. Previously, many of these people experienced their situation in isolation, not realizing how common discrimination is, or despairing of any recourse. Now, we can share--and shake up--things without leaving our desks. People searching for "custody" or "unequal pay" or even "female roadsters" can be virtually introduced to feminist resources without having realized that feminism is what they needed, after all. They get the chance to grasp their connection to feminism without first having to confront and overcome their biases against it. The process itself demystifies feminism. It puts the focus on the issue and the solution, not on semantics--which continue to deter too many people. Moreover, it's hard to tackle these issues piecemeal, but the safety in numbers--provided by feminism and realized through the Internet--means that people are able to challenge obstacles previously perceived as insurmountable.

Not only does the Internet offer space to voice concerns and share injustices, like consciousness raising (C-R) groups did for feminists in the 1960s and 1970s, but--also like C-R groups--it helps people devise solutions. When a woman writes to Feminist.com, furious that her health-insurance company covers Viagra, but not Clomid, she can immediately be referred to Planned Parenthood Federation of America and their prescription-drug-coverage campaign. Such networking existed pre-Internet, but was more difficult to find, and too few people knew how to make such connections.

Similarly, rather than reading in a newspaper about legislation that passed yesterday, we can be notified about upcoming legislation through action alerts on websites or e-mail lists. We can take instant, effective action: signing on-line petitions, or calling or e-mailing legislative representatives. The Internet makes it easy to become informed, active, heard, to feel part of the political process rather than passive victims of it. (But--at this writing--politicians haven't yet caught up with on-line activists, so we should remember that while e-mail petitions have impact, politicians don't value them as much as handwritten letters. Just as the political world had to evolve from mail to fax, it will eventually recognize that e-mails must be given serious consideration.)

Such changes will be--already are--of major impact. While formerly women and girls were steered away from computer technology, the Internet encourages us to overcome techno-fears. Today, girls and boys are introduced to computers at age two, through educational CD-ROMS. Anita Borg created the Institute for Women In Technology to network these new generations of computer-friendly women. Women involved in the founding of Cisco systems, like Sandy Lerner and Cate Muther, have created other feminist networks for women in technology. In 1995, when Feminist.com was developed, there were no web-design tools like those available today; women had to learn html programming. Fortunately, the technology has evolved and now offers tools for designing websites, so thousands of sites are being created by women, allowing us to express ourselves in a whole new interactive manner. Aliza Sherman of Cybergrrl was one of the first feminist "geeks" to link feminism and the Internet; her work and that of others was captured in the anthology Surfer Grrrls: Look Ethel! An Internet Guide for Us! (see Suggested Further Reading, below), thus proving that women and technology are compatible.

The Internet plays a major role in still another feminist trend--as a means for many women to work from home and not be forced to choose between employment and raising their children. More and more employers allow women (and men) to work from home either on a part-time or full-time basis--and that's not even counting all the mother-owned, home-based businesses now on-line. In fact, the majority of women-owned businesses in Feminist.com's Women Owned Business Directory are sites run from homes by women who have babies or small children. These entrepreneurs usually sell products with which they have first-hand experience (explaining why so many women-owned companies sell products for babies and children). Interestingly, when women have the opportunity, they often develop companies more in tune with their own values, like working with other women-owned companies or offering "natural" products (nearly half of the earth-friendly companies listed the EcoMall are women-owned).

With more businesses allowing employees to work from home, more fathers can share parenting and household responsibilities. Such steps bring us closer to the goal of equality.

The Internet certainly isn't immune to sexism--and hatred of women and feminism has definitely replicated itself in cyberspace--a raw hatred, with little self-censoring. Moreover, in addition to furthering feminism, the Internet advances the causes of anti-woman, pornographic, and ultra-conservative, Right-wing groups. There are many degrading, hateful sites which, protected by the First Amendment, have no restraints to prevent them from expressing violent misogyny in deeply disturbing ways.

Still, there are recourses. For example, Feminist.com received an outraged e-mail about a site promoting date rape--with content ranging from posting glorified date- rape stories to recipes for drugging a woman's drink: a date-rape how-to primer. That week, Marianne was interviewed by Wired On-line and mentioned this site, so the story spread rapidly through on- and off-line news media. Unfortunately, one repercussion of the publicity was that traffic to the date-rape site skyrocketed. When Feminist.com took action, tracing the domain name to some college students in Florida and contacting the local police department, we discovered there was nothing anyone could do until a crime was committed. Then, Washington Feminist Faxnet (a widely circulated activist newsletter) joined Feminist.com in urging people to e-mail and phone protests to the site's Internet provider; this resulted in driving the site from provider to provider until it had to be hosted outside the U.S., and eventually disappeared. An old lesson from this story: one person's action (the original complaint to Feminist.com) can have a ripple effect. A new lesson: the effect is magnified in cyberspace.

The technology revolution is only beginning. We approach a wireless future, where all our technologies--Internet, television, telecommunications--will merge. As these technologies become more commonplace, we'll see a decrease in their cost, meaning that computers and the benefits the Internet brings will become more accessible to poor people (the majority of whom are women) --and will also spotlight the profiles and contributions of women as well as of racial and ethnic minorities. As we enter chatrooms or e-mail each other, we often don't know the gender, age, or race of those with whom we interact, communicating free from the judgments and stereotypes labels bring. Such revolutionary concepts are central to fighting sexism and other oppressions. Our human species is being prodded by the Internet to travel an evolutionary road toward becoming more unified, enlightened, and democratic. In cyberspace, we can learn from each other's experiences, alleviate suffering, banish injustices, and discover how to love and support one another. Those are virtual reality skills we need to bring into full reality.

Amy Richards is a co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation, the only national activist organization for women between the ages of 16 and 30. She is also the voice behind "Ask Amy," and coauthor of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism & the Future (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000). She was named one of "21 Young Leaders for the 21st Century" by Ms. Magazine.

Marianne Schnall is co-founder and president of the women's website Feminist.com, responsible for managing the editorial content as well as all aspects of programming and site maintenance. She's also co-founder and vice president of Ecology America Inc., parent company of EcoMall.com, an environmental portal on the Internet. A graduate of Cornell University, she was previously a contributing writer to In Style Magazine and a reporter for Us: The Entertainment Magazine.

Suggested Further Reading:
Gilbert, Laurel and Crystal Kile, eds. Surfer Grrrls: Look Ethel! An Internet Guide for Us! Seattle, Washington: Seal Press, 1996.

McCorduck, Pamela, and Nancy Ramsey. The Futures of Women: Scenarios for the 21st Century. New York: Warner Books (reprint edition), 1997.

Sherman, Aliza. Cybergrrl! A Woman's Guide to the World Wide Web. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.

Schiebinger, Londa. Has Feminism Changed Science? Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Stanley, Autumn. Mothers and Daughters of Invention: Notes for a Revised History of Technology. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Excerpted with permission from SISTERHOOD IS FOREVER: THE WOMEN'S ANTHOLOGY FOR A NEW MILLENNIUM, compiled, edited, and with an Introduction by Robin Morgan (Washington Square Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, March 2003).

Copyright © 2003 by Robin Morgan


* Interview with Robin Morgan (By Ms. Magazine)

* Interview with Marianne Schnall (By Ms. Magazine)


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