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