In my first year at university, on one of those Thursday nights given over entirely to black coffee and dwindling minutes of pre-deadline grace time all uplit by the flickering glow of an LCD screen, I stumbled across a website called www.feministing.com. It was my first contact with the feminist web sphere, and I was blown away.
Growing up in the 1990s, I spent my youth being told by dour adults that feminism was dead, and since my only contact had been through reading the dusty tomes of big-name 1970s sisters like Andrea Dworkin and Germaine Greer, I was beginning to worry that they might be right. But here, in front of me, was a website full of up-to-the-minute, hard-hitting debate, with a plethora of articulate contributors and a sidebar of links to hundreds more blogs, webzines and forums. Here was evidence that I wasn't alone. I had discovered that contemporary feminism is alive, and it's online.
Feminism today is what we make it. Throughout human history, the scope of what we can make - whether from a block of wood or a raw political concept - has expanded with the tools we are given. The internet is the most powerful addition to the cave-socialist's political toolbox since the printing press, and its possibilities have yet to be fully realised. It is those who have been dispossessed by mainstream media who stand to gain most from - and who are at the forefront of - this communications revolution, which is so revolutionising the grassroots approach to feminist ideology. To paraphrase Marshal McLuhan, it is the media that is, once again, reworking the message for a new and organised generation.
The F Word
Clearly, the internet has huge potential as a mobilising force. Enterprising young feminists such as Jess McCabe, 25, general editor of British feminist magazine The F Word, have been quick to recognise the potential of the internet.
'Anyone can find feminist groups to join in their area, and if there isn't a group, they can set one up easier than ever before,' says McCabe. 'In addition to its usefulness as a simple campaigning tool, the internet provides a space to meet other feminists, talk about feminism, debate feminist issues and so on. So many people write into The F Word to say that they've just stumbled upon the site - and finally found something that reflects their views. I think that's a really powerful thing.'
With 66,000 visitors per month, The F Word is one of the UK's most visited feminist sites, and exists, in the words of its founder, Catherine Redfern, to 'encourage a new sense of community among UK feminists, and to show the doubters that feminism still exists ... and is as relevant to the lives of the younger generation as it was to those in the 1960s and 1970s.'
It is this energy and collaboration that defines the national and global feminist web sphere. From individual blogs such as Girl With a Pen and I Blame the Patriarchy to the ubiquitous www.feministing.com, feminist sites are hugely supportive of one another, and it is common practice to provide a hotlinks bar to other sites on the main interface. Most importantly, this overwhelming sense of community, perhaps for the first time in the history of the modern women's movement, knows no ideological boundaries.
In the feminist web sphere, coherence of politics or of priorities is not the point. As Catherine Redfern explains, 'Contributors to the site may have opposing views on certain issues, and that's fine. It simply demonstrates that feminism is a diverse, living and healthy ideology, which is confident enough to question itself. There is no "party line" in feminism; there is no "feminist rule-book". Feminism today is whatever we make it.'
The issues that define modern feminism are not, for the most part, new ones: debates over abortion legislation and availability, rape conviction rates, childcare provision and the pay gap remain as relevant today as they were 20 years ago. If the issues remain constant, however, the way they are handled, through inclusive, collaborative online organisation and an interactive culture, is radically different from anything that has gone before. The mode of expression is what is new and innovative about this movement: a sea-change is underway, which is churning up the settled bed of feminist thinking all over the world and taking the hearts and minds of contemporary thinkers and young women with it.
Jessie, 23, a student and feminist academic from London, comments that: 'There is a style of communication, commonly perceived as masculine, which comes from being able to assume that your worldview will be universally understood. This style of communication tends to be direct, confrontational and certain. It is used by people who have spent most of their lives being privileged in comparison to those around them - frequently, although not exclusively, straight white men. There is another style of communication, which tends to be identified as "feminine" ... It's characterised as insecure, it tends to be supportive, it tends to take more time over understanding and being understood.'
Sue O'Sullivan, who has been involved in feminist, lesbian and socialist politics since 1969, including work on Red Rag and Spare Rib, says: 'My experience as an old feminist is that some women as well as men are attracted to the certainties and one-sided rhetoric which is often identified as masculine. The influence of fundamentalisms across the world is witness to this. And within the embers of the women's movement, one dampener was the insistent voices of feminists who did want to impose rules and regulations, especially around sexuality and sexual expression.'
This rigid 'masculine' rhetoric cannot work in the same way online. Most obviously, the level of personal anonymity and - in many online contexts - ambiguity of gender means that the speaker cannot assume the automatic understanding that underpins 'masculine' rhetoric. In cyberspace, the issue of whether or not to identify yourself with a gender is very much one of personal choice. Many blogging forums, for example, make use of ambiguously-denoted 'handles' to distinguish individuals; for example, on one site, 'andustar5' and 'deathbyshinies' are female'; 'pozorvlak' is male, but so is 'glamwhorebunni', whereas 'kai_nimura' identifies as androgynous.
In this space, no one can assume that they will be understood - or dismissed - on the basis of their gender, race, age, sexuality, or social background. Most importantly, no one can assume that the power basis of any debate is solid, because this online fluidity of identity challenges the very nature of hierarchical power. In other words, in societies where a sharp distinction between male and female is one of the cornerstones of the dominant culture, spaces such as the internet, where gender is fluid, are very threatening.
Moreover, the internet is a collaborative phenomenon, as linguists and cultural phenomenologists have noted - a radically new communications style that integrates many of the most dynamic and useful features of both speech and writing. For the first time, cyberspace provides a mass media platform ideally suited to a style of communication that rejects belligerent and one-sided rhetoric, a platform suited to a style of communication that makes progress through listening as well as persuasion.
This communications revolution is prompting a new paradigm in the politics of subaltern groups such as feminists - a paradigm shift that is beginning to spread to the mainstream, with the cyber-feminists and political bloggers leading the way. This communications revolution demands a new way of talking about gender and about politics generally - a new way of speaking and listening and thinking. This communications revolution is so new that it needs a whole new name: hypertextuality.
It is hypertextuality, the phenomenon of two-way recorded debate, of collaborative rhetoric, that is revolutionising contemporary feminism. As Catherine Redfern comments, 'Feminists today are generally open to listening to each other and allowing for differences of opinion within feminist groups. I know many feminists who have very different opinions on issues that in the past have caused divisions, such as the sex industry.' Hypertextual media are allowing young feminists to see that they are more alike than unalike - and to get organised about it.
Two-way recorded debate is not in itself a new idea; however, the crucial change brought about by the internet is a vast reduction in the cost of entry to that debate. In previous generations, entry to this most important feminist debate seemed after an initial period of enthusiasm and participation, open only to well known superstar journalists and academics. Now, however, access to two-way recorded feminist debate requires only a web connection and basic literacy, and branches from that platform into three-dimensional activism.
With the main debate suddenly becoming accessible, girls are getting organised again. The annual Reclaim the Night marches have been resurrected in London, Edinburgh and Manchester, the first attended by 1,500 women in 2006. Protests are taking place from Ipswich, where a march of solidarity was held following the recent string of murders, to Leicester, where a protest against lads' mags was held outside a branch of W H Smith in April 2007. The expanding London Feminist Network is asking women who have been sexually harassed to send them the clothes they were wearing at the time with 'I did not ask for it' sewn, pinned or written on them for a 'laundry-line' protest. The Fawcett Society, which has found a new generation of online supporters, encourages its members publicly to demonstrate their politics and challenge tired stereotypes by wearing one of their 'This is What A Feminist Looks Like' t-shirts.
Catherine Redfern says that 'there are a growing number of young people willing to identify as feminists, and the internet has played a massive part in bringing many of them together. I do think that people finding each other on the internet has been a catalyst for the development of real life groups, organisations and actions.' This includes increasing numbers of young men. It is not far fetched to suggest that organisations such as the commendably self-explanatory www.mencanstoprape.org would not have come into being without this technology.
Of course, the web is not an entirely safe space for women: harassment occurs here as well, and many feminist bloggers have been the victims of hate campaigns the ferocity of which would be shocking in three-dimensional reality. Even Jessica Valenti, general editor of www.feministing.com, has been subject to serious harassment as part of the AutoAdmit scandal, which involved a US message board on which female law students were mercilessly and publicly demeaned on the grounds of their looks and sexuality, leading to several complaints of stalking. However, although the web is yet another space in which women are forced to defend themselves, we are able to do so on our own terms and in our own words: sites such as Take Back the Tech (www.takebackthetech.net) are active examples of women rallying together to resist online harassment.
Sue O'Sullivan shares our enthusiasm: 'I would absolutely love to see a new feminist movement spread outward from the internet. It makes me nervous but I'm prepared to go into unknown territory when that happens. I may be more comfortable with my ideas of collectivity, grassroots action, socialist feminist and lesbian politics, than I am with new ways, but I'm not stupid. I know that for feminism to ignite again and to meet the challenges of the day, new formations of feminism are needed.'
'Feminism' is no longer a dirty word: it's alive, online, and here to stay. All over the world, thanks to the mobilising and creative power of the web, women and men are beginning to challenge gender oppression in new and exciting ways, and to re-think the forms of speech and debate that have been used against us in recent decades. All over the world, women and their supporters are infiltrating systems, hijacking the airwaves and quietly hanging their standards over the virtual face of a culture that still regrets the day they left home. Hypertextuality allows women to question not only who wields power, but the nature of that power itself.
Laurie Penny writes Pennyred, a regular blog on contemporary feminism for the Red Pepper website
www.dollymix.tv A lively and useful media resource
www.bitingbeaver.blogspot.com A hugely inspiring blog by a survivor of rape and sexual oppression
www.feministcarnival.blogspot.com Links to the monthly 'carnival of feminists', a collaborative project bringing together the best of online feminism
www.philobiblion.co.uk Women's history, feminism and activism, plus more links to the 'carnival'
www.takebackthetech.net Reclaiming the web as a safe space for women
Laurie Penny is a freelance journalist who blogs regularly for the New Statesman.