Faith Wilding on Wed, 7 Jan 1998 07:33:56 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Where is feminism in cyberfeminism

Where is Feminism in Cyberfeminism?

Faith Wilding


"What is cyberfeminism? Sadie Plant claims it is an absolutely post-human 
insurrection -the revolt of an emergent system which includes women and 
computers, against the world view and material reality of a patriarchy which 
still seeks to subdue them. This is an alliance of 'the goods' against their 
masters, an alliance of woman and machines. It is a revolt of the chattels." 
                --Caroline Bassett, With a little help from Our (New) Friends?

During the recent Cyberfeminist International (CI) meetings at Documenta X in 
Kassel, Germany (1), much discussion centered on whether or not there 
should--or could--be a definition of cyberfeminism. FACES (a women only 
on-line list) had been debating this issue with varying degrees of passion for
months; the press and other interested parties wanted to know; we, the 
participants, wanted to know. The chance to talk about this important issue 
face to face was invaluable since this perplexing question lies at the heart 
of many of  the contradictory contemporary positions and attitudes toward 
feminism(s) on-line, which need to be addressed if there is to be an engaged 
(cyber)feminist politics implemented on the Net. By looking more closely at 
the reasons put forth against  defining cyberfeminism, and their implications,
and by offering some possible definitions of cyberfeminism, I hope to suggest 
how such a politics might be translated into practice. The impetus for this 
essay springs from the experience of eight days of intense daily living and 
working with almost forty women participants of the 1st Cyberfeminist 
International. The daily collective interactions, discussions, presentations, 
meals, work, and play, represented a browser through which possible practices 
of a cyberfeminist movement became visible. The women present understood this 
to be a significant historic moment; subsequent on-line discussions and 
planning are adding to the evidence that much research and development still 
lie ahead.

Against Definition

 "The 1st CYBERFEMINIST INTERNATIONAL slips through the traps of definition 
with different attitudes towards art, culture, theory, politics, communication
and technology--the terrain of the Internet."
                                                                --1st CI Press

Some definitions of cyberfeminism have already been offered in the writings 
and art practices of Sadie Plant, VNS Matrix, Linda Dement, Rosi Braidotti, 
Alluquere Rosanne Stone, and others. Why then this preoccupation with 
definitions of cyberfeminism in the CI discussions?  The reasons given for 
refusing to define cyberfeminism--even though they may call themselves 
cyberfeminists--indicate a profound ambivalence in many wired women's 
relationship to what they perceive to be a monumental past feminist history, 
theory and practice, and its relevance to contemporary conditions facing women
immersed in technology. I will discuss four of the main manifestations of this
ambivalence and explore their implications.

1. Repudiation of "old style" (70's ) feminism.
 According to this argument,"old style" (70's) feminism is characterized as 
constricting (politically correct), guilt inducing, essentialist, 
anti-technology, anti-sex, and not relevant to women's circumstances in the 
new technologies. This is ironic because in actual practice cyberfeminism has 
already adopted many of the strategies of avant garde feminist movements, 
including strategic separatism (women only lists, self-help, chat groups, 
networks, and woman to woman technological training), feminist cultural, 
social, and language theory and analysis, creation of new images of women on 
the Net (feminist avatars, cyborgs, genderfusion) to counter rampant sexist 
stereotyping, feminist net critique, strategic essentialism, and the like. The
repudiation of historical feminism is problematic because it throws out the 
baby with the bathwater and aligns itself uneasily with popular fears, 
stereotypes, and misconceptions about feminism.
        Why is it that so many younger women (and men) know so little about 
even very recent histories of women, not to speak of past feminist movements 
and philosophies? It is tempting to point the finger at educational systems 
and institutions which still treat the histories of women, minoritarian, and 
marginalized populations as ancillary to "regular" history, relegating them to
specialized courses or departments. In the US, young women entering college 
often blithely claim equality with men declaring that feminism isn't needed 
anymore--in complete disregard of the fact that the very structures of the 
institutions are masculinist; that what counts as the main body of knowledge 
to be conveyed is still almost entirely white, male, and western European; 
that the new technology departments springing up everywhere are heavily male 
dominated (2); and that women professors still are less likely to be tenured, 
tenure-track, or full-time, and often still make less than male professors at 
comparable ranks. And all of this despite the fact that as a recognized field 
of knowledge and study, feminism and gender studies are firmly established in 
        But the problems lie deeper than the education systems. The political 
work of building a movement is a technology which must be learned by study and
practice and needs the help of experienced practicioners. The struggle to keep
practices and histories of resistance alive today is harder in the face of a 
commodity culture which thrives on novelty, speed, obsolescence, evanescence, 
virtuality, simulation, and utopian promises of technology. Commodity culture 
is forever young and makes even the recent past appear remote and mythic. On a
recent panel a young woman said that 70's feminism has taken on mythical 
proportions for her generation, making the prospect of  measuring up to such a
history overwhelming for her and her peers. Conversely, many older feminists 
are unsure of how to connect to the issues of new media generations, and how 
to go about translating feminist ideas to the information culture. The problem
for younger women then, becomes one of how to create a feminist politics and 
activist trajectory of their own to address new cultural and technological 
conditions and experiences.     
        To be sure, the problem of the loss of historical knowledge and active
connection to radical movements of the past is one which is not limited to 
feminism--it is an endemic problem for leftist movements in the US.  By 
arguing for the importance of the knowledge of history I am not interested in 
invoking nostalgic homage to moments of past glory. If cyberfeminists wish to 
avoid making the mistakes of past feminists, it behooves them to know and 
analyze feminist histories very carefully. And if they are to expand their 
territory on the Net and negotiate issues of difference across generational, 
economic, educational, racial, national, and experiential boundaries, they 
must seek out coalitions and alliances with diverse groups of women involved 
in the integrated circuit of global technologies. At the same time, close 
familiarity with postcolonial studies, and with the histories of imperialist 
and colonialist domination--and resistance to them--are equally important for 
an informed practice of  cyberfeminist politics.

2. Cybergrrl-ism. 
Judging by a quick net browse, one of the most popular feminist avatars 
currently offered to young women on the Net is "cybergrrl-ism" in all of its 
permutations: "webgrrls", "riot grrls", "guerrilla girls", "bad grrls", etc. 
As Rosi Braidotti (3) and others have pointed out, the often ironical, 
parodic, humorous, passionate, angry, or aggressive work of many of these 
recent "grrrl" groups is an important  manifestation of new feminine 
subjective and cultural representations in cyberspace. Currently there is 
quite a wide variety of articulations of feminist and protofeminist practices 
in these various 'groups' which seem to range from "anyone female can join" 
chatty mailing lists, to sci-fi, cyberpunk, and femporn zines; 
anti-discrimination projects; sexual exhibitionism; transgender 
experimentation; lesbian separatism; medical self-help; artistic 
self-promotion; job and dating services; and just plain mouthing off. 
Cybergrrl-ism generally seems to subscribe to a certain amount of net 
utopianism--an "anything you wanna be and do in cyberspace is cool" attitude. 
Despite the gripings against men in general--and technogeeks in 
particular--which pervade some of the discussions and sites, most cybergrrls 
don't  seem interested in engaging in a political critique of women's position
on the Net--they'd rather "just do it", and adopt the somewhat anti-theory 
attitude which seems to prevail currently. 
        While cybergrrls sometimes draw (whether consciously or unconsciously)
on feminist analyses of popular representations of women--and on the 
strategies and work of many feminist artists--they also often uncritically 
recirculate and re-present sexist and stereotyped images of women from popular
media--the buxom gun moll; the supersexed cyborg femme; the 50's tupperware 
cartoon women, are favorites--without any analysis or critical 
recontextualization. Creating more positive and complex images of women which 
break the gendered codes prevailing on the Net (and in the popular media) 
takes many smart heads, and there is richly suggestive feminist research 
available, ranging from Haraway's monstrous cyborgs, Judith Butler's gender 
masquerade, Octavia Butler's recombinant genders, and all manner of hybrid 
beings which can unsettle the old masculine/feminine binaries.
        The many lines of flight of cybergrrl-ism are important as vectors of 
investigation, research, and invention. But these can't replace the hard work 
which is needed in order to identify and change the masculinist structures, 
content, and effects of the new technologies. If it is true, as Sadie Plant 
argues that "women have not merely had a minor part to play in the emergence 
of the digital machines.....(that) women have been the simulators, assemblers,
and programmers of the digital machines."(4) then why are there so few women 
in visible positions of leadership in the electronic world? Why are women 
programmers and hackers still a tiny minority, and often considered anomalies?
Why is the popular perception still that women are generally anti-tech, and at
best secondary players in the high tech world? Sadly, the lesson of Ada 
Lovelace is that even though women have made major contributions to the 
invention of computers and computer programming, it hasn't changed the 
perception--or reality--of women's condition in the new technologies. Being 
bad grrls on the Internet is not going to change matters much either, nor 
challenge the status quo, though it may provide refreshing moments of 
iconoclastic delirium.  But if grrrl energy and invention were to be coupled 
with engaged political savvy and practice.....Imagine!

3. Net utopianism
 Many cyberfeminists feel that the e-media are completely new technologies 
which give women a chance to start afresh, create new languages, programs, 
platforms, images, fluid identities and multi-subject definitions--that in 
fact, the e-media can be recoded, redesigned, reprogrammed to meet women's 
need and desire to change the feminine condition. This variety of net 
utopianism declares that the choice is yours in cyberspace--you can be 
anything you want to be--and refuses to be pinned down to definitions which 
might imply a fixed set of beliefs, practices, or responsibilities or a fixed 
subject position. As has been noted in a previous essay (5) there is much to 
be said for considering cyberfeminism a promising new wave of feminist 
practice which can contest technologically complex territories, and chart new 
ground for women. It is of utmost importance however to recognize that the new
media exist within a social framework that is already established in its 
practices and embedded in economic, political and cultural environments which 
are still deeply sexist, and racist. Contrary to the fond delusions of many 
net utopians, information exchange on the Net does not automatically 
obliterate hierarchies through free exchange of information across boundaries.
Also, the Net is not a utopia of nongender, it is not a free space ready for 
colonization without regard to bodies, sex, age, economics, social class, or 
race. Despite the indisputable groundbreaking contributions by women to the 
invention and development of computing technology, today's Internet is a 
contested zone historically originated as a system to serve war technologies, 
and is currently part of masculinist institutions. Any new possibilities 
imagined within the Net must first acknowledge and fully take into account the
implications of its founding formations and present political conditions. This
being so, it can be seen as a radical act to insert the word feminism into 
cyber space, to interrupt the flow of masculine codes by boldly declaring the 
intention to bastardize, hybridize, provoke, and infect the male order of 
things by politicizing the environment of the Net. It is people who can become
politicized, not machines, though they may be enlisted as allies in our 
conspiracies. Feminism has always implied dangerous  disruptions, covert and 
overt action, war on patriarchal beliefs, traditions, social structures. 
Cyberfeminism can model a brash disruptive politics which aims to dismantle 
the patriarchal conditions which produce the codes, languages, images, and 
structures of the Net.

4. Fear of political engagement
Another ambivalence about defining cyberfeminsm is the fear of forced 
political consensus, the fear that discussions will be closed and differences 
elided.  Perhaps by refusing definition, regressive identity politics and 
party lines, political squabbling, and ideological formulations can be 
avoided. As a playful counter to the desire for definition, and as a 
provocation to the press, the CI composed and posted the "100 Anti-theses" (a 
parody of Martin Luther's theses) which "defined" cyberfeminism by saying what
it is not. This definition by negation or absence was an attractive means for 
engaging conversation, piqueing curiosity, and engaging in language play--and 
it was certainly fun as a collective writing project. But one cannot describe 
something by saying what it is not, and once the playful point is made, it's 
clear that the 100 antitheses are too abstract, ambiguous, and evasive to 
function as an organizing strategy politically. While there are many 
cyberfeminists who are developing extremely sophisticated feminist theories of
language, subjectivity, the body, technology, and female representation in 
cyberspace, there is little understanding of how these theories link to the 
mundane realities of diverse women's work and experiences on the Net - much 
less how they could translate into a transformation of net practices and 
structures. During the CI discussions at Documenta X, and subsequently 
on-line, it has become more and more evident that current conditions of Net 
politics and cyberspace demand more than playfulness if cyberfeminism is to be
a force in critiquing Net policy, structure, hierarchies, access, and the 
effects of new technologies and technoscience on women. Arriving at definition
is itself part of an emergent practice, for definitions will shift and 
complexify as practice becomes more complex. Definition can be a declaration 
of solidarity with those engaged in justice struggles and "freedom projects" 
(6) everywhere. Cyberfeminists have too much at stake to be frightened off 
tough political strategizing and action by the fear of squabbles, 
ideologizing, and political differences. If I'd rather be a cyberfeminist than
a goddess, I'd damned well better know why, and be willing to say so. 

Definition as a political strategy      
Linking the terms "cyber" and "feminism" produces a crucial new formation in 
the history of feminism(s) and of the e-media. Each part of the term 
necessarily modifies the meaning of the other. "Feminism" (or more properly, 
"feminisms") has been understood as a historical--and 
contemporary--transnational movement for justice and freedom for women, which 
depends on women's activist participation in networked local, national, and 
international groups. It focuses on the material, political, emotional, 
sexual, and psychic conditions arising from women's differentialized social 
construction and gender roles. Link this with "cyber", which means to steer, 
govern, control (especially automated systems), and we conjure up feminism at 
the helm: New political, social, and cultural possibilities which are quite 
staggering. "CyberfeminismS" (7) can link the historical and philosophical 
practices of feminism to contemporary feminist projects and networks both on 
and off the Net, and to the material lives and experiences of women in the New
World Order, however differently they are manifested in different countries, 
among different classes and races. If feminism is to be adequate to its 
cyberpotential then it must mutate to keep up with the shifting complexities 
of social realities and life conditions as they are changed by the profound 
impact communications technologies and technoscience have on all our lives. It
is up to cyberfeminists to use feminist theoretical insights and strategic 
tools and join them with cybertechniques to battle the very real sexism, 
racism, and militarism encoded in the software and hardware of the Net, thus 
politicizing this environment. 
        While refusing definition seems like an attractive, non-hierarchical, 
anti-identity tactic, it in fact plays into the hands of those who would 
prefer a net quietism: Give a few lucky women computers to play with and 
they'll shut up and stop complaining. This attitude is one of which 
cyberfeminists should be extremely wary and critical. Access to the Internet 
is still a privilege, and by no means to be regarded as a universal right (nor
is it necessarily useful or desirable for everyone). While brilliant consumer 
marketing has suceeded in making ownership of a PC seem as imperative as 
having a telephone, computers are in fact powerful tools possession of which 
can provide a political advantage (the personal computer is the political 
computer). If the Internet is increasingly the channel through which many 
people (in the overdeveloped nations) get the bulk of their information, then 
it matters greatly how women participate in the programming, policy setting, 
and content formations of the Net, for the information coming across the Net 
needs to be contextualized both by the receiver and the sender. On the 
Internet, feminism has a new transnational audience which needs to be educated
in its history and its contemporary conditions as they prevail in different 
countries. For many, cyberfeminism could be their entry point into feminist 
discourse and practices. While there is a great deal of all kinds of 
information about feminism available on the Net (8) --and new sites are 
opening up all the time--it must be remembered that the more this information 
can be contextualized politically, and linked to practices, activism, and 
conditions of every day life, the more it is likely to be effective in helping
to connect and mobilize people. A potent example can be seen in the Zamir 
Network (Zamir  "for peace") of BBS and e-mail which was created (after the 
eruption of civil war in Yugoslavia in l99l) to link peace activists in 
Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Bosnia across borders via host computers in 
Germany. The point is that computers are more than playful tools, consumer 
toys, or personal pleasure machines--they are the master's tools, and they 
have very different meanings and uses for different populations. It will take 
crafty steerswomen to navigate these channels.
        While cyberfeminists should avoid some of the damaging mistakes and 
blindnesses which were part of past feminist thinking, the knowledge, 
experience, and feminist analysis and strategies accumulated thus far are 
crucial to carrying their work forward now. If the goal is to create a 
feminist politics on the Net, to empower women, and to create new 
possibilities for becoming and action in the world, then cyberfeminists must 
reinterpret and transpose feminist analysis, critique, strategies, and 
experience to encounter and contest new conditions, new technologies, new 
formations. (Self)definition can be an emergent property which arises out of 
practice and changes with the movements of desire and action. Definition can 
be fluid, and need not mean limits; rather, it can be a declaration of 
desires, strategies, actions, and goals. It can create crucial solidarity in 
the house of difference-- solidarity, rather than unity or 
consensus--solidarity which is a basis for effective political action.

A Cyberfeminist cell
How might cyberfeminists organize to work for a feminist political and 
cultural environment on the Net? What are various areas of feminist research 
and net activity that are already beginning to emerge as cyberfeminist 
practice? The 1st Cyberfeminist International during Documenta X in Kassel can
serve as an example of a prototype cell of feminist Net organis(m)ation.
        A varying and diverse group of more than thirty women--with a steady 
core of about ten--worked and lived together during the CI. The women were 
self-selected by open invitation to members of the FACES (women-only) mailing 
list (affiliated with nettime).  The main responsibilities for organizing the 
CI workdays was taken on by OBN (Old Boys Network)--an adhoc group of about 6 
women--in on-line consultation with all participants. Besides deciding on the 
content of the CI, the OBN took care of the myriad details of housing, travel,
scheduling, technological needs, interfaces with nettime and Documenta, 
budgeting and communications. Because of the open and exhaustive on-line 
communications between the OBN leadership and participants, collaborative 
working relationships were already established by the time the participants 
met together face to face in Kassel. 
        From the first day this collaborative process--a recombinant form of 
feminist group processes, anarchic self-organization, and rotating 
leadership--continued to develop among women from more than eight countries, 
and from different economic, ethnic, professional, and political backgrounds. 
Each day began with participants meeting to prepare the Hybrid Workspace, work
on various task-forces (text, press, technical, final party, etc.) and 
organize the public program for the day. There followed three hours of public 
lectures and presentations for Documenta audiences. Afterward the closed group
met again for dinner, and to discuss common issues such as the definition of 
cyberfeminism, group goals, future actions and plans. Work was divided 
according to inclination and expertise; there was no duty list and no 
expectation that everyone would work the same amount of hours. Space was 
opened up for conviviality, impulsive actions, brainstorming, and private 
time. At all times connection of participants to the FACES list was maintained
electronically. Practically all group activities were video- and audiotaped 
and photographed. Many of the women brought their own computer equipment from 
home and set it up in the open work/meeting space; and most of the lectures 
were accompanied by projected images and readings from the lecturers' 
web-sites. Two of the Russian women who were traveling to Kassel by a 
circuitous, even illegal, route because of visa problems, faxed in their trip 
diary all week as a performance, until they actually arrived. Another 
participant taught the group how to set up CU_SeeMe_ connection and continued 
to participate virtually after she had to leave. Thus there was an interesting
interplay between virtuality and flesh presence.  The face to face 
interactions were experienced as much more intense and energizing than the 
virtual communications, and forged different degrees of affinity between 
various individuals and sub-groups, while at the same time making all kinds of
differences more palpable. Brainstorming and spontaneous actions seemed to 
spring more readily from the flesh meetings. The opportunity for immediate 
question and answer and extended discussion after delivery of the papers also 
enabled more intimate and searching interchanges than are usually possible 
through on-line text only communications. 
        There was a wide variety of content presented in the various lectures,
web projects, and workshops: Theories of the visibility of sexual difference 
on the Net; a workshop on digital self-representations of online women in 
avatars, databodies; analyses of gender representations, sex-sites, cybersex, 
and femporn; strategies of genderfusion and hybridity to combat stereotyping, 
essentialism, and sexist representations of women; a proposal for 
schizo-feminist embodiment; discussion of the fetishistic desire for 
information, and the paranoia created by the new technologies; a quiz on 
famous women in history; studies of differences between women and men 
programmers and hackers; an examination of electronic art based on language 
rather than numbers; reports on the organization and nature of webgrrls lists,
and much more (9). 
        The chief gains from the CI were trust, friendship, a deeper 
understanding and tolerance of differences, the ability to sustain discussions
about controversial and divisive issues without group rupture, mutual 
education about issues of women and the e-media, as well as a clearer 
understanding of the territory for cyberfeminist intervention. Some 
participants felt that too much time and energy had gone into the public 
programs at the expense of more in-depth closed group discussion. But there is
much to be said for cyberfeminists being able to present their 
research-in-progress to each other in this kind of discursive and experimental
format. While the CI did not result in a formal list of goals, actions, and 
concrete plans, there was general agreement on areas of further work and 
research. These include:
 Creating a list of cyberfeminist artists, theorists and speakers to be sent 
to media festivals, presenting institutions, museums, and other public venues.
 Creating and publishing cyberfeminist theory, net criticism, position papers,
bibliographies, data bases, image banks.
 Creating a feminist search engine which could link cyberfeminist websites; 
feminist lists, country by country reports of netactivity and 
cyberorganization for women.
 Creating coalitions with female technologists, programmers, scientists and 
hackers, to link feminist Net theory, content and practice with technological 
research and invention.  
 Cyberfeminist education projects (for both men and women) in technology, 
programming, and software and hardware design, which address traditional 
gender constructions and biases built into technology.
 A transnational cyberfeminist action alert site.
 Creating new avatars, databodies, new self (ves) representations which 
disrupt and recode the gender biases usual in current commercially available 
 Cyberfeminist meetings at all media festivals, activist conferences, 
exhibitions, and on other occasions whenever possible.  
"(Cyber)Feminism is a browser through which to see life." (10)
If cyberfeminism has the desire to research, theorize, work practically, and 
make visible how women (and non-women) worldwide are affected by new 
communications technologies, technoscience, and the masculinist, capitalist 
dominations  of the global communications networks, it must begin by 
formulating its political goals and positions clearly. Cyberfeminists have the
chance to create new formulations of feminist theory and practice which 
address the complex new social conditions created by global technologies. 
Subversive uses of the new communications technologies can facilitate the work
of a transnational movement which aims to infiltrate and infect the networks 
of power and communication through activist, feminist, projects of solidarity,
education, freedom, vision, and resistance. To be effective in creating a 
politicized feminist environment on the Net which challenges its present 
gender, race, age, and class structures, cyberfeminists need to draw on the 
researches and strategies of avant garde feminist history and its critique of 
institutionalized patriarchy. In order to disrupt, resist, decode, and recode 
the masculinist structures of the new technologies, the tough work of 
technical, theoretical, and political education has to begin. Cyberfeminists 
must resist utopic and mythic constructions of the Net, and strive to work in 
activist coalitions with other resistant netgroups. Cyberfeminists need to 
declare solidarity with transnational feminist and postcolonial initiatives, 
and work to use their access to communications technologies and electronic 
networks to support such initiatives.

l. The 1st Cyberfeminist International met during the cyberfeminist workdays 
in the Hybrid Workspace at Documenta X in Kassel, September 20-28, l997.
2. At Carnegie Mellon University, women students comprise about l0% of the 
computer science department.
3. "Cyberfeminism with a Difference" Rosi Braidotti. 
4. Sadie Plant, Zeros + Ones: Digital Women + the New Technocultures.  p. 37
5.  Faith Wilding and CAE, "Notes on the Political Condition of 
6. Donna Haraway, Modest_Witness.
7. Using the term "feminism" is very different than using the term 
"women"--although perhaps one should consider using the term "cyberwomanism" 
which acknowledges the critique of racist white feminism so justly made by 
bell hooks and others.
8. See for example the listings of l,000 feminist or women-related sites in 
Shana Penn, The Women's Guide to The Wired World . New York: Feminist Press, 
9. For more information and papers see []
10. Alla Mitrofanova, CI lecture.

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