Feminism Online

On February 2, approximately 300 women gathered for the first Fem 2.0 conference in Washington D.C. A pro bono project of Turner Strategies, the event was convened by fourteen women’s entities ranging from the stalwarts, American Association of University Women (AAUW) and National Organization of Women (NOW), to the cutting edge voices of Feministe and culturekitchen. The goal was to examine the explosion of women on the Internet, and the nexus between new media and women’s advocacy.

There was a full line of presentations and plenaries, as well as eleven breakout sessions. It was tough choosing between such offerings as “At the Cross Roads: Organizing the Next Generation of Feminists Online and Off” and “Broadening Our Reach: Feminism and Working Women.” The end objective was to open up conversations, and to examine how powerful alliances between women’s advocacy groups (both traditional and non-traditional) and new media could be forged.

There was plenty to learn. I appreciated the insights from Anne Stone, Senior Vice President at the National Women’s History Museum, who shared that only 5 per cent of all monuments in Washington D.C. were of women, and that actress Hedy Lamarr had co-developed the technology which was a precursor to wireless communications (who knew?).

Shireen Mitchell, the Vice Chair of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, moderated “Feminism on the Move – Where We Were and Where Are We Now?” Several different threads of conversation emerged. One evidenced the relief that the Bush Era was over. “We’ve been locked out of the White House for eight years,” said Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority. Commenting on the application of new media she stated, “The organizing online is just like what we used to do. We’re moving issues.”

Reflecting on the nuts and bolts of policy, Kim Gandy, President of NOW, emphasized that the “biggest challenge was funding 1.6 million women’s jobs.” She used the phrase “human infrastructure” to address the need for women to be integrated into the economic stimulus package, with job opportunities in the education and health sectors.

Viva la Feminista writer, Veronica Arreola, called for “amplifying voices to grow a movement.” Elisa Camahort Page, BlogHer Co-Founder, expressed her concern for ideological diversity. “There are opportunities to find common ground,” she said. Summoning the need to avoid an isolating echo chamber and to cultivate “civil debates,” Camahort Page stressed, “We need to humanize each other…There are issues all women care about. We need to think outside the political box.”

Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, Executive Director of the 150,000 plus membership of MomsRising, commented, “There is no one right way to fight for feminism.” With 72 percent of mothers in the labor force, and single mothers earning 60 cents to a man’s dollar, she pointed to the imperative of breaking down “The Maternal Wall.”

I sat in on the discussion about “Women’s Health Online and Off.” The point was driven home that health care is a women’s issue, a number one economic issue, and that the two are intrinsically intertwined. Women are forced to forgo health care that they need because they can’t afford it. It was reiterated that reproductive issues are only part of the total picture. The sobering statistic that having a baby is a leading cause for poverty among women (what Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney has termed the “Mom-Bomb”) was cited.

After lunch I listened to a panel on how feminism could be injected into popular culture. There was agreement that women’s visions and voices were missing, and images had to be shifted. Melissa Silverstein (Women and Hollywood) referenced the “obsession with lookism.” Latoya Peterson (Racialicious) spoke to how women were still considered “optional and disposable,” and underscored that they were “more and more marginalized in communities of color.”

The conclusion that women must be in positions of leadership segued neatly into the closing session, “From Individual Voice to Law of the Land – Continuum for Change.” When you hear that women earn in sixteen months what a man makes in a year, it is obvious that women have to cultivate their piece of the economic pie. Linda D. Hallman, Executive Director of AAUW, made that clear with her premise, “We need to redefine the feminist agenda as an economic issue.”

The technology part comes into play as a tool to advance and advocate for the essential work to be done. Liza Sabater (culturekitchen) spoke about the intersection of networking and technology. She said, “We have to build social capital to create political wealth.”

For me, the revelation of the day was “Impact of Women’s Issues and Feminist Bloggers on the Political Web,” presented by Stan Magniant, VP & General Manger of linkfluence. Magniant observed that the feminist web existed as a separate and dense community that was enmeshed in the progressive community. He suggested that it was important to push the feminist agenda on the bigger sites because “the larger the network, the larger the footprint, the larger the impact.”

In the past week, several pieces have been posted questioning Magniant’s methodology. Concerns raised included, “How do you factor in the difference between feminist sites, feminist content, and those who reject the feminist label?” “How does this relate to the whole continuum of women active in media?”

The linkfluence methodology is based on link patterns analysis, which is similar in principle to the algorithms powering Google’s PageRank or Technorati’s Authority score. (Technorati.com is the leading blogosphere search engine).

When I called Magniant with some additional questions, he spoke to my belief that solely having a presence on the Internet was not going to create the change and momentum that was needed. The key is to “project and pollinate, syndication, cross-posting, widgets, and aggregate techniques.” Succinctly put, Magniant said, “You’re 2.0 when you are engaged in participatory and reciprocatory activity – not just a display page on FaceBook.”

That for me was the key to the Fem2.0 conference. To mashup, interact, and expand the dialogue. As long as the separate communities of women are siloed on the Internet, they will only be as strong as their individual voices and agendas. Magniant in a follow up e-mail note wrote, “With online efforts undertaken by the feminist community [to interrelate in a new way], I’m pretty sure we’d see a very different map if we were to repeat the study in a year or so.”

In the linkfluence map, red lines are inbound and yellow lines are outgoing. Until we see more of the green lines of “reciprocal links” between bloggers, organizations, feminists, womanists, and varying points of view, women online will continue to be disconnected in their efforts.

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