Presentation Abstract

Women Online: Feminist Theories in Virtual Space

Proponents of cyberfeminism, according to Hall (1996), consider the computer a “cultural icon, theorizing it as a utopian medium which neutralizes physical distinctions of gender, race, and sexual orientation” (p. 146). However, computer use, as various researchers point out, is built on a number of expectations ingrained in a class, gender, race, and age-biased society (Haas, 1994, Selfe and Selfe, 1995, Zimmerman, 1983). Computers can thus be seen as artifacts which continue the duality of gender as well as the existing class and race system.

New technologies, therefore, are not neutral entities but actually laden with value judgments that oftentimes reflect the beliefs and ideologies of the dominant culture. These technologies, then, are used to continue existing barriers and reinforce exclusionary practices. And although feminist cybertheorists try to reconceptualize traditional notions of gender and race, their efforts have often been undermined by the much-too-real constraints of home, school, and society. Therefore, many such “utopian theories” have yet to be applied to the varied realities of women--especially nontraditional women--in cyberspace.

This study takes this step, moving from theories of cyberspace to the practice of cyberreality by looking critically at the impact of new technologies on the traditionally disenfranchised. I propose to complicate concepts of gender and race in a virtual environment by presenting a case study of an African American woman’s online personality(ies). Specifically, I discuss how one woman’s (“Celie’s”) presence in a college class and her online contributions influenced her peers--as well as her own image--during discussions about violence and gender issues. I show that Celie's feelings of exclusion and inclusion are related to a long history of strained race relations, her upbringing, her schooling, and her wish to succeed in an environment often inhospitable and hostile to her needs. A close analysis of her online voice reveals whether her position in a society taunted by unequal race and gender relations changes in virtual space.

The discussion of Celie’s virtual persona leads to an exploration of practical applications of feminist cybertheories in a variety of online environments--synchronous and asynchronous conferencing tools, internet applications, and the World Wide Web. Understanding the connections between online theory and online practice enables us and our students to move from a “utopian cyberfeminism” to a “practiced cyberfeminism” that takes into account women’s many differences without ignoring the very real and pressing inequalities--online and offline.

Author: Sibylle Gruber


Target Audience: Advanced

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