Feminism S&F Online Scholar and Feminist Online, published by the Barnard Center for Research on Women
about contact subscribe archives submissions news links bcrw
Volume 5, Number 2, Spring 2007 Gwendolyn Beetham and Jessica Valenti, Guest Editors
Blogging Feminism:
(Web)Sites of Resistance
About this Issue
About the Contributors

Issue 5.2 Homepage

·Virtual beginnings . . .
·Where are we now, virtually?
·Women's voices, activities, networks, and activism
·Cyberfeminism and the politics of ICTs
·Cyberfutures and gender equality

Printer Version

Making the Virtual Real:
Feminist Challenges in the Twenty-First Century

Gillian Youngs

Virtual beginnings . . .

What kind of virtual world do feminists and women inhabit, and what are the implications of their increasingly diverse online activities? This is the central question addressed in this article, which revisits some of my early research on feminist possibilities and potential in the Internet age.[1] In that relatively early (1999) reflection on what cyberspace would mean for women, on how its communicative reach could help to transform their day to day realities and the shape of feminist politics, I focused on three main areas. They all touched on the question of transcendence, whether of physical spaces and boundaries or of communicative ones in the broadest sense. They attempted to link the impact of the Internet to continuities and new possibilities in feminist analysis, politics, and activism.

The first area, and probably the most important, was the public/private as a binary that has contributed profoundly to shaping gendered realities and identities across cultures. The Internet follows and develops the traditions of mass media more generally in breaching public and private divides, operating as it does in the home and the workplace, offering, in many ways, seamless communication and connectivity, where it is accessible.

My sense was that the Internet transformation was especially significant for women, whose lives, and the complex questions of access related to them, had historically been dominated by their identification with the private sphere of social reproduction, care, and affective relations of all kinds. While women are increasingly playing roles in public as well as private spheres, patriarchy continues to frame them predominantly in relation to the private. Thus the significance of their multiple roles across public and private spheres is substantially veiled. This influences not only social perceptions of women but also their senses of self. Thus the second area I looked at was feminism's traditional emphasis on consciousness-raising. This is a means, among other things, of self-realization, affirmation, and connection among women from similar and different backgrounds and contexts. I positioned "transcending silences" as pivotal to such processes and highlighted the importance of safe spaces (away from the disciplinary patriarchal gaze) where women could openly explore the meanings of their lives and validate and critique them.

The new interactivity of the Internet offered multiple opportunities for breaking silences around women's lived experiences, including through new collective networks and political, cultural, and economic online endeavours by individual women.

The third area I discussed was the radical potential of the international reach of the Internet for women, who historically have been doubly burdened by domestic identification: with the home and social reproduction, and with the domestic national setting as opposed to the international one. Feminist international relations scholars have focused extensively on how women have historically been, and remain to a large extent, with notable exceptions, far less present and influential than men in international politics.[2]

My feminist interest is always twofold in this sense: first, in what this domestic identification means for how women perceive and relate to one another internationally (or are restricted from doing so), and, second, in the vital limitations this gendered history has placed on their capacities to shape international relations. These limitations highlight the depth to which women's lives and destinies have been mediated by masculinist (patriarchal) decision-making cultures and processes, notably where death and life are at stake in decisions to go to war or make peace.[3]

The Internet's crossing of national boundaries seemed profound for women, both actually and potentially. The international arena was no longer closed to them as it was before, and communications and activist networks could be built almost as easily across as within national boundaries, allowing for the usual limiting factors of access to the Internet, language barriers, etc.[4] It could be argued that the Internet truly did present for women a whole new world, where they would be able to find one another more easily than in the past, share knowledge and experiences, work together for political and social change, or set up businesses and other ventures.

In all such contexts, the international was more accessible to them than it had ever been. The new communications environment did not of course automatically give women access to the centers of power, whether national or international, political, economic, or cultural. It did offer possibilities for presenting and pursuing women's interests, for building alliances and lobbying at different levels, for keeping in touch more easily with different institutional processes, and for strategizing about how to intervene in them and influence them.

Tools 5.2 Online Resources Recommended Reading S&F Online in the Classroom
S&F Online - Issue 5.2 - Blogging Feminism: (Web)Sites of Resistance - ©2007