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In the 1990s, Feminism Found a New Ally: Computers (excerpt)

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tags: feminism, technology, womens history, internet history



Lisa Levenstein is the Director of the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program and an Associate Professor of History at UNC Greensboro. Her first book, A Movement Without Marches, won the Kenneth Jackson Book Award. She lives in Chapel Hill, NC.

In 1995, over 30,000 activists from 200 countries traveled to Beijing, China to attend the NGO Forum of the Fourth World Conference on Women. At this United Nations-sponsored event, they spent 10 days grappling with problems facing women around the world, sharing strategies, and proposing solutions.

Edie Farwell spent 18 hours a day at the forum without attending a panel or a plenary, joining the marches or visiting the themed tents. Yet no one worked as closely with women from different parts of the world or encountered more conference attendees than she did. Farwell had arrived in China several days before the forum opened to coordinate a team of 40 women, representing 24 different countries. These women would connect the activists at the conference to the wider world: they were responsible for setting up the computer center.

Once the forum opened, thousands of conference-goers trekked across the mud each day and waited patiently for their turn at one of the 200 machines donated by Apple and Hewlett-Packard.They were greeted by Farwell’s all-female team, whose warmth and efficiency demonstrated their mastery of new technology and comfort in using it. When something went wrong with a machine or a server, they fixed the problem. When a visitor had trouble sending a message to a loved one or finding a document from the conference, a member of the team taught her how to do it for herself.

Navigating computers at this time was a specialized skill set, and onlookers marveled at such technological prowess. Few of these observers recognized that Farwell’s group was part of a wide-ranging network of female technology specialists who were using the Beijing conference to build the infrastructure for what would become online feminism.

The UN event took place at an ideal moment for those looking to harness the tools of the internet to advance global feminism. It was the cusp of the digital revolution, the year when millions of people encountered email and the internet for the first time. Almost everyone who attended the conference in 1995 had heard about people going online to exchange and retrieve information. Some were already proficient with email, but many others had never touched a computer.

The online universe of 1995 did not look like the world we know today. There was no Facebook, Twitter, or Wikipedia. The founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, had only just met each other as graduate students at Stanford University. No one had smartphones or access to Wi-Fi services. Sending an email message required first connecting to the internet through a scratchy-sounding modem that plugged into a telephone line, a process that could take minutes.

 

Excerpted from They Didn’t See Us Coming: The Hidden History of Feminism in the Nineties by Lisa Levenstein. Copyright © 2020. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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