Can Feminist Groups and Bloggers Bridge the Digital Divide?

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.

"We don't have the money to start a blog," she said, noting that NOW gets no money from corporations or from government, only from members, and many of them are hurting today.

As she spoke, a giant screen behind the heads of speakers showed the ongoing chatter from bloggers in the room, Tweetering comments about Smeal and Gandy. Some of the comments: so why haven't you asked us to help? Why don't you reach out to us to help you start blogs?

Some West Coast-based bloggers appear to be making fast tracks to new audiences, and not always predictable ones. The Silicon Valley's BlogHer claims it reaches 10 million women each month through conferences, its web hub and its network of more than 2,700 targeted blog affiliates. BlogHer began in 2005, has venture capital financing and accepts partisan views on all sides. "We've aimed to be non or multi-ideological," said Elisa Camahort Page, one of three founders. "Most of our panels are politically diverse. We have conservatives, too. Women are not monolithic." And they want to avoid the danger of "getting into an echo chamber of women only as liberal progressives," she said.

MomsRising has more overt activist lobbying appeals on its website. It recently said it had generated more than 130,000 letters to Congress in support of S-chip legislation to expand federal health care for children, a bill that was signed into law last week. Kirstin Rowe-Finkbeiner of Seattle, executive director of MomsRising, said their goal is to tear down the "maternal wall" that keeps working mothers in economic peril. She said women with kids "are hired 79 percent less than women without kids. Most women don't even get to the glass ceiling."

Recently, both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid blogged on the MomsRising site. They've gotten their bloggers on such sites as Huffington Post. They get more than 3,000 media messages a day. "We're trying to ride the waves of change versus waving at it," she said.

Veronica Arreola, a Chicago-based blogger with Viva la Feminista, embraces the new technology, including training tools she uses to help women "prepare Roe rallies and to get their voices on CNN." In helping women launch their own blogs, and appear on others' sites as well, "we are sustaining a movement and really growing the movement." Blogs aren't enough, however. Face-to-face meetings still are valuable. Anyone who Twitters will realize, she said, that a lot of the women bloggers and Twitterers "want to get together. We still need in-person meetings."

And that's where the Fem2.0 conference comes in. The face-to-face encounters suggested many next-step challenges. "Now we're looking to see how to put [feminist legislative] agendas on blogs, on formal ways that information can flow," said Mitchell.

Today, telephone calls and even emails can be too slow in raising an alarm when there is a crisis. Case in point: when Republicans took aim at an expansion of family planning funds under Medicaid, which was a miniscule part of the stimulus package. The GOP attacks were launched on a weekend, the feminist lobby never matched the Republican sound bites against it and the money was deleted from the bill.

It's a sobering lesson for both the feminist legislative lobby and the bloggers -- and a wakeup call that new systems may be needed. "My dream is that we'd be at a place where the connection between bloggers and traditional women's rights groups is a seamless flow of information," said Mitchell.

It's not there yet. Some traditional membership groups still don't see the value of the blogger-media networks -- or maybe are fearful that they'll give up control if they work with bloggers to put their messages out there. "There is a lot of misunderstanding about what the [blogger] media can do for them," said Mitchell. "It makes them nervous." That's part of the next conversation, she said.

But if a connection can be forged, if those feminist legislative "bullet points" can be worked into the bloggers' sites, the feminist and progressive community "will take on a whole life of its own that people can't even imagine today," Mitchell said.

This article was originally posted by The Women's Media Center at The WMC is a non-profit organization founded by Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and Robin Morgan, dedicated to making the female half of the world visible and powerful in the media.


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