Steven Kurtz on Mon, 14 Jul 1997 22:21:00 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Cyberfeminism Part 1

Notes on the Political Condition of Cyberfeminism

Faith Wilding and Critical Art Ensemble

Cyberfeminism is a promising new wave of (post)feminist thinking and practice.
Through the work of numerous Netactive women, there is now a distinct
cyberfeminist Netpresence that is fresh, brash, smart, and iconoclastic of many
of the tenets of classical feminism. At the same time, cyberfeminism has only
taken its first steps in contesting technologically complex territories. To
complicate matters further, these new territories have been overcoded to a
mythic degree as a male domain. Consequently, cyberfeminist incursion into
various technoworlds (CD-ROM production, Web works, lists and news groups,
artificial intelligence, etc.) has been largely nomadic, spontaneous, and
anarchic. On the one hand, these qualities have allowed maximum freedom for
diverse manifestations, experiments, and the beginnings of various written and
artistic genres. On the other, networks and organizations seem somewhat lacking,
and the theoretical issues of gender regarding the techno-social are immature
relative to their development in spaces of greater gender equity won through
struggle. Given such conditions, some feminist strategies and tactics will
repeat themselves as women attempt to establish a foothold in a territory
traditionally denied to them. This repetition should not be considered with the
usual yawn of boredom whenever the familiar appears, as cyberspace is a crucial
point of gender struggle that is desperately in need of gender diversification
(and diversity in general). 

The Feminist Cycle

One aspect immediately evident is that the Net provides cyberfeminists with a
vehicle crucially different from anything available to prior feminist waves.
Historically, feminist activism has depended on women getting together
bodily--in kitchens, churches, assembly halls, and in the streets. The
organizing cell for the first phase of feminism was the sewing circle, the
quilting group, or the ladies' charity organization. Women met together in
private to plan their public campaigns for political and legal enfranchisement.
In these campaigns the visible presence of groups of women plucked from the
silenced isolation of their homes, became a public sign of female rebellion and
activism. Women acting together, speaking in public, marching through the
streets, and disrupting public life were activities that opened up political
territories that were traditionally closed to them. 

During the second wave of feminism, which emerged in the early sixties, women
again started meeting together to plan actions.  They met in
consciousness-raising groups that became the organizing cells for a revived
feminist movement. This time, feminists began to master a new tactic: Creating
counter-spectacle in the media. Women staged actions targeted at highly visible
public icons.  Such patriarchal monuments under feminist assault in the US
movement included the Miss America Pageant, Playboy offices and clubs, Wall
Street, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Pentagon, and the White House.
Everywhere the actions occurred, the news media was there to document outrageous
female misbehavior.  These tactics spread the news of growing feminism
nationally and internationally. Visible female disruption and subversion also
provided images of female empowerment that inspired many women (and men) to
begin taking direct autonomous action on behalf of the rights of women. 

If the first wave was marked by women's incursion into new political
territories, this second wave was marked by a march into new economic
territories and by a reconfiguration of familiar ones. Most significant was
women's demand for access to the means of financial independence-a struggle that
continues in the third phase of feminist practice. On the more traditional end
of the struggle, domestic space was no longer perceived as a totalizing feminine
space, but was re-presented as a space of ambiguity with both celebratory and
exploitive characteristics. On the political front, feminism focused on
liberation practices, and left the old right wing practices behind, such as
temperance movements.

The third wave of feminisms (cultural-, eco-, theoretical-, sex positive-,
lesbian-, anti-porn-, multicultural-, etc.)--often collectively dubbed
Postfeminism--continues to use these models of public action and rebellion. A
recent case in point was the short-lived but highly visibleWomen's Action
Coalition (WAC) that began in New York in late l991, following a series of
events that enraged women in the US: The dramatic, nationally televised
Hill/Thomas hearings; the William Kennedy Smith and Mike Tyson rape trials; and
the judicial battles over abortion rights: all these contributed to a sense that
it was time for women to launch a "visible and remarkable resistance" to social,
sexual, economic, and political oppression and violence. WAC quickly became a
media attractor as it launched action after visible action. WAC produced a
spectacle that was hip, sexy, cool, fun, outrageous, and visible. Eight thousand
women joined in the first year, and chapters sprang up around the US and in
Canada. Much of this initial success was due to the highly effective
communication and networking system that WAC immediately organized. Central to
this system was a phone tree, combined with adequate access to fax machines,
e-mail, and media contacts. In a sense, WAC was an early proto-electronic
feminist organization. Having motivated and organized so many women, WAC
reinvigorated feminist activism, and, in the US, led a new wave of contestation
in all the traditional feminist territories.  Like most radical organizations,
it was only a temporary tactical organization. It was unable to survive its
rapid growth, and all too soon reached critical mass, when explosive splintering
forced it to choose one of two outcomes: purge and bureaucratize, or dissolve.
WAC wasn't able to organize its way out of the contradictions of difference, nor
was it able to continue resisting some of the dogmatic tendencies of
"mainstream" and "security state" feminism which proscribe certain behaviors,
beliefs, and lifestyles. While the former option of purge and bureaucratize was
first attempted, the fabric of radicality was strong enough that dissolution
spontaneously occurred.

The third wave (with a few exceptions) has missed moving into one crucial area,
however, and that was the revolution in communications and information
technology. Cyberfeminism represents a new set of explorers ready to move the
struggle into this new territory. As yet, the movement is still too young to
face struggles inherent in the economy of difference. As on most frontiers,
there still *seems* to be room for everyone. At the same time, there are lessons
to be learned from history.  Radical movements in their infancy tend to return
to past patterns.  Cyberfeminism is no different, and key feminist issues such
as feminine subjectivity, separatism and boundary maintenance, and territorial
identification are bound to arise again, even if they seem dead in other
feminist territories. 

Territorial Identification

What is the territory that cyberfeminism is questioning, theorizing, and
actively confronting? The surface answer is, of course, cyberspace, but such an
answer is not really satisfying. Cyberspace is but one small part, since the
infrastructure that produces this virtual world is so vast. Hardware and
software design and manufacture are certainly of key importance, and perhaps
most significant of all are the institutions that train those who design the
products of cyber-life.  Overwhelmingly, these products are designed by males
for business or military operations. Clearly these are still primarily male
domains (i.e., men are the policy makers) in which men have the buying power,
and so the products are designed to meet their needs or to play on their
desires. From the beginning, entrance into this high-end techno-world (the
virtual class) has been skewed in favor of males.* In early
socialization/education, technology and technological process are gendered as
male domains. When females manipulate complex technology in a productive or
creative manner, it is viewed and treated as a deviant act that deserves

This is not to say that women do not use complex technology. Women are an
important consumer market, and help maintain the status quo when the technology
is used in a passive manner. For example, most institutions of commerce or
government are all too happy to give women computers, e-mail accounts, and so on
if it will make them better bureaucrats. This is why the increased presence of
women on the Net is not solely a positive indication of equality. It is a very
similar situation to late 50s/early 60s America when middle-class husbands were
more than happy to buy a second car for their wives--as long as it made them
more efficient domestic workers. Technology in this case was used to deepen the
confinement of women within their situation rather than liberate them from it.
(As a general rule, anything you get without struggle should be viewed with
intense skepticism). The technology and technological processes to which women
currently have access are the consequence of structural economic necessity.
However, all we need is a shift in consciousness to begin the subversion of the
current gender structure (this is the positve side of so many women being

Thus, the territory of cyberfeminism is large. It includes the objective arenas
of cyberspace, institutions of industrial design, and institutions of
education-that is, those arenas in which technological process is gendered in a
manner that excludes women from access to the empowering points of
techno-culture. However, the territory does not stop there. Cyberfeminism is
also a struggle to be increasingly aware of the impact of new technologies on
the lives of women, and the insidious gendering of technoculture in everyday
life. Cyberspace does not exist in a vacuum; it is intimately connected to
numerous real-world institutions and systems that thrive on gender separation
and hierarchy. Finally, cyberfeminism must radically expand the critique
concerning the media hype about the "technoworld." While the utopian
cyber-spectacle has been adequately deflated by documentation of its abuse of
the bureaucratic class, low-end technocratic class, and workers involved in
product manufacturing, this critique, in terms of gender and race, is very
modest.  For example, who can possibly believe that age, race, or gender do not
matter in cyberspace? The ability to assign oneself social characteristics
online is only an alibi for a very traditional and exploitive division of labor
that is representative of the overall system, and a seduction element for those
whose real-world social environment has been eliminated by pancapitalism's
destruction of social spaces of autonomy. We must also ask what awaits people in
a minoritarian position once they are online? Will they find familiar and
significant rhetorics, discussions, and images? Is there a continuity of
discourse between the real and the virtual (as there is for the white middle
class)? While there are virtual pockets in which continuity exists, the
overwhelmingly representative situation is geared to the same majoritarian
consciousness that  is found in the real-world. In other words, elements of
social stratification are reflected and replicated in cyberspace. 

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