In the 1990s, Feminism Found a New Ally: Computers
Lisa Levenstein Revisits the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing
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.
To explore the World Wide Web, people had to pay for a subscription to an internet service provider, such as America Online or CompuServe. And the technology was slow; even for “early enthusiasts,” one scholar observed, navigating the internet demanded “as much patience as know-how.”
Barbara Ann O’Leary had both qualities. Having grown up in St. Louis during the 1960s, with parents who had been part of the Catholic Worker Movement, she was a visionary nonconformist, with a passion for communications. From an early age, O’Leary wrote letters to a number of relatives and Girl Scout pen pals. Every day, she would listen for the postal delivery truck and rush out to grab the mail from the letter carrier. Packages from her aunt were a special treat; they often included feminist books and magazines, which helped spark her interest in the women’s movement.
Captivated by the television coverage of civil rights and antiwar protests, O’Leary supported striking Filipino and Latino farm workers by boycotting grapes. By the time she was a teenager, she was a political junkie, who “watched every single minute of the Nixon impeachment hearings” and “read almost every book about Watergate, including the entire transcripts.”
In the 1980s, O’Leary’s mother, a grade school librarian, taught basic computing skills to children and learned how to build computers from scratch. Her example taught O’Leary to view computers as tools, no different from ballpoint pens or telephones. “Some kinds of tools interest me more than others,” O’Leary said.An international network of women . . . realized that the emerging forms of electronic communications could augment longstanding feminist practices.
From a young age, she avoided telephones but loved taking apart mechanical pencils. When personal computers became available, she embraced them. She majored in theater in college and did not take a single class in programming. Yet as she pursued her passion for stage managing and dramatic literature, she was also teaching herself about computers and the internet outside the classroom.
O’Leary saw computers as the successors to the tools that previous generations of feminists had used to circumvent the mainstream media and communicate with one another. During the 1970s, while activists fought to change the sexist practices of corporate news outlets such as the New York Times and Ladies’ Home Journal, they also created their own newspapers and magazines and launched small independent presses.
By the 1990s, thousands took advantage of inexpensive photocopying to publish “zines”—pamphlets that looked like scrapbooks, combining elements of personal journals, newsletters, and collages. They traded zines with one another, gave them away, solicited subscriptions, and sold them at independent music stores and bookstores.
Most people have assumed that men crafted and led all of the important initiatives in the male-dominated technology sector, but women were essential to the development of computer programming and the internet. As the digital revolution got under way, an international network of women—who have not received much public recognition—realized that the emerging forms of electronic communications could augment longstanding feminist practices.
One international organization, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), put substantial resources into fostering women’s technological leadership. This nonprofit was largely responsible for social movements’ early adoption of new communication technologies. Under Edie Farwell, the woman who worked 18-hour days at the NGO Forum’s computer center, the APC helped global feminism become a leader among all social movements in pursuing online activism.
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.