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womenspacework


womenspacework

by Yvonne P. Doderer

As early as the 1970s, individual artists, activists and women with an interest in computers began to investigate the possibilities of the new media and master various techniques associated with them. They did this not least in order to refute the stereotype of female inability to use technology. Before long it had become clear to both practically and theoretically oriented women that the revolutions in science and technology following the introduction of the new media had made it necessary to rethink standard perspectives on the questions of gender and femininity and arrive at the construction of new models. One of the key fundamental texts on this topic was a book written in the mid-80s by Donna Haraway. (1) This work attempted to critically reinvent identity in the broad reaches of cyberspace, arguing that its appropriation promised to help develop strategies of eradicating old gender and body boundaries and that it thus mirrored the incipient discussion in theoretical feminist-academic circles as to the relationship between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. Parallel to the debates about the implications and consequences of the new technologies, which were carried out primarily on a theoretical level, and which included a critical examination of genetic and reproductive technologies, increasing numbers of women and women’s groups began to turn to the practical, technical side of the issue and to exploit the possibilities of the Internet, e-mail, mailing lists, net communities and even hacking for their own purposes. One of the high points of feminist Web activism was the First Cyberfeminist International, organized by the Old Boys Network, which took place within the Hybrid Workshop at the 1997 documenta X in Kassel and which included contributions from 23 women from eight different countries.

The various practices encompassed by the term ‘cyberfeminism’ seemed to open a new and above all more varied and livelier dimension of feminist politics than old-style feminism, which many found outmoded. ”Cyberfeminists have the chance to create new formulations of feminist theory and practice that address the complex new social, cultural, and economic conditions created by global technologies.” (2) The blossoming optimism occasioned by the rebellion of youthful cybergrrrl-ism was, however, undermined by the persistent hierarchies of Web geography, which can be seen clearly in the hardware requirements for Internet access. What is meant here is not just the question of having individual access to the Net, but equally the local and global shift between territories that can be ‘played’ upon with satellite or cable technologies and areas that have remained more or less inaccessible and probably will so in the future. This includes the curve described even at Western universities and educational institutions between women and men. Leaving aside the question of whether this is intended or not, women currently find themselves on the retreat away from cyberspace, as the relevant statistics amply illustrate. For example, data from the U.S. Department of Labor says that compared with ten years ago, women make up a smaller percentage of computer science graduates. The percentage of women in IT shrank from 35 percent in the early 1990s to 29 percent in 1998. (3)

In contrast to the early euphoria, a certain sobriety has set in concerning the practical applications of the Internet and the World Wide Web – a development that owing to the economic collapse of the IT sector has felt far more sharply than until only recently considered possible. Two positive aspects of this collapse are certainly a more pragmatic approach to the new media – as indeed was already the case with many women and women’s groups – and the recognition that activists’ use of the Internet, however important, is not the only effective form of political resistance. Had the recent demonstrations in Genoa only taken place on the Web, the protesters would surely not have been met with such a vehement display of state violence, and the protests themselves would have been less effective. The limited efficacy of virtually organized demonstrations is shown by, among other things, a protest against the Taliban regime’s oppression of women, which has been circulating on the Net for years but which has yet to yield any results. The first measure of broad-based influence on the question of Afghan women’s rights was achieved by the real-life activism of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, also documented on the Internet, which revealed the hypocrisy of the war conducted by the US and its allies. (4)

As the number of women’s groups, projects and research topics on the Web shows, the use of the Internet for publicizing, organizing and forming feminist and/or activist theory and practice has withstood the test of time, even if it remains unclear to what extent novel coalitions have resulted between women of divergent societies, cultures and ethnic groups. Although it is already evident that Internet communication will be subjected to increasingly tight restrictions and surveillance, in part but not exclusively due to anti-terrorism measures, the Internet will remain for the immediate future an important medium for critical and political discourses and practices. Despite the technically circumscribed possibilities for reconstructing people’s movements on the Web, the depth and breadth of the cyberspace make it impossible to monitor the Internet fully, which is an advantage in terms of the others’ ability to control the medium. It is a disadvantage, however, in terms of efficient research and, above all, linkage and networking. While there may be an infinite list of links on the Web, the often deficient annotation and structure make it difficult for the user to make the desired connections efficiently.

Establishing links between feminist theories and practices and setting up connections between women’s initiatives, projects and groups are both the starting point and the goal of the project womenspacework. The project was initially conceived as part of the art program in the section ‘city’ at the International Women’s University (5), placed on the Web, and has been recently revised. (6)
The virtual space platform womenspacework consists of two parts: womenspace and network. Under the rubric ”womenspace”, users find a collection of basic theoretical information on cyberfeminism and links to texts on feminist and lesbian theory and practice, cybergeography and art on the Internet. The section ”network” serves to illustrate various women’s projects and initiatives on the Web with link lists, most of which are annotated with quotations.

The overarching structural model is divided into three basic fields or rubrics: political, social and cultural networking. This structural division is based upon the theory of capital developed by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who draws attention to the significance of social and cultural processes of capital accumulation along with the more familiar economic ones. (7) I have supplemented Bourdieu’s categories of capital with a political rubric in order to give proper due to processes of critical consciousness, self-initiated forms of organization and political activism. The justification for this was not at least the fact that the activities of NGOs, critical and politically activist groups, demonstrations, initiatives etc. all result in forces that change society, whose effectiveness and constructive elements are routinely underestimated or suppressed. And this despite or perhaps because of the fact that national as well as local processes of democraticization have not by any means been concluded. This basic structure is expanded into further fields or rubrics. ”Cyberfeminism as activism” directs users to links directly concerned with the topic of Internet-internal organization and women’s activism; ”networks + directories” offers a selection of overarching platforms >from the academic and non-academic realms; ”other political activism” directs users to critical platforms that are not exclusively about women’s issues; and the rubric ”computer technology + gender” is focused on projects concerning electronic communication within gender horizons.

In this way, womenspacework serves as a tool for orientation and networking. It is a navigation instrument supporting feminist activism on the Internet and, in so doing, outside cyberspace as well.

Footnotes
(1) Haraway, Donna, Simians, Cyborgs and Women. The Reinvention of Nature, (London: Routledge, 1991).
(2) Wilding, Faith, ”Where is the Feminism in Cyberfeminism?”, Ctrl + Shift Art – Ctrl + Shift Gender. Convergences of Gender, New Media and Art, Muller, Nat; Herst, Deanna (eds.), (Amsterdam: Axis, Foundation for gender and the arts, 2000), p. 17.
(3) Source: U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Labor, cited in CNN, November 11, 1998, http://www.reseau-medias.ca/eng/issues/stats/usenet.htm#gender
(4) http://www.rawa.org/
(5) In 1977 the International Women’s University (ifu) was founded by Aylâ Neusel, Liselotte Glage, Sigrid Metz-Göckel, Helga Schuchardt, Barbara Simons and Ulrike Teubner. In 1998, approximately 40 women scientists from 12 different countries began to build up seven project areas: Work, Information, Intelligence, Body, Migration, City and Water. From 15th of July until 15th of October 2000 the ifu was established for three months at German universities in Hanover (Project Area Body, Project Area Migration and Project Area Work – in co-operation with TU Clausthal), Kassel (Project Area City), Hamburg (Project Area Information) and Suderburg (Project Area Water – the Project Area Intelligence could not be carried out). Within the ifu approximately 900 female students from various countries all over the world came together to study, discuss, and exchange ideas and information.
(6) womenspacework – concept by Yvonne P. Doderer, realisation in co-operation with Martina Schrade and Susanne Schwarz. First organized for the International Women’s University (ifu) within the art program[me], project area ‘City’ at the University of Kassel. One part of the project is the ongoing virtual platform www.wspacework.net. Other parts have been a 4 half-days workshop with video program during the ifu in co-operation with Martina Schrade, and the special event Urban Sound of Music with DJane YAM, Berlin, and DJane FDakini, Stuttgart, which was organized as a social event for the ifu participants and women of Kassel. see: http://www.wspacework.net
(7) See Bourdieu, Pierre, ”Ökonomisches Kapital, kulturelles Kapital, soziales Kapital”, Soziale Welt, Sonderheft Soziale Ungleichheiten, R. Kreckel (ed.), (Göttingen: Otto Schwartz & Co, 1983), pp. 183-198.

First published in: Ute Meta Bauer (ed.): case 2: First Story – Women Building / New Narratives for the 21st Century, Köln: Walter König 2002

26/04/06


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