Crawling Out of the Cyberswamp: It’s Time for a Cyberfeminism 2.0
About 25 years ago, just as the internet began creeping into our lives and early heralds of its advance told us beautiful stories about the utopia tech would bring, something “crawled out of the cyberswamp” and “forged an unholy alliance with technology and its machines.” In an overwhelmingly male space, a wild, irreverent, and playfully subversive guerilla feminist movement was born.
Cyberfeminism was a rollicking, if loosely connected, movement of international feminists determined to use this new techno-utopia provided by cyberspace to rattle the server cages of patriarchy, deconstruct and scatter traditional power dynamics, and reclaim the internet from “the inherently masculine nature of techno-science.” The movement defied definition, choosing to define what it was not rather than what it stood for, but it brought together hacker culture, art and videogames, feminist theory, and punk attitudes. With the burst of the dot-com bubble that caused techno-utopianism to fall out of fashion, cyberfeminism also fell out of fashion, although we still find strands of the movement across social media, video games, and in non-Western online spaces.
Today, more than ever, we need a Cyberfeminist 2.0 movement.
“Hijack the Toys from Technocowboys”
The term “cyberfeminism” was coined nearly simultaneously in different far-flung corners of the world.
The first appearance of the term was in southern Australia, from VNS Matrix (pronounced Venus Matrix), a four-woman feminist collective that blended technology and art in fierce and irreverent ways. According to the group, “via an aesthetics of slime initially generated as porn (by women for women) VNS Matrix forged an unholy alliance with technology and its machines and spewed forth a blasphemous text which was the birth of cyberfeminism.”
This “blasphemous text” was A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century, and first appeared as billboards across Australia: “We are the modern cunt / positive anti reason /” it reads, “we are the virus of the new world disorder / rupturing the symbolic from within / saboteurs of big daddy mainframe / the clitoris is a direct line to the matrix.”
At the same time, British cultural theorist Sadie Plant at Warwick University was developing curriculum around the same concept, arguing that men had everything to lose from the digital realm as women and machines would form an alliance, and that “cyber space is our of man’s control.”
Over the next several years, cyberfeminism grew in popularity. VNS Matrix ran workshops to teach women computer skills and developed an arcade game, All New Gen, where gender neutral “cybersluts” and “anarcho cyber-terrorists” infiltrate the phallic database of Big Daddy Mainframe and take him and his Techno Bimbos down with G-Slime shot from weaponized clitorises. Sadie Plant published a book, Zeros and Ones, in which she attempted to bring attention to women in technology who had been hidden by history, particularly Ada Lovelace.
In 1997, a collective satirically named the Old Boys Network organized the First Cyberfeminist International in Berlin to bring together women programmers and artists to discuss and debate and get their hands dirty in code and hardware. The group resisted formally defining what cyberfeminism is, but rather laid out what it was not in the 100 Anti-Theses. These Anti-Theses juxtaposed irreverent and serious comments, including that cyberfeminism “is not a fashion statement,” “is not an institution,” “ist kein oxymoron,” “n’est pas une pipe,” “is not a media hoax,” “is not lady like,” “is not from outer space,” and “is not about boring toys for boring boys.”
But cyberfeminism’s original tenets have not aged well. As Evelyn Wang wrote at Dazed, “Histories of cyberfeminism usually cite the early aughts as cyberfeminism’s time of death. As the dotcom bubble burst, so did the cyberfeminist’s dream of a techno-utopia where women, free of their gendered bodies, would rule cyberspace. […] They read like a satirical alternate history in 2016, when the rules state everyone on the internet is a straight white man unless proven otherwise, and God help you if you prove otherwise. The patriarchy responded to Donna Haraway’s threat of a feminist cyborg uprising by making huge-titted sexbots who teach men pick-up skills.”
When it became clear that the internet would not be a space free of the power structures brought over from the IRL world, cyberfeminism 1.0’s vision of the internet where anonymity would set women free became terribly out of touch. According to Baily Poland, author of Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online:
“Cyberfeminist writing did little to address the idea of celebrating one’s identity as ‘other’ as a form of empowerment, which limited the ability of cyberfeminist theorists to approach the presence of oppressive behaviors online from an intersectional perspective. […] An appreciation of the variable axes of oppression in online spaces, along with firmer predictions about the ways in which online spaces might mimic offline sexism, might have made cyberfeminism less utopian about the possibilities for the Internet, and might have encouraged deeper forays into making the Internet safe for all races and genders, instead of attempting to erase them in favor of an androgynous cyber ideal.”
“In a way, cyberfeminism was just doomed,” said Julianne Pierce, one of the four founders of VNS Matrix, in an interview with Dazed. “It just became a bit dour and academic. I guess a lot of people didn’t get our sense of humor and the irony in it, and took it at face value… and expected us to be something else. They either expected us to be cyborgs or else radical feminists.”
Tech is Not Getting Better for Women
Since the dot-com bubble burst, tech and cyberspace has not gotten any better for women.
According to the U.S. Census, in 2011 women held 47% of jobs in math, 41% in life and physical science, 27% in computer science, and 13% in engineering. The percentage of women employed in these fields grew throughout the 1970s to 1990s, and then tapered off. In computer science fields, the percentage of women has actually declined from 35% in 1990 to 26% in 2013.
The numbers underscore the pervasive sexist culture that permeates technology today.
Uber’s year started out badly, with a grassroots social media effort to protest the company’s weak response to the Trump Administration’s travel ban. The #DeleteUber campaign led to 50,000 people to delete their accounts with Uber in one week, and up to 200,000 possible overall. But the reality is that people have been calling for Uber customers to delete their Uber accounts since 2014, when an Uber executive was caught discussing with members of Uber’s board how they wanted to launch a smear campaign against journalist Sarah Lacy. Lacy and her publication, Pando, have been dogged critics of Uber’s sexist culture.
Uber’s culture of sexism is notorious, even in Silicon Valley, but that didn’t stop a blog post Susan Fowler posted on her personal website from going viral among horrified women online in mid-February. Susan’s post prompted Uber to launch an investigation into sexism in the company’s culture, led by Eric Holder and Arianna Huffington. Although the investigation has so far uncovered that Travis Kalanick and Emil Michael visited an escort-karaoke bar in Seoul where they picked women working at the bar by calling out the numbers the women were tagged with, there’s skepticism the investigation will have any real impact. After all, Arianna Huffington, who recently told CNN that sexual harassment is not a systemic issue at Uber, was in the room when Emil Michael made the comments about lacy in 2014, and Michael attempted to convince the source of the escort-karaoke bar story to lie if approached by the press.
Susan’s story prompted others to write about their experiences with Uber’s sexist culture, but in at least one case, it was done so anonymously. In that case, although the story cannot be confirmed independently, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that women are afraid to talk about the sexism they have experienced in the industry publicly. Women who report harassment are often retaliated against, despite laws against it. The retaliation is subtle, and yet all-too familiar: women are taken off choice projects, not allowed to join or transfer to new teams, find their work held to impossible standards, get poor reviews followed by micromanagement, or are fired due to “culture fit”.
I’ve spoken to many women who did not want to discuss on the record sexism they’ve faced—from VCs passing over companies because they don’t understand women-focused products, to VCs that are openly proud of cultivating a hypermasculine culture within their portfolio, to women CEOs who are ignored in meetings by prominent men (one story involved a high-profile journalist being surprised to discover a woman CEO in the room was not the secretary)—because the backlash and burned bridges would be highly detrimental to their business or their careers.
The fear of retaliation in powerful; I have stories of my own where I hesitate to discuss the details publicly or resist to name-and-shame the perpetrators. These include one all-male startup loudly complaining that International Women’s Day is the “stupidest thing” they had ever heard of because a woman-owned business they worked with closed for the day, and another all-male startup that was ostensibly liberal but spent several hours in the middle of a co-working space loudly laughing at sexist comments made online about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
The election highlighted how pervasive sexism is in online and tech spaces. Sarah Jeong, author of The Internet of Garbage and tech journalist for Vice’s Motherboard section, was harassed to the point of needing to make her Twitter account private for saying “Sanders supporters are sometimes shitty on Twitter,” even though she herself was a fan of Senator Sanders’ candidacy. Jeong was far from the only woman or person of color to face this; the phenomenon from Sanders supporters was so common they were nicknamed “Bernie Bros.”
Meanwhile, on the right, the racist and misogynistic movement known as the alt-right was evolving from a Twitter phenomenon dedicated to silencing and harassing women in video games to a political movement that would help to carry their chosen candidate, Donald Trump, to the White House. Emboldened by a Trump campaign rife with sexist and racist rhetoric, Trump supporters online used tactics developed in Gamergate to harass, doxx, overwhelm, and silence critics of the candidate—on both the left and the right.
Gamergate and the alt-right were made up largely of the very same crowds online, and had the same figure heads, because both movements took advantage of the loneliness and vulnerability of young men online to build an anti-feminist backlash movement filled to the brims with white supremacy and misogyny. Now, not only is this a movement with the highest levels of political power, it is a movement determined to end feminism and remove women from online spaces.
[Read next: We Should Really Stop Ignoring All the Terrorists on 4Chan]
We Need a Cyberfeminism 2.0
In the chaotic jumble of the Women’s March and calling Congress and showing up at town halls and following the Russia investigation and fighting for the ERA and a general feeling among feminists of wanting to—needing to—be involved more than ever, the online environment that got us here has been left out of the conversation.
This likely goes back to the common understanding that online life and the real world are separate spheres, and what happens online is trivial compared to real life. But the past few years should have disabused us of this notion. Social media is required for many professions now, especially for anyone wanting to start a company, and is used for networking, job hunting, and even increasingly for determining your credit risk. Without a social media presence, women are left out of opportunities to advance their careers, but all too often, the first advice any woman gets when subjected to cyber harassment is to just log off. By and large, law enforcement has done little to address the waves of harassment that result in stalking, rape and death threats, and event SWATting attempts that overtake the lives of harassment targets. Silicon Valley’s attempts at addressing harassment are clumsy at best, and often too little, too late.
While tech companies are failing to deal with harassment of their customers, they are also failing to deal with environments within their companies that exclude women. According to Harvard Business Review, 52% of women leave science, engineering, and technology jobs after just 12 years, citing lack of flexibility in jobs that allow them to also juggle home life, lack of career advancement options, isolation, and hostile cultures built around brogrammer machismo. Products are being designed by men, without an understanding of how features will play out across a diverse user bas, and women are leaving behind careers entirely.
Globally, women face very different challenges in accessing technology. Refugees or women in poorer nations may struggle to acquire so much as a mobile phone, finding their ability to acquire tech is limited by money or restricted by men in their life. When women do have access to technology, it can be literally life-changing: women are able to access life-saving medical interventions during pregnancy, use technology to run their businesses more efficiently, and education themselves and their children. Technology, when done well, in the hands of women can be a powerful force for good in the world.
We need a Cyberfeminist 2.0 movement that is both intersectional and international. Women of color and transgender women are subject to disproportionately more harassment online, and they are least likely to have their concerns and fears about such harassment taken seriously by other people online, law enforcement, and tech companies themselves. When gender gaps are discussed in wages and percentages of a company’s workforce, the gaps are always smallest for white women and largest for women of color. And the challenges women face in accessing tech in the West, where Cyberfeminism 1.0 was centered, are far different than challenges in the rest of the world.
Cyberfeminism can no longer approach technology as if the online world is a neutral place where identities, and the ensuing power structures that come with them, are left behind in the real world. But there is an opportunity for cyberfeminism to push for real change. What if at the same time groups were hosting coding bootcamps for women, other groups were staging Pussy Riot-style protests outside of Uber’s offices? Why couldn’t a modern re-imagining of A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century go up on a billboard across the street from Twitter’s offices on San Francisco’s Market Street, while simultaneously a non-profit outreach group was hosting educational seminars for law enforcement on online harassment?
Cyberfeminism’s history is that of both art and advocacy; counter-culture and academia. These elements persist throughout our online discourse today, as well as through a revitalized women’s movement. Combining these forces to target technology’s pernicious misogyny—both in real life and online—under a Cyberfeminist 2.0 umbrella could be the movement we need to change the dialogue around women in tech.
Photo: Lynn Hershman Leeson, Seduction, 1986.
Disclosure: Fibonacci Media Co./WhiteHat Magazine participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program.
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