What does feminism look like on the web?

What does it look like to be a feminist online?

I’ve always thought of the internet as a kitchen where every web page, every email, every embed is a menu of creative delicacies feeding the soul of our culture. Every image, every word, every interaction carries meaning for the post or page where it is found. Collectively, all those billions of moments are not just being archived for as long as the blog or website is in place. Together, they are transforming our consciousness — the way we talk, the way we speak and, more importantly, the way we think of each other.

When I started blogging in 2001, there were fewer than two-million blogs worldwide. Blogger was the biggest blogging platform and yet a work-in-progress for the little company that created it, Pyra. MovableType, Typepad‘s older sister, was still in beta. WordPress didn’t exist and neither did Flickr, YouTube, MySpace or Facebook. Google was only 3 years old. Wikis were just going into the early adopter mainstream — Wikipedia had just been launched in January of that year.

It was an exciting time to set foot on the web and publish online from a technological point of view. Historically speaking, it was a tumultuous time as well.

I started blogging in December of 2001, months after the destruction of the World Trade Center. As any other New Yorker, I was still shell-shocked, yet had no time to dwell with a baby and a toddler to take care of. Yet it was the smell of the still-burning debris, magnified by the prospect of our country not just going to war but trampling our constitution in the process, that pushed me out of a writer’s block I had been carrying for years and dropped me smack in the middle of the first wave of bloggers.

I did it in search of kindred spirits, in search of other women and men who shared my hopes, my fears and my sense of outrage. And I make the distinction of putting "women" first because back in the day it was rare to find women with their own online domains.

Most bloggers were men involved in the technology or entrepreneurial development of web-based businesses. The women were scarce, but boy were they fierce: Meg Hourihan (co-creator of Blogger and co-founder of Pyra), Mena Trott (co-creator of MovableType and co-founder of SixApart), Molly Holzschag (web standards activist and web developer extraordinaire), Halley Suitt (indy tech writer at the time and publisher of Halley’s Comment), Elizabeth Lane Lawley (Rochester Institute of Technology professor and publisher of mamamusings) and the always breathtaking and awe-inspiring Shelley Powers.

The importance of these women as feminist voices at a time when the only feminism was "visible" through the institutional websites of organizations like NOW or Planned Parenthood cannot be overstated. They were writing about business and technology at a time when women were hard to find outside of the web in any CEO or CFO positions in the tech or business "analog" world. Yet they were also writing about their lives, their hopes, their dreams, their desires and the vicissitudes they had to contend with as a minority in the world of technology business. And then there was motherhood — Liz Lawley may well be the first "mommyblogger" way before Heather Armstrong shot to infamy with her blog Dooce

Most importantly, they were writing about equality or the lack thereof in the real of business, technology and of course, the web. They were asking "where are the women" consistently, to the point of being called "bitter," but never giving up because they were contending with the assumption that women weren’t good enough to be considered "important" on the web. So much so that by 2003 a group of these women created misbehave.net, one of the first group blogs out there for women, by women, advocating equality in the world of tech. They called the blog so because "the women I know in the technology field have felt that to get where they are they’ve had to break rules, to behave in ways that the men–and women–around them deemed inappropriate."

In 2001 it was totally inappropriate to be a tech or web evangelist and publish about your breastfeeding issues or about the joys of knitting. It wasn’t that men didn’t digress from their blogging business duties into the realm of the personal. It was that it didn’t fit the mold of what they expected of women. Shelley Powers took way too many drubbings by male bloggers and techpreneurs for continually asking of technology conferences "where are the women bloggers/presenters/experts" and by continually exposing how blogging relationships among the men of tech excluded women and ultimately affected the flow of money and power to the non-male kind in that realm of the blogosphere.

Without these women and many more, we wouldn’t have the blogosphere as we have it today. I at least would certainly not be here either.

I was ready to quit sometime in the begginning of 2004. I was actually a homeschooling mom when I started blogging. I would rarely do tech consulting, choosing to focus on either helping produce my husband‘s net art or advocating for the digital civil rights that had been stripped away with the passing of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998. I felt overwhelmed by the amount of energy I was pouring into my blogging and underwhelmed by the response at the time. Then two things happened.

First, I met about a dozen bloggers of color in a New York City panel on blogging after having followed people like Anil Dash and the late Aaron Hawkins and Steve Gilliard for a while. It was a wonderful surprise to meet women like Lynn D. Johnson and Nichelle Stephens at that event. Second, I had a journalism student interview me at the time who asked me the following question: "I have read your bio page and was taken by your saying you are Puerto Rican, an atheist and a feminist. Aren’t you concerned about the possible backlash given how in Hispanic culture religion is so important and feminism has a bad name?"

I was so taken aback by that question and the implication that I shouldn’t exist because I didn’t conform to a way of being "Latina," that it’s the reason why I am still here today. I am here calling myself adjectives I shouldn’t use, like "Feminist" or even "technologist," because as one of the handful of high-profile women of color at the time I didn’t just think it was my duty to stand strong. I just really enjoy the opportunity to piss-off the "patriarcado" and patriarchy all at the same time with my just being here, standing as an example and maybe inspiration for other feministas of color.

And it’s why today I am working with the amazing group of women and organizations that are organizing Feminism2.0.

It is time we celebrate how women online have availed themselves of the technologies of the internet to fight for equality and women’s rights. It is time we celebrate the women who blazed the way with their contributions to the software and blogging companies they developed. It is time we recognized the women who fight the good fight with their advocacy of open standards, their defense of digital civil rights, with their tireless questioning of the structures of inequality being created through technological and social web practices (or lack thereof) and for not caring what people would say by their loud and clear "where are the women?" calls to action. And it is certainly time to get all these women and more together and have them celebrate with those who blazed the trail for women rights and equality way before the web was invented.

Feminism2.0 will be the "meta" of more than 10 years of conversations women have been having online after everybody keeps pretending we don’t exist by asking "where are the women bloggers?" It will be a celebration of those who came before the web and those who not just came after it but even built it themselves. To not just celebrate where we have been, but to look ahead and see where we are going together and finally as a digital movement.

 

 

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  • Gloria Pan

    Though people have been blogging for about ten years, blogging became an established part of media only over the last five years or so, and the phenomenon of women’s voices really noticed over the last year. Of course, it’s not just about blogging, but myriad other online channels, and not just about women expressing themselves, but the opportunity to just participate in the wider world beyond our front doors through the simple act of even just sending an email or commenting on an online article. This is a really terrific and valuable overview of the digital road feminism has traveled, providing hope, inspiration and excitement for the great possibilities to come. Thanks, Liza.

  • Katie

    The digital movement is being championed, of course, and in many ways unconsciously, by millennials and the younger generation… the under-25 crowd, if you will :). They are coming at the Internet and the digital age in an unconscious way, an approach that has integrated their personal beliefs, thoughts, creativity and their lives with a multi-faceted and unlimited platform of expression. Now young women (and men, but, according to some studies, the majority are women) have found a way to express formerly hidden or quieted parts of themselves online, and it’s changing the way we communicate and relate to each other, and quite possibly the ways that men and women view each other.

    This kind of interaction is almost required for people my age and, increasingly, everyone to connect with peer groups, start dialogue between people and groups, become active on campuses, in schools and through grassroots networking, and keep up with a vast network of acquaintances and friends. I, for one, used my first computer when I was 3. I made my first email address when I was 11 (and still use it to this day). I wrote my first blog post when I was 13, and I probably used my first HTML codes at around the same time. I’d rather Facebook you than call you; I get my Twitter messages faster than I get my emails; I check the website before I crack open the phone book; I’ll take a screenshot of CNN and sell it in 20 years instead of buying the newspaper on Election Day. It feels completely natural and just a common part of life… but where is it going? How will this evolve, and how can women, especially young women, learn to harness this accessibility and power and amplify their voice?

    The internet is not the great equalizer, because those who truly understand it — how computers work, now networks work, how data is transferred and even stolen — hold the advantage. I want to use these skills (not even skills, these instincts) for the next level of action, and that requires educating myself and others on what, exactly, can be done. Women use the internet to explore who we are; now we need to use it to find out who we can be.

  • When we first founded Feminist.com all the way back in 1995, the media was reporting that only 15% of Internet users were women, and very few women’s organizations had web sites. That is why one of Feminist.com’s first purposes was to offer women’s organizations their first web presence by giving them space at Feminist.com – something we did for groups such as the Ms. Foundation for Women, Equality Now, Girls Inc., V-Day and many others. All these years later, it is very exciting and so heartening to see the absolute explosion – not just of all the women’s organizations that now have very comprehensive web sites – but of all the women-oriented sites, communities and bloggers whose perspectives have found powerful expression on the web. We are beginning to see an increasingly robust, diverse representation of women’s voices (often lacking in traditional media), and also a sense of the many different ways feminism manifests itself in our lives and in our world.

    Feminist.com, much like Feminism 2.0, was inspired by the possibilities of the Internet to educate, empower, foster activism, and build a sense of community. Having witnessed the tremendous growth of women’s online influence over the past 14 years, I have no doubt that this trend will continue. What does feminism look like on the web? It looks like all of us, through sites like these, learning from each other, and working in partnership towards our common goals. Feminist.com is proud to be a part of Feminism 2.0!

  • I think women are running the table on the web. Most of our top bloggers are women. Mommy bloggers might get more ad revenue than any other category of web presence. We may HEAR more about men on the web, but, as usual, it’s the women who are really kicking a** and taking names.

  • Wow! It’s very exciting to feel the energy here! I may be older than most of you–I’m 54, and because I’m in chronic pain/fatigue, I say that the internet has made me possible. I’ve spent the last 9 months working to get Obama elected, but also sharpened some of my feminist chops while inside of that wild, open community. Well, kind of open…I’m still explaining to men and women how WOMAN is universal, how patriarchy is still invisible to most (and no, I don’t live in Saudi Arabia, as I was once asked when I brought this up at, no kidding, a 4th of July party!). I think it’s fair to say that my thinking is truly radical; read A Powered Woman (link on blog) and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

    The underground roar of women’s voices on the internet might be comparable to the underground abortion network of the 1960’s, known as Jane. I wasn’t old enough to be involved, but I read about it and if you haven’t read about it, it will blow your mind. Here’s my point: we (feminists, women, girls) are very connected in many ways, but some important people are currently left out of the picture and our visibility is still marginalized. I want to change this. I’m on this, but I don’t travel well, and will not make it to the conference in D.C. in all likelihood. I would love to participate in some online way, if possible, and I have a few ideas about that…yours in solidarity.

  • At Shaping Youth, (media and marketing’s impact on kids) we’ve been covering “All Things Girl” for the last two weeks, (wraps Friday) so I was thrilled to have Gloria Pan ping me with the news of this upcoming conference, to change the shape of the conversation and hopefully, include more GIRLS in the mix as well.

    Reason being, from the Anita Borg Institute research and beyond (http://tinyurl.com/6qq3vh ) we’re seeing a dearth of young girls entering technology fields and the hypersexualization at ever-increasing young ages (the ‘thongs for tweens syndrome’) creating a generation of girls that are going BACKWARDS rather than forwards in their self-image and self-worth. (see the APA study on the harm of early sexualization cues and our commentary on the boy toy bit here:
    http://www.shapingyouth.org/blog/?p=309

    As I wrote in this piece “Does the F word need rebranding? Ask Teens”

    http://www.shapingyouth.org/blog/?p=1289

    …I think we truly need to redefine, recast, and reclaim the ‘feminism’ phraseology and ideology in order not to miss the boat with young girls and our future leaders of women on the web. I REALLY hope I can make it to D.C. and be a part of this vital conversation! Thanks for opening up the dialog.

    http://www.ShapingYouth.org

  • Pingback: Shaping Youth » Fem 2.0: Feminine Feminism & The Mother of All Conversations()

  • hi Amy–I agree 100% about redefining feminism…there are so many women we need to align with, and listen to, and discover where we are on the same page and where we need to work…I’m working on this via Feminist Advisory Board for Obama (on Facebook and blogger), an event I’m calling ROADTRIP, which will be a series of interviews with women about “how they got feminist” and also in conversation with other feminists about how we can help one another.

    Specifically, I am right now developing a workshop that might be useful at the conference being put on in April by EngageHer (Mable Yee is leading this org). My aim is to address the splits not only in the feminist community, but the ways in which feminism has left out or pushed out women who are our sisters! I want to get past the “talking at” model and do more of a group process, and to do this I will draw on my background in feminist psychotherapy.

    One more issue, however: I’d like to challenge the assumption that the ultimate educational/organizing tool is a face-to-face conference. This leaves a lot of women out! Including me! I have chronic pain/fatigue and cannot conference-hop. Neither can women who have kids/jobs/very tight budgets…and these are the very women I want to bring inside the tent. So, can we talk here? I’d like to see feminist orgz get their act into web-conference mode, or blog talk radio, or other online platform that allows for non-local participation. Blogging is great, but it reaches a particular population of women who already have the confidence to write. IMO, we need to make many access points for women & girls who have not yet found their voices. In the meantime, I’m happy to know about you and your work, and I will check it out, pronto.

    Pls feel free to write to me: madama ambi at g mail dot com

  • I am very excited about what women are doing online. Everyone’s comments above affirm my decision to attend Fem 2.0 in February.

  • I stumbled upon this site tonight and have been sharing it with all of my activist friends in the last few hours. I am on board with so many of the thoughts here–Liza’s post and the comments have me so hopeful to make it in February. MadamaAmbi is right, there are so many that would like to come but will not be able to. I hope to hear more about how these amazing people will be able to join in the conference from afar.