Feminism is a topic that I don’t talk much about these days, but in the last 24 hours it’s popped up on my radar twice and it’s made me think about why the word, the label itself, doesn’t seem to be part of my current vocabulary. 15 years ago, “feminist” would have appeared in any web profile I’d made if social media had been around then, but now you don’t even see it in my tag cloud on delicious or even on my own blog (until this post). “What’s up with that?!”Â I’m asking myself, “how could that be?”
The topic of feminism first came up when I attended Mitch Wagner’s Copper Robot show in Second Life, a bi-weekly discussion/interview session about technology, politics, etc. etc. This week’s guest happened to be a good friend, Aliza Sherman aka Cybergrrl Oh in world, who founded Cybergrrl, Inc. back in 1995 before anyone knew what the prefix “cyber” even meant. During the discussion, I got to ask her if she still considered herself a feminist and if she felt that technology had empowered women as much today as she’d thought it would nearly 15 years ago. Grab the podcast at http://copperrobot.com/index.php?post_id=431238 to hear the interview (the first part is about living in Tok, Alaska where it got down to -50F recently!), but she replied:
“Oh absolutely, I mean, in so many different ways.Â It’s not a cure-all, it’s not the silver magic bullet-y thing.. But first and foremost, women having technical skills puts them at a greater advantage than women without technical skills because our society pays people with technical skills much better!Â Â Second of all, even if a woman is not using it for her career, a woman who is a stay at home mom is far more connected to the support she needs and wants and the information she needs and wants because she’s able to get on the internet, use the internet, and connect with family, friends, and communities – and that information.Â So right away, that’s much more empowering than to be isolated and alone.”
And I thought to myself, how true!Â I don’t have one of those fancy visualizations of my social networks online, but in my mind’s eye, the women in my social networks really stand out as the major -connectors- to other people, resources, and information (for example, the person who consistently shares the most great stuff on my Google Reader feed is iAlja, a woman from Slovenia who I’d never know without technology), and as the major -motivators- for keeping me on track with some of my larger goals (for example, Intellagirl is one of the busiest women on the planet but still finds time to send feedback and targeted advice), and as the major -doers- of the nitty-gritty hard work required to not just get good projects off the ground, but keep them running and sustainable long-term (for example, Rachel keeps theÂ Chilbo Community running smoothly by making time to do routine tasks that need to be done, even if they aren’t fun or glamorous).
Generally speaking, the women in my social networks contribute some element to the overall picture that I think of as the lubrication that makes the network _work_.Â It’s hard to put my finger on it, but if I imagine my social network and eliminated all the women, there would be huge, gaping holes in every project or endeavor I’m involved with.Â So yes, without a doubt, technology is empowering women in ways earlier generations of feminists could only dream of and I am both a beneficiary of it and have obviously devoted my career and my work to teaching others technology skills so they can be empowered, too.
And yet..Â My answer to that question would be different than Aliza’s.Â I’d say that technology has not empowered women as much today as I thought it would have back in the 90s.Â Feminism as a label isn’t just a dirty word, it seems almost irrelevant and completely absent from the discourse in my sphere of reference these days, despite all the STEM initiatives targeting women and minorities, and “women/girls in IT” or women’s leadership conferences/events I participate in every year.Â Â It feels like “women’s issues” get plenty of lip service in the broader conversation, but other than for isolated events, it never even comes up in the male dominated IT world, and the fundamental issues underlying things like wage disparity and far, far fewer women in positions of management haven’t changed very much at all.Â Women have been graduating with degrees at higher rates than men for years now, but they aren’t anywhere near equal representation in terms of ownership, management and leadership positions, economic well-being, or nearly any other metric we measure “success” by in the US.Â Â Technology may be improving women’s social connectedness, but it isn’t translating into economic success nearly as much as I might have predicted 15 years ago.
And then while these thoughts were stewing, I ran across a TED Talk from novelist Isabel Allende that gave me a serious reality check.Â Â Here I am thinking of myself and the women in my network and the challenges we face.. but then Isabel’s talk reminds me of just how far I and most of the women I know are from the most brutal conditions of women in other parts of the world.
I found Isabel’s talk very disturbing.Â I don’t like to think of things in dichotomous terms like “developed/developing nations” but the stories she tells of child sex slaves and women in dire horrible circumstances make you feel sick to your stomach, and yet it is so far removed from me and my experience I can hardly identify with it except to feel a general sense of horror and helplessness, similar to the feelings I have about the situation in Gaza, Afghanistan, or any number of other human-caused tragedies.
Watching that video, I felt a deep sense of what others might call “white, western, worthless guilt”Â as I thought about how seldom I spend any time, energy or thought to empowering women, specifically, even in my own spheres of influence.Â I try to think back, have I done any special outreach to women, lately?Â Women students?Â Women faculty?Â Hmm, no, I haven’t.
So, geez, what happened to that feminist Fleep who moderated flaming, raging debates in the Feminism> rooms of BBSs of yore?Â Â The one who identified as a woman first and everything else second?Â When did I start feeling guilty about the plight of women in the world, instead of angry and ready to fight to change it?
I really don’t know where that Fleep went, and most puzzling, I don’t even know when it happened.
I guess I don’t have much of a point here, except to say that I feel like I’ve lost some important thread in my own internal conversation about a topic that I was once extremely, publicly passionate about.Â If you had asked me yesterday, I would have said I don’t wear my feminism on my sleeve any more, but a feminist ethic is deeply embedded in my world view.Â Today I wonder how deeply embedded it could be if it doesn’t even come up on my mental radar very often and when it does it feels like a shock to my conscience.