As progressive social movements seek to gear up for the November election, they face uncharted territory. The recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations build on years of dedicated community organizing that had encouraged people to analyze and resist systemic racism and injustices in every arena of life.
In the age of COVID-19, that activism must take new forms. For the foreseeable future, while people will still march on the streets, the day-to-day work of organizing a movement will have to take place primarily online.
Of all social movements, feminism has one of the longest and most storied histories of online organizing—and it is a history that today’s activists can draw on. The tools and principles that feminists developed in the 1990s have much to teach us as we prepare for the battles of our day.
Many feminists became adept at using electronic communications around 1995—the cusp of the digital revolution. Google, Facebook and Twitter had not yet been invented, but e-mail and the World Wide Web were beginning to be part of people’s daily lives.
The journalists covering the digital revolution warned of a gender-based “digital divide” because women were using the Internet much less frequently than men. Yet by 2000, thanks in part to feminist organizing, that divide had disappeared.
Like today, very few women held positions of power in large technology corporations. Yet all over the world, talented women had an interest in digital technologies and wanted to make a difference. For many, that opportunity came when preparations began for the United Nations 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China—a 12-day event in which 35,000 activists from around the world gathered to assess the global status of women and set goals for the future.
In preparation for Beijing, feminist technology specialists from every continent joined forces to develop digital tools that would enable conference participants to communicate quickly and effectively across borders. At the conference, they set up a computer center where participants could learn how to use email, surf the web and print documents.
The first of its kind at a UN meeting, the computer center was staffed by an all-female team from 24 countries, speaking 18 languages. As role models and teachers, they trained activists from all over the world in digital communications. Today thousands of feminists identify the Beijing conference as the turning point in their embrace of digital technologies.
One of the technology team’s guiding principles was securing access for the many over promoting fancy tools for the few. At this stage in the Internet’s development, the World Wide Web and e-mail were not yet seamlessly connected. E-mail was largely a text-based communication tool without any of the images and graphics common today.
Since exploring the World Wide Web required more expertise and bandwidth, the technology team focused on connecting people to e-mail and other text-based tools such as bulletin boards. Many favored an information retrieval system called Gopher, which enabled them to share large documents within and across borders more cheaply and effectively than by fax.
Meanwhile, feminists developed social norms for online exchanges to promote inclusive conversations among people from different countries. Those with easy access to computers and strong Internet connections would restrain themselves from posting too frequently in order to give those who could only get online every few days meaningful opportunities to weigh in.
In the U.S., blogs and websites introduced people to feminist analyses that addressed issues ranging from poverty and environmental justice to racism and gay rights. Many took their cues from Black feminists in organizations such as the Combahee River Collective, who in the 1970s had called for organizing that focused on the experiences of those most marginalized. The idea was that attending to their struggles would result in the destruction of all systems of oppression.
From a transgender man in rural Ohio to a Latinx student navigating an all-white public school, people who felt isolated in their daily lives formed imaginative and emotionally sustaining virtual communities. The conversations they had online were rich, and often revelatory. Many discovered new ways of understanding themselves and the world and formed meaningful personal relationships.
Well before the invention of what we call social media, they had realized in order for communications on the Internet to make a difference, online spaces needed to do more than promote interesting ideas. What kept people coming back was not only the intellectual stimulation but also the connections they were developing with one another.
At the heart of every successful social movement are webs of personal relationships that come from participating in political struggles side by side. Nothing can replace the bonds people develop when they banter and plot strategy over pizza, or the sense of solidarity achieved when thousands chant together on the streets. But activists can still find ways to forge common cause by using the online tools and methods they have been cultivating since the end of the century.
The change makers of the 1990s laid the groundwork. It is up to us to continue the fight.