Can Feminist Groups and Bloggers Bridge the Digital Divide?
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At the least, leaders of national women's rights groups and the founders of fast-growing feminist blog sites gathered in the same room. That in itself was a first. And a major accomplishment, says Shireen Mitchell of Digital Sisters, one of the organizers of the Fem2.0 conference held in early February in Washington, DC.
"Normally, they'd not been in the same space together. It was one of the biggest challenges," she said. The goal was first to introduce the two sides -- then to aim for a lot more interaction in the long term.
"The prospect of coalition building was an outcome worth fighting for," said Mitchell, who, as founder of a tech nonprofit and vice chair of the National Congress of Women's Groups, is both digitally aware and used to working with the traditional feminist groups. The forging of a coalition, she said, "is really happening. The conference had a huge impact."
The mainstream feminist membership groups and the bloggers not only rarely talked, they really did represent a digital divide in the women's movement, well beyond the technology itself.
The mainstream membership groups, for the most part, don't blog or are only beginning to use that tool. They're beset by financial problems, like most nonprofits, at the very time they've won a seat at the policy table with the Obama Administration after eight years in the wilderness.
The bloggers, for the most part, are far less affected by the economic meltdown. They don't have payroll or office rent costs. And where the mainstream groups compete to attract and keep members today, the bloggers don't have "members" and are not formal "groups." Yet with relatively minimal costs, they may reach hundreds of thousands of people and offer a voice on their sites to many hundreds of feminist bloggers.
The mainstream women's groups, aided by feminist policy groups and think-tanks, have a huge role in shaping legislation that affects women's rights; the bloggers have far less of a direct role. Many of those at the Fem2.0 conference hadn't realized that some of the women's rights proposals they were backing had been drafted by the feminist women's groups. That was one of the eye-openers at the conference, and bloggers sent in hundreds of requests for the list of top priority legislative initiatives that the mainstream groups had been working on.
The techno-competence issue divides to some extent on generational and geographic lines -- with the West Coast blog sites far out front. But another conference eye-opener was the realization that there is not an ideological divide. The old-line groups and the new feminist bloggers agree on most policy initiatives -- and might not even have known it.
Researcher Stanislas Magniant said in any inventory of bloggers, feminist blogs show up as very dense and cohesive -- and very connected to the huge progressive movement. He raised the question as to whether there could be an "echo chamber" danger but said, for the most part, they have a good base from which to build.
At the opening plenary, Eleanor Smeal, who founded the Feminist Majority Foundation 22 years ago, joked about the digital divide between generations of feminists, young and old: "some of us in this room are connectors between 1.0 and 2.0." Her group, however, had been one of the first with a website, dating from the Beijing women's conference in 1995, and its younger staffers keep them technologically current today. But she said the women's movement hasn't figured out ways to use the web to get buy-in from grass roots people in the way that donors, large and small, bought into the Obama campaign. She recently talked to a female taxi driver who was ebullient about President Obama. When Smeal asked if she had supported him financially, the woman said, yes, she had sent in $5. And with a small donation, that woman felt totally invested in Obama's campaign and his success.
The techno divide also was illustrated by the bloggers' reaction to Kim Gandy, president of the 43-year-old National Organization for Women, when she talked about the movement's success working with Obama's architects of the economic stimulus-package to include funds for jobs that would go to women, not just shovel-ready road jobs that go mostly to men. Gandy said she had little money to spread the word about their achievement.