NOW and Then: Feminist Political Activism Online

The way the feminist movement makes change happen — the way we communicate, reach out, and engage people — is not the same as it was two decades ago. Of course every effective movement changes with the times.  But when I looked back at the last couple of decades, remembering just how much NOW‘s work has changed surprised me! 

Let us begin by going back a little over 20 years to 1987. Personal computers were beginning to invade our homes (remember the Apple 2e and the TRS 80?), and the Internet was still very much in its infancy. It was also the close of the Reagan era and just on the cusp of a new election season. At that year’s National NOW Conference, the organization introduced a tool called we coined "NOWNet," a bulletin board service hosted within the Electronic Village of the Public Interest Communications Cooperative. It was a step onto the information superhighway.

A year later, in 1988, NOW was in a frenzy using its ground game to help get out the feminist vote. Through dedicated field organizing — long nights phone banking and good old fashioned door to door canvassing — we worked to advance the feminist agenda and get women elected to office. At the time, the Internet and our advocacy work were not integrally connected. Our NOWNet was ahead of its time, but it was primarily a means of communication between chapters, and not an organizing tool.

Moving forward to the 1996 election, NOW still had phone banks and canvassing, but now we also had the Internet. We had been the first major women’s organization to launch a national website — it was February 15, 1995 — and we worked hard to make it a tool that could mobilize women voters in the next year’s election. 1996 was the first election year we incorporated the Internet into NOW’s voter outreach and education efforts. The website was our threshold into a new realm of advocacy, because by using it we could broadcast our message to the world in just a few minutes. Although it’s sometimes hard to appreciate from where we stand now, the Internet has opened up organizing opportunities and options that we had only dreamed about a decade earlier.

With this power in our pocket, we really wanted to give voters something to keep them informed about the congressional candidates’ positions on feminist issues. We decided to create an issue-based survey and faxed them to the congressional candidates. There was a lot of time spent on follow up — calling candidates to remind (aka pressure) them to turn in the surveys — but we finally got them all. After compiling all the data, we put the information online by district, comparing each feminist candidate with their opponent side by side on the issues. It was a lot of work, but it really gave us a chance to use the Internet for election awareness.

The next logical step was to provide online tools for action — like our legislative Action Center, where activists can contact their members of Congress using our advocacy system and subscribe to email lists. Before this sort of online advocacy, activists couldn’t provide the same amount of feedback to Congress as we do now. Within a few minutes, a member can receive notification via email about a bill that’s about to be voted on by Congress, click on a link to a website, and then sign their name to an email protesting the bill. This was a step beyond posting information and a step toward bringing feminist voices online.

Moving forward, one of NOW’s successful online campaigns came post-9/11, and that was our "Truth About George" website. Launched in 2002, it was our effort to open people’s eyes to what was happening to our country because of the Bush White House. We published information about President Bush’s stance not only on women’s rights issues, but also on the war and the economy, examined his associates, and shed light on the lies he’s spread about…pretty much everything.

It goes without saying that if you put an activist organization on the Internet, we’re going to try to infuse the Internet with activism. For the 2004 election, NOW went further down the road of e-activism with our "10 For Change" campaign website. The "10 For Change" campaign was all about voter outreach, giving visitors ten things they could do to help turn the election around, including registering to vote online, and spreading the word both through the web and in their communities.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned over time, it’s that there’s nothing more powerful than providing feminists with tools to let their voices be heard. This year, for the 2008 election, we did everything you’ve already read about — websites, action kits, email lists, and so on. But the biggest thing we tried to do was drive it home that what starts on the Internet should go to the streets. Our websites about our endorsed candidates, Sen. Hillary Clinton (www.nowpacs.org/hillary) and later President-Elect Barack Obama (www.nowpacs.org/obama), had ideas for action and ways to spread the word. We also made it easy to identify local feminist candidates, and then for visitors to register to vote and find their polling places.

We also ran internet ads and pushed voter engagement through our email campaigns. Those  emails (and trust me, there were a lot of emails) were about spreading information on the issues, ballot initiatives, and candidates. But they also urged activists to tell their friends, and volunteer to phone bank, canvass, and show their support on the streets so that feminist voices and opinions shaped this election.

NOW’s online advocacy is about mobilizing activists. It’s a place for us to come together, learn from each other, and spread the word. It’s a tool for communication, and it’s a tool for change. But the Internet is only the second most powerful tools for the feminist movement. The most powerful tool is you, the feminist activist.

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