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Ellen Balka
Memorial University of Newfoundland

Abstract. While the use of computer networks has become increasingly
popular in the last decade and research concerned with both women and
technological change and the social implications of computer networking has
proliferated, the use of computer networks by women, and the use of
computer networks in the context of feminism, have seldom been subjects of
study. In light of this omission and an extensive body of literature which
suggests that men and women have different experiences in relation to
technology, the author examines the use of computer networks by individual
women and women's groups who use this technology to either discuss feminism
or facilitate feminist organizing. In _Womantalk Goes On-line: The Use of
Computer Networks in the Context of Feminist Social Change_ (Balka, 1992),
four related issues were examined through case studies of four computer
networks that varied in structure. These issues were: (1) the
relationship of the structure of the computer network to the array of
possibilities available; (2) who users were and what they discussed in
on-line feminist groups; (3) the types of communication that occurred
on-line in these groups; and (4) the processes in which each network group
engaged in order to maintain their communications environment. This article
presents results from that study organized around the theme of access. Four
related layers of access are considered: (1) access related to network
structure; (2) access to an array of communications options; (3) access to
technical competence; and (4) access to computer networks in the context of
organizational structure. The context for this discussion is set through a
brief description of each of the networks examined in Balka (1992). Results
suggest that the success of appropriating computer networks for feminist
organizing in the future will reflect the extent to which women's access to
computer networks is addressed by future users.


Public figures as diverse as Tony Benn (a former British Minister of
Technology) (Ruthven, 1983) and Timothy Leary (Leary, 1984) have argued
that computer communication technology will provide the means for an
effective, participatory democracy. Benn argued that the emerging computer
communication technology could "be used to inform citizens about government
activities, to allow them to exchange opinions, and to make it possible for
them to play a more direct role in decision making" (Ruthven, 1983: 57). An
advocate of open government, Benn focussed upon the ability of emerging
computer networking technology to support a two-way flow of information
between citizens and the state. Along with Leary (1984), Gabree (1984) and
others, Benn argued that computer networks would widen the range of comment
and opinion easily available to the general public (Ruthven, 1983).
Computer networks were seen to have the potential to render political
decision-making more democratic (Gabree, 1984).

As the use of personal computers has increased and computer networks have
become more widespread, so too have claims about the liberatory potential
of computer networking technology. Computer networks were viewed early in
their evolution as convivial and participatory, and antithetical to the
dominant uses of electronic communications media that were centrally
controlled (Rossman, 1979). Described as a "communications medium that can
be shared by all" (Knight, 1983: 123), some viewed computer networks as a
challenge to conventional hierarchies of control (Rossman, 1979).

McCullough (1991) points out that as the cost of personal computers has
declined, resource-poor community groups engaged in organizing for social
change have become the unexpected beneficiaries of computer technology.
Computer networks, viewed as having the potential to "make a horizontal cut
through the standard vertical organizational chart" (Brilliant, 1985: 174),
are particularly appealing to social change organizations, which are
frequently structured and managed non-hierarchically.

At the same time that they acknowledge that computer technology is embedded
in economic, political and cultural structures of domination, Downing et
al. argue that computers "can now be appropriated into organizing for
progressive social change" (1991: 8). These assertions are supported by
widely held cultural views of technology (Balka, 1986; Bush, 1983) which
suggest that many see it as neutral and value-free, and believe that _how_
it is used determines whether any new technology is a desirable development
or not.

Popular debates about computer networking technology suggest that it ought
to meet a diverse array of needs, including those of women's organizations
dedicated to feminist social change. In theory, computer networks ought to
be consistent with the democratic, decentralized, participatory structures
of women's organizations dedicated to feminist social change. Theory
suggests that computer networks should be accessible to a wide range of
women, and that they can enhance the flow of information between members of
women's organizations as well as between organizations.

Although the use of computer networks has become increasingly popular in
the last decade and research concerned with both women and technological
change and the social implications of computer networking has proliferated,
the use of computer networks by women and the use of computer networks in
the context of feminism have seldom been subjects of study. Questions
raised by Kramarae (1988), together with an extensive body of literature
which suggests that men and women have different experiences in relation to
technology, provided a stimulus for an investigation into the use of
computer networks by women in the context of feminism. Kramarae points out
that women's speech and technology are richly interconnected, and that
technological processes have lasting impacts on women's communications. She
argues that all technological developments can be usefully studied with a
focus upon women's interaction, and points out that all technological
practices (including the processes of innovation, creation, production,
maintenance and use of technology) affect the ways, places and content of
talk, writing and publishing in a feminist context. For Kramarae, social
relations are organized and structured by technological systems.

In _Womantalk Goes On-line: The Use of Computer Networks in the Context of
Feminist Social Change_ (Balka, 1992), the use of computer networks by
individual women and women's groups who were using this technology to
either talk about feminism or facilitate feminist organizing was examined.
Four related issues were considered through case studies of four computer
networks that varied in structure. These issues were: (1) the relationship
of the structure of the computer network to the structure of messages; (2)
who users were and what they were talking about in on-line feminist groups;
(3) the types of communication that occurred on-line in these groups; and
(4) the processes in which each network group engaged in order to maintain
their communications environment. This article presents results from that
study organized around the theme of access. Four related layers of access
are considered: (1) access related to network structure; (2) access to
varied forms of communication; (3) access to technical competence; and (4)
access to computer networks in the context of organizational structure. The
context for this discussion is set through a brief description of the four
networks investigated in greater depth in the larger analysis (Balka,

Overview of the Study

While several examples of computer networks used in the context of feminism
were discussed in the larger analysis, four networks were investigated in
depth: Soc.women, the Femail Mailing List, the CompuServe Information
Service Men's and Women's section of the Issues forum, and the Women's
Bulletin Board System in New York City. Criteria used to select networks
for the study were: first, that group participants themselves consider the
purpose of their communication to be the discussion of feminism or feminist
issues; and secondly, that networks reflect a diversity of physical
computer network structures. The rationale for using network structure as a
selection criterion is addressed in the section titled "Theoretical
Overview." A brief description of each of the networks follows.

The Networks

Soc.Women (Usenet)

Usenet is a university/institutionally-based computer network developed in
1979. Thousands of multi- user computers located primarily in universities
and scientific institutions use the same software (Unix) and regularly pass
messages between nodes. It is possible to send mail from any Unix system to
any other Unix system, provided that one knows the address of the
destination system. Messages are sent in a leap frog fashion from one node
to the next, until they reach the desired destination. Often calls made
between two adjacent nodes are local calls. When two adjacent nodes are
further apart than a local calling area, the cost of passing messages
between nodes is absorbed by the institutions where the nodes are located
(Anderson et al., 1987). Usenet, probably the largest computer network in
the world, did not spring from the desire to bring computer access into the
home. Instead, Usenet grew out of workplace access to a computer system
(Unix) that was developed in a largely unorganized fashion by hackers who
constantly modified the system. Unix was originally conceived as a research
project by two workers in Bell Labs in 1969. Throughout the 1970s Unix was
licensed almost exclusively to universities, since AT&T was prohibited from
competing in the commercial computer industry (PC Week, 1988). Perhaps
consequently, Unix has never been supported by AT&T as a profit-oriented
product (Waite, 1987).

Usenet began when two graduate students decided to try hooking two
Unix-based computers together in order to facilitate the exchange of
information within the Unix community. A third student wrote what has
become known as the news (or netnews) software that forms the keystone for
Usenet (Spafford, 1991a). The development of Usenet has proceeded very much
like the earlier development of Unix; it is constantly modified by
programmers. In 1980 the news programs were re-written and made publicly
available, free of charge :1:. In 1982 the programs were again revised to
accommodate a better organization of topical newsgroups and the growing
number of sites receiving Unix newsgroups (Anderson et al., 1987). By 1984,
the increasing volume of mail had become problematic, which led to the
addition of a feature that would allow moderated newsgroups, inspired by
ARPAnet mailing lists (prior to that point, all Usenet content was
unmoderated) (Gilmore and Spafford, 1991). By 1987, over 5,000 sites were
participating in Usenet, with over 150,000 readers. Most sites are in North
America, although Usenet is growing in Australia, Asia and Europe (Anderson
et al., 1987).

Unlike most personal computer-based bulletin board systems or commercial
computer networking services, Usenet is not controlled by a single person
or group which establishes policy and rules for use, and maintains the
message base and equipment. Usenet requires no membership screening, no
dues, and boasts little organization. It has been described by De Marrais
(1984) and others as an administrationless volunteer-maintained computer
network of information anarchists. Viewed as a valuable source for the
dissemination of knowledge and an aid to researchers, the costs of running
Usenet are absorbed by the institutions where Usenet sites are located
(Anderson et al., 1987).

Discussion of women's issues and feminism on Usenet first occurred in the
Net.women newsgroup (its name was changed to "Soc.women" in 1986).
Net.women began in 1982 or 1983, prior to the development of software that
supported moderated newsgroups. It was an outgrowth of (Gregbo,
1991), a newsgroup for single people (Gilmore and Spafford, 1991). Some
discussions pertaining to women and relationships occurred in,
and a place other than was deemed necessary for the discussion
of these issues (Gregbo, 1991). Woods (1991a) points out that in those
days, with only a few hundred sites on the Usenet network, all that was
required to begin a new newsgroup was a little discussion in what was then
called "" and someone willing to send a newsgroup. Net.women
appears to have been somewhat controversial from the start, and remained a
confrontational arena of communication throughout its existence.

The Femail Mailing List (Internet)

One of the more successful and enduring alternatives to Soc.women is the
mail-feminist (often referred to as the Femail of feminist) mailing list.
By February of 1984, several women felt that Net.women was not meeting
their needs, and were both sufficiently frustrated with Net.women and
apparently, sufficiently confident that computer-mediated communication
could meet some of their needs, that a moderated group was set up to be
distributed through network carriers other than Usenet. The formation of
Femail began when an electronic questionnaire, about starting a new
feminist computer networking group, was posted on Net.women by a frustrated
network user. The questionnaire elicited opinions about whether men should
be included, whether the list should be restricted, and whether it should
be moderated. Based upon the questionnaire responses, the new list,
mail.feminists, began as a public mailing list with the thirty-eight
electronic questionnaire respondents (eight of whom were men) as
participants, along with three others. Some participants on the new
mail.feminist list continued to follow the dialogue on Net.women and others
stopped; all seemed to share a vision of a place to communicate about
women's issues that was different from Net.women (Femail transcripts,

In response to a message in the first batch of mail.feminist, asking
participants why they sought an alternative to Net.women, many
dissatisfactions with Net.women were voiced: it was offensive, chaotic, the
discussions were boring and endless, and women's opinions were treated as
dumb, stupid, or ignorant by men. One woman had grown tired of debating
assumptions she took for granted. Some women sought electronic
communication with others that would not be accessible to their bosses and
co-workers, as was (and is) the case with all of the Usenet newsgroups
(Femail transcripts, 1991) :2:.

The Femail Mailing List is a wide area multi-node network, yet it differs
from Usenet in some significant ways. Unlike Soc.women, the Femail Mailing
List is moderated, and distributed through a designated central node.
Assuming that nodes used for distribution of the list are functioning
correctly and all mail is distributed, users at different sites receive the
same "bundles" of messages, usually ordered chronologically. The Femail
Mailing List is distributed through the Internet, which links
institutionally-based computer systems and large corporate computer systems
throughout North America. Although membership in the Femail Mailing List
group is potentially available to all Usenet users as well as
institutionally-based users at non-Unix sites, access to the group as a
contributor is monitored and at times restricted by the moderator. While
all "readers" are requested to "join" the list by notifying the moderator,
it is impossible to monitor and control who reads (but not who contributes
to) the Femail Mailing List. This situation exists because potentially
anyone at any site receiving the Femail Mailing List can go undetected in
forwarding the bundles of mail to other users.

Men's and Women's Issues Section (CompuServe Information Service)

CompuServe Information Service is a commercial wide- area central node
network that began in 1979. Wide-area and local central node networks (such
as CompuServe Information Service and the Women's Bulletin Board System,
respectively) accommodate a greater array of communication options than
multi-node networks (such as Usenet or Internet). In contrast to Usenet and
the Femail Mailing List (which can only accommodate private electronic
mail, newsgroups and file transfer to network users), CIS offers users a
multitude of services.

CompuServe Information Service began as an in-house data processing centre
and with the availability of timesharing computers moved into the computer
service industry, initially selling time only to commercial clients. To
facilitate this end goal and to avoid the difficulties associated with
depending on another commercial enterprise for the provision of packet
switching services, before entering the home information and personal
computer market, CompuServe had developed its own packet switching network.
CompuServe became a publicly held company in 1975. In 1978, commercial
electronic mail services were introduced to its timesharing clients
(Gerber, 1989). Shortly after its major competitor in the home information
market (The Source) began operation in 1979, CompuServe Information Service
began to offer bulletin boards, databases and games targeted to computer
hobbyists in twenty-five cities served by the CompuServe packet switching
network (Gerber, 1989). By 1980, CIS was accessible to its 4,000 customers
twenty-four hours a day. The subscriber base reached 10,000 a year later,
perhaps reflecting a marketing arrangement between CIS, Tandy Computer and
Radio Shack. Also in 1981, electronic mail became available to home users
through CIS, and CIS became available in Canada. In 1983 an on-line mall
was introduced. By 1984, CIS had 100,000 subscribers, and a year later CIS
boasted 250,000 users. In 1987 CompuServe expanded its services to Japan,
and by the time it acquired The Source in 1989 it had become the largest
commercial computer information service in the world, with a half million
users. Services had grown to include 180 special interest forums; news,
weather, sports and flight information; access to several newspapers and
magazines that could be searched for keywords; an electronic version of a
CB radio; and a variety of other services (Gerber, 1989).

The use of base level CIS services is billed by the hour. Other services
(such as an on-line version of _Books in Print_) require a sign-up fee and
carry additional charges. Initially, Canadian users could only gain access
to CompuServe through a Canadian packet switching network (Datapac) that
tied into the CIS packet switching network. Users paid an additional hourly
fee for the use of Datapac (Kleiner, 1981). CompuServe introduced and then
withdrew direct access to its Ohio computer in some Canadian cities, only
to re-introduce direct access (which saved Canadian users Datapac charges)
a few years later.

The women's section on CIS began officially when Pamela Bowen submitted a
proposal to CompuServe in late 1982 or early 1983 proposing the formation
of a women's forum. Prior to Bowen's proposal to CompuServe, several women
who had met through the on-line CB "were gathering every Saturday night and
'scrambling' for private chats. That was not satisfactory, however, because
men kept sending talk requests and interrupting" (Bowen, 1991a) :3:. When
Bowen initially submitted the proposal for a women's forum, she was told by
CompuServe that there were not enough women on-line to justify it. Bowen
commented in 1988 that "they still say that, but I say that's a bunch of
balogna because most families have one account, and that account is usually
in the husband's name, even if the wife spends much more time on-line, so
there's no way CompuServe's demographics can pick that up" (1991a).

Despite CompuServe's refusal to begin a women's forum, they did consult
Georgia Griffith, who was (and still is) the head sysop of the Issues
Forum. Griffith agreed to have one section of her forum used for women's
issues; Bowen became sysop of the women's section and the assistant sysop
of the Issues forum. Griffith hoped that if the section was popular enough
it could branch into a separate forum. Many CompuServe Forums had in fact
followed this pattern of development (Bowen, 1991a). Once the women's
section of the Issue's Forum had been established, many of the women who
had been "gathering" on the CB Saturday nights moved to the new women's
section (Bowen, 1991a). In addition to one-to-one electronic mail,
one-to-many electronic mail (referred to on CIS as a "topic-specific
bulletin board area," but similar in practice to what other networks call
"conferences") and document transfer, the women's section featured weekly
"real-time" conferencing, analogous to a voice conference call where
several geographically dispersed participants could communicate
simultaneously with a barely noticeable time delay. In addition to
discussing issues in the bulletin board area of the women's section,
participants during weekly real-time conferences either "chatted" amongst
themselves, or talked to an invited guest speaker about a wide range of
women's issues. Bowen (1991b) recalls that about twenty women regularly
participated in the women's section, and five or six women regularly
participated in the weekly conferences.

I remember the women's section as an active discussion area (I "visited" it
occasionally in late 1985 and early 1986). It was closed sometime in late
1986 or early 1987 (Casal, 1991a) after a few weeks when participation was
low. Casal was an assistant sysop of the men's and women's issues section
in 1988, an area originally established for mixed gender discussions about
women's issues that "WAS dominated by men and was eventually re-named the
Men's/Women's section" (Casal, 1991b; capitalization in original). She
recalls that, although the women's conferences were regular weekly events
for at least three years, in the last few months of the section, she and
Griffith "had trouble getting even ONE woman to come ... In the end :they:
had to open the conferences to men also in order to have a conference at
all" (Casal, 1991c).

The Women's Bulletin Board System

The Women's Bulletin Board System (WBBS) was devised in 1985 and began
operation in 1986. Unlike most computer networking services, the system was
proposed and started by nine women from the social change community, rather
than the computer bulletin board community. These women discussed the
formation of the WBBS via a computer network, and after selecting the
hardware and software for the WBBS, spent two months learning their way
around the system before publicly announcing it through flyers and mailings
to women's groups and contacts in the New York City women's community.
Founders of the WBBS anticipated that potential users might lack the
knowledge to use a computer network with little assistance. In an effort to
eliminate this barrier, one of the founders based in New York City reports
that she has provided extensive support for potential users of that system,
including on-line help, hard copy help and in-person help (Interview with
Angela Leucht, November 1988). This no doubt contributed to the success of
the Women's Bulletin Board System.

The founders' initial goals were to provide a bulletin board for organizing
around women's issues and to share information between women's groups. The
bulletin board allowed users to send electronic mail to other users, post
public messages on a variety of topics of concern to feminists, and upload
and download files (document transfer). Unlike most bulletin boards in
operation in the mid-1980s (that did not easily accommodate the
organization of messages), the Women's Bulletin Board was split into
twenty-seven posting areas, each set aside for a different set of topics.
Consequently, the public messages posted on the Women's Bulletin Board read
more like a computer conference than a bulletin board, and users could more
quickly locate information of potential interest, as well as avoid some
topics altogether. Among the existing bulletin areas were areas for action
alerts (time-dated public notices); discussions about women and AIDS,
parenting, recovery from sexual abuse, recovery from alcohol abuse, and
general women's issues; notices about conferences; and areas for
adolescents, women of colour, and groups that wished to have restricted
(rather than public) communication.

Several things distinguished the Women's Bulletin Board System from other
bulletin boards and computer networking services. The WBBS was established
and operated by a group, rather than an individual. This is in marked
contrast to most bulletin boards which are operated by a single individual,
who often thinks of the board as an extension of their house, or as their
kingdom (WBBS Transcripts, 1991). Instead, group management of the system
was a major factor in the selection of software for the WBBS.
Unfortunately, women's groups have not used the system as much as was
anticipated. One of the co-founders attributes this to the software that
she feels was not designed for, and does not fully accommodate, group
communications. Another co-founder felt the largest obstacle to the
System's use by groups is that most women's organizations (in the U.S.) do
not have computers, and those that do often do not have modems (Group
Interview, November 1988).

The Women's Bulletin Board has avoided many of the problems that have
plagued other attempts to provide an electronic women's meeting place.
Although women users of other computer networks frequently complain about
attacks upon their views by men, their continuous struggle to keep the
"conversation" focused upon women, and their boredom with debates about
fundamental assumptions (that men should help change diapers, that daycare
should be more accessible), newcomers to the Women's Bulletin Board
frequently commented on the congenial atmosphere that characterized this
system. Despite these strengths, founders of the WBBS were at times
discouraged with the changes that occurred over time. All but three of the
board's original moderators and sysops, all of whom originated from the
social change community, left. They were replaced by women who have come
from the bulletin board community, and one co- founder feels that these two
communities do not often see ideas or processes in the same way (Interview
with WBBS Co-founder, November 1988).

In the fall of 1990, the WBBS was temporarily out of operation. The modem
used to operate the system was damaged when lightning struck the building.
A few of the sysops had left the WBBS, and the founders sought
replacements. The founders also investigated the acquisition of new
hardware and software. While weary, the group still felt that the WBBS was
a valuable community resource that could contribute to the New York City
women's community.

Data Collection and Analysis

Information about the networks was collected mainly from the networks
themselves. On-line sessions were both saved to a file and printed. Data
were analyzed both via computer (for example, searching for message header
information and storing it in files for further analysis) and on paper (for
example, reading and coding the transcripts according to message structure
and content). Information available in network transcripts was supplemented
with on-line queries to group users, published accounts of the networks,
and personal interviews. Theoretical perspectives that informed data
analysis included Noble's (1979) concept of social bias in machine design,
and Smith's (1990b) argument that text is a means of access to the
relations it organizes.

Theoretical Overview

Noble (1979), Linn (1987) and others :4: argue that there is more to
technology than hardware. For women, technology never exists in an asocial
sense. It is reflected in social practices, including language and other
forms of representation; in traditions of use, techniques and training
practices; in domains of knowledge; and in relation to production and
consumption. Technology is, in short, a cultural product (Linn, 1987).
Along similar lines, Noble (1979) and Karpf (1987) both argue that it is
people and social forces that shape and create technology; technological
products both bear the imprint of their social context, and themselves
reinforce that social context. Technology is constituted by, and also helps
constitute social relations.

Smith (1990) argues that texts are situated in and structure social
relations. Treating text as a constituent of social relations encourages
the researcher to investigate the social organization of its production, as
it is a prior phase in the social relation. Smith advocates looking beyond
text for evidence of the social relations that resulted in the production
of specific texts. In the case of computer networks, one can begin an
inquiry through the texts that participants in on-line discussions produce,
and explore the actual practices that engage people in the relations that
organize their lives. In applying Smith's (1990) approach to the analysis
of computer networks, it was necessary to focus upon network structure.
During analysis of network transcripts, it became clear that the text
produced in on-line discussions reflected the physical structure of a
network. Network structure in turn had implications for where and to whom
networks were accessible. Network software is designed in response to both
the physical network structure (which poses both opportunities and
constraints in terms of communication options available) and social goals
that are often not explicit. These factors combine to create the
taken-for-granted world that network users encounter in their everyday
production of computer network transcripts.


Network structure not only had implications for who had access to a given
network (and where they had access from), but also proved useful in
explaining differences in the structure of messages. To varying degrees,
issues related to the structure of the networks and/or social decisions
incorporated into software design (for example, the use of aliases on
Usenet) are implicitly addressed in the content of messages. Additionally,
some combinations of network structure and software seem to accommodate
certain forms of communication better than others.

(1) Access Related To Network Structure

The structure of a computer network has implications for where a network is
accessible (for example, in universities but not women's centres), and to
whom it is accessible. The gender composition of participants varied from
network to network, as did participant's patterns of response on a network.
Each network had a somewhat distinct group of participants, although some
overlap existed between networks. Participants in each of the networks are
described below.


Information about Soc.women participants was gleaned from a number of
sources, each of which yielded a different type of information. Message
headers provide a source of information about participants' points of
access into the Usenet system, where they work, and often, in the absence
of unusual circumstances or the use of aliases, the gender of message
authors. To a certain extent, message headers make it possible to determine
what time of day messages were sent. Information of a more personal nature
about participants is sparse in Soc.women messages. If it exists at all, it
is often included incidentally in message text.

Reading Soc.women headers gives one a sense that Soc.women contributors
mostly gain access to Usenet and Soc.women from their workplaces
(primarily, corporations engaged in computer-related work and science and
applied science departments of universities). While readership of Usenet is
worldwide, most contributors are resident in the United States. The
organizational affiliations listed in Soc.women headers read like a
combination of Who's Who in Corporate and Academic America, and a contest
for aspiring stand-up comics. In three weeks of Soc.women messages,
participants from over seventy businesses and over fifty universities
contributed messages. In addition, over forty different organizational
aliases :5: were used, and at least seven people gained access to Usenet
through computer bulletin boards and commercial services offering
electronic gateways to Usenet.

>From message headers, one gains a sense that Soc.women contributors are
well-educated, and those who are no longer students are likely to work in
the computer industry or in academia. Based on an examination of times
included in Soc.women headers (in cases where the geographical location of
a contributor is known), it appears that participants are to a large extent
submitting messages to Soc.women during normal business hours. Popular
times for submitting messages appear to be mid-morning, around lunch time
(1:00 p.m.), and mid-afternoon. Occasionally messages are submitted in the
early evening, suggesting that contributors are either working late (this
is a frequent occurrence in the computer industry) or have computers at
home through which they gain access to their work-based Usenet systems.

By examining names found in Soc.women "From:" headers, and by referring to
message text for clues about the authors' gender in the event of
gender-neutral names (such as Chris, Pat, Jesse) or aliases, the gender
composition of Soc.women contributors can be estimated, along with message
sending patterns. In the Soc.women sample, out of a total of 258
contributors who contributed a total of 650 messages over 44 days :6:, 63
per cent of the contributors were men, 27 per cent were women and the
gender of 10 per cent of the contributors could not be determined. Just
over half of the messages were authored by men, and just over 44 per cent
of the messages were authored by women. The gender of the authors in
slightly over 5 per cent of the cases could not be determined.

The Femail Mailing List

Reading Femail messages, one gains a much more in- depth sense of who
participants are and what their lives are like. Although the removal of
message headers strips messages of what little surface clues about
participants inherently exist in messages on a distributed multi-node
network, at the same time it protects participants from having the identity
of their employer known, as well as from receiving unwanted electronic junk
mail. The removal of headers (both a technical decision related to the use
of non-Usenet software, and a social decision related to the emergence of
Femail out of dissatisfaction with Soc.women) contributes to the more
personal tone of messages that make up the Femail dialogue in general, and
the greater abundance of personal information contained in Femail messages
in particular.

Like Soc.women contributors, Femail contributors also gain access to that
group through nodes of wide area networks (such as UUCP and ARPAnet) in
their workplaces. However, with the removal of headers from Femail
messages, in the absence of any knowledge about network structure, this
would not be as obvious as it is in Soc.women messages. In general, the
individuals who come together to form the Femail mailing list are in some
cases former and/or current Soc.women readers, or they may have heard about
the list from a friend. Although the removal of message headers in the
Femail group makes it more difficult to capture a sense of the places that
Femail participants work compared to Soc.women contributors, we get a much
more detailed sense of what their work lives are like. Because headers have
been removed from Femail messages, we know less about the time of day that
messages are submitted to the group. However, Femail messages contain
references to submitting messages from work, and Femail participants
occasionally indicate that they are dependent upon workplace computers for
access to the group.

Given that the nodes which carry the Femail mailing list are located in
similar places to the Usenet nodes which accommodate access to Soc.women
(academia, the corporate sector), it is not surprising that Femail
contributors have a great deal in common with Soc.women contributors. Like
Soc.women contributors, Femail participants tend to be highly educated;
they are likely to be students, professors, or professionals working in
areas related to the sciences. In contrast to Soc.women messages that
provide a wealth of information about contributors in headers and a minimal
amount of information about contributors in text, Femail readers can easily
gain a sense of who contributors to that group are from the text of
messages submitted to the group. The tradition of including "personal data"
in Femail messages began quite early in that group's history. A Femail
contributor requested demographic information in the fifth message
submitted to Femail, and in the third message submitted to that group a
contributor presented demographic information in the context of a story. By
reading through the remainder of Femail Message Excerpts 4, we see that
Femail contributors appear to be quite candid in messages they submit to
the mailing list. Personal data may include a synopsis of a contributor's
past relationships, an overall profile, or a personal commentary (lines
18646-18655). Although the inclusion of personal information appears to be
almost secondary in Soc.women messages, personal information appears to be
primary to the Femail mailing list.

The probable gender of message authors can be determined with greater
accuracy in Femail messages than in Soc.women messages. First, a
contributor's ability to submit messages to the Femail group anonymously
(or with an alias) is controlled by the moderator in conjunction with the
group. Secondly, the emphasis upon personal issues in the Femail group
(beginning with introductions) accommodates an easy assignment of gender to
both gender-neutral names and anonymous contributions. In contrast to
Soc.women, where nearly two-thirds of the participants were men, just over
one-fourth of Femail participants were men. Women constituted slightly more
than one-fourth of the contributors to Soc.women and they contributed
nearly half of that group's messages. In contrast, the number of messages
contributed to Femail by both men (25 per cent) and women (74 per cent)
over four years closely approximated the representation of men (26 per
cent) and women (71 per cent) in that group :7:. The gender composition of
the Femail mailing list group has from time to time been a topic of
discussion in that group. Of the forty-one subscribers who responded to a
message on Soc.women about beginning a new group, three-quarters were
women. Within three months, two-thirds of those known to be reading the
list were women and one-third were men. At that time, 82 per cent of the
contributors were women and 18 per cent were men. In other words, shortly
after the group began, the number of men reading Femail increased. However,
contributions to Femail by gender did not reflect that change. Unlike
Soc.women where women contributed more messages per person on average than
men, the contributions to Femail by gender have remained in proportion to
the number of men and women contributors in that group.

Ten months after the inception of Femail, the percentage of contributions
by men had increased slightly, from 21 to 27 per cent. On average, men
contributed more messages per person to the list than women. The slight
increase in contributions made to Femail by men continued into April of
1985, when the moderator again presented a gender breakdown of
contributions to the group (see Message 613, April 1985, line 13854 of
Femail transcripts, 1991). At that point (fifteen months after the group
began), 30 per cent of the contributions to Femail were authored by men.
However, a four-year review of contributions to Femail by gender indicates
that contributions by men constituted only 25 per cent of the total. The
extent to which men and women "speak out" to Femail readers fluctuates over

Compuserve Information Service Men's And Women's Issues Section

Of all of the networks considered in this section, we know the least about
participants in the CompuServe Men's and Women's Issues section. Although a
sense of participants can be gained from a range of message headers in
Soc.women messages, as well as through text in Femail messages, CIS
messages offer scant information in either message headers or text. As a
single node network, CIS participants submit their messages to the Men's
and Women's Issues Section of that network through CIS software. All
participants potentially access CIS from different physical locations, and
once they have connected to CompuServe, their messages are moved around by
the CIS software. The headers supplied by that software do not betray the
location through which the author of a message has gained access to CIS.
Consequently, we know virtually nothing about the locations from which
message authors are contacting the network.

A review of the time and date message headers from messages submitted to
the Section over a one-month period showed that 30 per cent of the messages
were submitted between 7:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST),
and 70 per cent of the messages were submitted between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00
a.m. EST. The CIS rate structure, with lower hourly charges at night,
encourages higher use during night hours. Keeping in mind that CIS
participants are potentially located in all time zones, but that their
messages are stamped with whatever time it was in the eastern time zone
when their message was submitted, we can make some rough assertions about
where CIS participants are when they submit messages. Assuming that most of
the participants hold jobs requiring their presence at work during normal
business hours, it appears that the majority of participants access CIS
from home computers after their workday ends.

Unlike the other networks discussed here, one's access to CIS is dependent
upon steady access to cash or credit. Upon joining CompuServe, prospective
users must supply either a credit card number for direct billing or a
chequing account number for direct withdrawals. If a subscriber is outside
of the United States, the only billing is a credit card number. This
requirement, along with the hourly fees charged for CIS use, ensures that
regular users are relatively affluent.

Over approximately a one-month period :8:, 353 messages were contributed to
the Men's and Women's Issues Section of CompuServe. These were organized
into three threads. Seventy per cent of the participants (n=7) were men,
who contributed 57 per cent of the messages in the section. Women, who
constituted 30 per cent of the contributors (n=3) authored 43 per cent of
the messages. While the gender composition of contributors was similar to
that of the Soc.women sample, and the CIS section showed a similar pattern
to Soc.women in terms of women contributing messages in a higher proportion
than their representation in the group, a significant difference exists
between the Soc.women and CIS samples. In the former case, the ratio of
contributors to messages was 1:2.5 compared to a ratio of 1:35 in the case
of CIS.

Moreover, a large number of people were engaged in debates in the Soc.women
newsgroup while only a small number joined in the dialogue of the CIS Men's
and Women's Issues Section. Of the 353 messages that comprised the CIS
sample, 272 or 77 per cent were contributed by two people: a man who
authored 126 messages and a woman (also the sysop) who authored 146
messages. The woman sysop's messages, together with those from two other
sysops involved in the maintenance of the Issues Forum (where the men's and
women's issues section is located) accounted for 48 per cent of the total
message flow in the men's and women's section. By the time CIS was
monitored for this study, the number of women using it to discuss women's
issues had fallen off dramatically.

The Women's Bulletin Board System

Women's Bulletin Board messages, like CompuServe messages, contain limited
information in message headers about participants. WBBS participants,
however, tend to be more candid about themselves in their messages. Where
CompuServe message threads often read like a conversation already in
progress, in contrast, reading the WBBS is more like entering a small town,
and getting to know people as you run into them in a variety of settings.
This sense is facilitated by the separation of the WBBS into several
topically distinct areas. Contributors may offer extensive personal
information in some areas but not in others. As participants explore the
WBBS, they "run into" contributors in different contexts, and are able to
gain a sense of what participants are like.

Because of the limited information contained in WBBS message headers, we
know very little about where that network's users gain access to it. Most
users appear to call the system from within the New York City local calling
area, where the WBBS is located. Occasionally users mention in message text
that they are calling from outside of the New York City area via PC
Pursuit, a value-added carrier service that allows users to make calls to
and from selected American cities for a flat monthly fee during evenings
and weekends. A review of the "Date:" header in 990 messages indicates that
41 per cent were placed there during normal business hours (8 a.m. to 6
p.m.) and 59 per cent of the messages were posted between 6:01 p.m. and
7:59 a.m. :9:. WBBS contributors appear to gain access to the network from
both home and the workplace. Several contributors appear to work for
women's organizations. At least one contributor regularly posts
informational messages of interest to the women's community on the WBBS as
part of her job. In addition, feminist organizations appear to be points of
access for some contributors.

As of 27 February 1988, the WBBS listed 639 users in their directory. Based
upon the assignment of gender to names, 26 per cent were men, 61 per cent
were women, and 13 per cent had gender-ambiguous names. The directory lists
those who have become permanent users of the system. However, it neither
lists those who access the system, look around and do not return, nor does
it indicate who contributes messages. A scan of 990 message headers,
however, indicated that seventy of the contributors were women (61 per
cent), thirty-six were men (32 per cent), and eight or 7 per cent had
gender-ambiguous names. Only 114 of the 639 people who signed on to the
WBBS left messages that remained on the system during the data collection
period. Clearly, a large number of people read the WBBS or visit it but do
not contribute.

Organizers of the WBBS observed that over time the use of the system
changed. The system was established by a group of activists with
organizational affiliations interested in creating a resource for the New
York City women's community. Gradually, however, the WBBS was used less by
feminist activists and more by members of the bulletin board community.
During a group interview (25 November 1988, New York City), WBBS organizers
commented that as more bulletin boarders began to use the system, the
representation of the women's community declined. Moreover, in the words of
one organizer, "these two groups just did not see things the same way ...
we were more concerned with providing a service, and group process among
the sysops; the BBSers were more concerned with the hardware and
software...we did not see things the same way at all."

(2) Access To Varied Forms Of Communications

Network users' access to an array of communication options is restricted on
at least two levels. First, each network structure accommodates a different
array of communication options. For example, using a distributed multi-node
network (with or without a moderator) allows only one-to-one and
one-to-many electronic mail, and file transfer. Within Soc.women, messages
are not organized by topic. Although the Femail Mailing List messages are
organized to a greater extent than Soc.women messages, this is done by the
moderator rather than through an automatic software function. In contrast,
a central node system (such as CIS) allows additional communication
possibilities, such as computer conferences and databases. This may seem to
be an elementary point to a veteran network user, yet novice users
encountered in on-line feminist groups often failed to realize that some
network structures accommodated a wider range of communication options than
others. Frequently, would-be network users were left discouraged when they
realized that the network they were using would not allow them access to
the type of communication they desired. This limitation is indicative of a
general lack of technical information amongst certain groups of users, such
as social change activists or staff members of women's organizations.

The second level at which users' access to networks is restricted relates
to network structure in two ways. First, network structure in all cases
posed some constraints to potential users. Secondly, each network boasted
its own message style and tone, which in some cases acted as a mechanism to
control women's access. These phenomena are addressed below.

Access Restrictions Related to Network Structure

Each of the networks had features that restricted users' access to the
network. In the case of both Soc.women and the Femail Mailing List, users
could only gain access to the systems through an institutional setting
(although access to Usenet has improved as Unix has increasingly been
implemented on home-based personal computers). In fact, many Femail users
complained that switching jobs often meant the loss of access to what had
become a cherished source of support. Access to the Femail Mailing List was
also limited by technical problems related to the construction of
addressing paths that could accommodate the smooth distribution of messages
around the Internet. Finally, any technical problems with the computer
system at the Femail moderator's worksite resulted in a disruption of the

In the case of CompuServe, two factors restricted user's access to the
service: cost of access and management imperatives. Previous participants
in the women's section (which preceded the Men's and Women's Issues
Section) mentioned cost as a constraint upon women's use, and speculated
that the section failed to generate levels of acceptable profit. One member
of the women's section (when it still existed) spent $300 in one month on
CompuServe without realizing it until the bill arrived (CompuServe
transcripts, 1991). Casal (1991b) raises some important points in relation
to gender and the economics of CIS use:

Cost is certainly a factor. We have had several users who have dropped out
because money became tight in their households. A few drop out when they
move to areas where there is no node and use would involve long-distance
access fees. But I have noticed that, whereas most of the men who have to
quit because 'money is tight' tend to return after awhile, women are more
likely to drop out altogether. This is true even when the women were very
active participants (Casal, 1991b).

In addition to general costs associated with the use of CIS, any user
outside of an area serviced by the CIS packet switching network must incur
additional charges (either in the form of regular long distance calls or
use of a value-added) in order to participate in discussions. In light of
women's lower earning power relative to men, it is not surprising to find
that of all the networks investigated (despite the fact that it is the
largest commercial computer network in the world) CIS had the lowest number
of participants in its on-line discussions related to feminism.

The WBBS was the most accessible of all the networks examined. Other than
gaining access to a personal computer, local users incurred no costs
through use (non-local users incurred costs associated with the use of
either PC Pursuit or regular long distance telephone lines). The WBBS also
appears to have had the most diverse group of contributors of the four
networks studied. However, the fact remains that the bulk of its users were
situated in the New York City area.

Access Restrictions Related to Message Style and Content

Each of the four networks included in the study boasted its own message
structure and style. Message structure was clearly related to network
structure. For example, the protocol used in the transfer of Soc.women
messages around Usenet resulted in users at different sites viewing the
messages in a different order. As a result, a user might receive a response
to a message prior to the original message. In order to contextualize
communication under these circumstances, a mechanism was built into the
software which prompts users to include a portion of the message to which
they are responding in their response. This leads to a convention of
attributions, or quotes of previous messages. Partly as a consequence of
this Usenet feature, Soc.women messages tend to read like a
"he-said-she-said ... but you didn't understand" argument. This, combined
with numerous accusations of message forgery (supported by the software
feature that allows aliases) and the often contentious nature of feminism
in general, contributed to a general climate of antagonism in Soc.women. In
a sense, women's access to Soc.women as a discussion space for feminist
issues was restricted or controlled through the contentious nature of the
dialogue that occurred on the network.

In sharp contrast to the message structure, style and content of Soc.women,
the Femail Mailing List read like an on-line consciousness-raising group.
Composed mainly of narratives, stories, and questions and answers about
feminist topics, the caring atmosphere of the Femail Mailing List was
maintained in part by the moderator (who could refuse to include
antagonistic messages in bundles of mail to group participants). Users
could elect to include or exclude their electronic mail addresses in
message text; a decision to exclude an address from message text guaranteed
against unwanted electronic mail. Group participants regularly communicated
through the group to negotiate standards for group moderation.

Exchanges on the CIS Men's and Women's Issues Section tended to occur
between two individuals who would begin a discussion, get into an argument,
perhaps have someone intervene, and more often than not, agree to disagree.
Many exchanges involved one of the sysops (using the system free of charge)
who might bait a group participant. The practice of controversy on-line led
to more money being spent on-line. The CIS software (which indicated who
authored a message and who it was directed towards), encouraged users to
continue to respond to message threads in which they had participated, and
encouraged the didactic style of CIS messages. Although this network was
billed as a one-to-many form of communication, messages tended to take the
form of one-to-one communication, which perhaps acted as a deterrent to
some would-be users.

The congenial atmosphere of the Women's Bulletin Board System reflected a
number of factors. First, prior to being granted access to the WBBS, users
were required to supply a name and telephone number for verification. This
undoubtedly encouraged users to use the system under their own identity.
Secondly, founders of the WBBS devised a system to reduce conflict on the
network. They designated one area of the bulletin board as a battleground.
Whenever discussions in any area assumed an inflammatory tone, the
inflammatory message and related messages were moved to the battleground.
Users wishing to avoid controversy and disagreement could choose not to
participate in these discussions, while those who thrived on controversy
could indulge. Finally, WBBS founders felt that there were some instances
where anonymity was acceptable; for example, in a women-only area of the
board that required special clearance). Certain areas of the system allowed
users to post anonymous messages, while other areas did not. This practice
allowed users to engage in the discussion of difficult topics where
anonymity might be preferable, but prohibited users from acting
antagonistically (as in many cases they did in Soc.women) under assumed

Message structure and style often reflect both the physical structure of a
computer network and a number of social decisions (for example, to permit
aliases and anonymity) that are incorporated into the software. For many
users, both the physical structure of the network and the social decisions
incorporated into the network through software design are invisible. Once
these relationships are examined, it becomes clear that some combinations
of network structure and software design provide access to some groups of
users while deterring others.

(3) Access To Technical Competence

In only one of the networks investigated in depth was it evident that users
had regular technical difficulties in using the network. Not surprisingly,
it was the Women's Bulletin Board System, which was more accessible to lay
users than the other three networks. However, a great deal can be learned
by examining some past attempts to create feminist environments on-line,
that have fallen short of initial expectations. Three of these are
discussed below.

The Amazon Line

One approach to providing a computer-mediated discussion area for women via
a commercial computer network was attempted by two women in Toronto. The
service, named the Amazon Line, was scheduled to begin operation late in
1985. As of early 1988, it was still not quite off the ground, although its
founders had not given up hope. The Amazon Line, it was hoped, would allow
women throughout Canada to quickly exchange information relevant to
feminist social change. The network was to be operated on a university
computer that sells computer time and storage space to individuals and
groups with no university affiliation. Software was available that would
allow public and private electronic mail, as well as time-delayed and
real-time computer conferencing. Locating the Amazon Line on a university
computer system meant that out-of-town users could gain access to the
system via value-added carriers.

Founders of the Amazon Line targeted their service towards professional
women. When asked what factors they felt had kept the Amazon Line from
flourishing, two points were raised. First, they found that many of the
women they had hoped to attract did not do their own typing, but rather had
secretaries who typed for them. They were attempting to introduce
computerized communication to a population that did not have a direct need
for it. Adoption of their service by the desired population would have
required a change to existing work patterns. Secondly, they found that at
the time the service was publicized (1985), many women still did not have
access to the knowledge required to use it. The Amazon Line's founders
anticipated the development of an educational strategy to accompany the
re-introduction of the service. Since that time, women's access to
equipment has improved, and many women have gained experience and
confidence with computers (Personal Communication with Pat Hacker, February

The Canadian Research Institute For The Advancement Of Women

All of the attempts to create and maintain women's electronic communication
space that have been discussed thus far have been either oriented towards
individuals or, in the case of the Women's Bulletin Board, oriented towards
groups in general, rather than a single group and its specific
communication needs. The Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of
Women (CRIAW) has engaged in the process of developing a computer
networking system to meet that group's needs. CRIAW was among the first
women's organizations in North America to actively adopt computer
communication in efforts to reduce the communication difficulties
associated with a national organization.

Members of the organization (a diverse group of women inside and outside of
academia in both English- and French-speaking Canada) began to discuss
computer networking early in 1987. Around that time, a few of the women who
had access to institutional computers began to exchange messages
electronically. In November of 1987, hands-on training was provided for
board and committee members. Since that time, the executive and some
members of the board have been brought on-line (Assheton-Smith, 1988). With
board members located from the Yukon to the Atlantic provinces, it was
hoped that electronic mail would reduce the amount of time required between
information exchanges, as well as the expense associated with long distance
telephone charges. Other somewhat longer-term goals for beginning a
computer network include facilitating the work of individual groups within
the organization and making resources (such as bibliographies) more
accessible to members of the organization. From CRIAW's initial discussion
of computer networking there was an awareness that the technology lacked
standardization and that there would be many problems to overcome. In
addition, beginning with the first discussion of computer networking at an
executive meeting in 1987, there was an awareness that adoption of
networking technology could create a two-tiered organization, with women
who lacked access to mainframe computers, who were in rural areas (and
lacked access to a value-added carrier) and/or working in community groups
less able to participate in an on-line communication process. Even though
CRIAW was aware that it wanted to build an open communication structure
(rather than one that intensified elite processes), the organization did
not initially address the problem of differences in access to an electronic
communication system based on the preferred language of the speaker
(Assheton-Smith, 1988).

A decision was made to first attempt to get CRIAW's executive communicating
via computer. Even though access to and familiarity with computers varied a
great deal amongst members of the executive, and no real budget for the
project existed (repeated attempts were made to secure external funding to
launch the project), in Assheton-Smith's words, "as frequently happens in
women's work, we had to determine how to make our 'real' situations work,
patching together our anarchic realities" (1988: 4). Since several of the
executive board members were institutionally-based and a few had begun
exchanging electronic mail, a decision was made to build on institutional
access to equipment, and at the same time secure access to the system for
non-institutionally- based board members. In some cases this meant access
to equipment (such as modems) and in other cases it meant access to donated
university computer accounts. Additional efforts were made to familiarize
board members with the intricacies of computer networking technology
(Assheton-Smith, 1988). In 1988, I spent a week in the CRIAW office in
Ottawa working with the office staff around computer networking. Between
1987 and 1989 CRIAW confronted many problems related to computer
networking. Not all of these problems have been resolved. Several problems
arose in the initial hands-on workshop conducted for CRIAW in 1987. These
included an emphasis on IBM-compatible computers (several of the board
members had Apple Macintosh computers and found it difficult to relate the
material presented to their situations), the fact that the workshop was
unilingual, and the unfamiliarity of workshop presenters with either
computer access in Quebec or the availability and intricacies of
French-language software.

With almost no budget, no capacity to purchase needed equipment, and no
in-house computing talent, CRIAW board members began communicating via
computer. At that time, three women had university access to a mainframe
(although each accessed their local mainframe through a unique combination
of hardware and software), and two potential participants (one in Inuvik
and one in Montreal) had access to computers, modems and software, but
lacked access to a mainframe computer that would allow them to communicate
with anyone else on the board (Assheton-Smith, 1988). A number of
difficulties arose. The three women with access to university mainframes
began to communicate relatively quickly, despite problems they encountered
related to addressing and computer breakdowns. When Carleton University
offered to donate additional computer accounts, a decision was made to use
those accounts to provide the non-university women in Inuvik and Montreal
with access to other communicators. The Carleton computer was not only
difficult to learn and use, but Carleton computing staff also lacked
information that CRIAW needed. Finally, the Carleton computer had built-in
limitations that made it impossible for CRIAW to easily distribute messages
to all potential participants. While the board member in Inuvik had an
account on the Carleton mainframe, there was no Datapac node in Inuvik.
This meant that there was no straightforward way for the woman in Inuvik to
access the Carleton computer without spending large amounts of money on
either long distance telephone charges or charges incurred through
accessing the Carleton computer via a costly commercial network
(Assheton-Smith, 1988). CRIAW staff members at times found it difficult to
meet their day-to-day work obligations as they struggled to master the new
communication system.

To their credit, CRIAW board members have continued to use computer
networking to meet some of their communication needs. The early years of
experimentation and a lack of funding with which to further develop the
organization's computer communication capacities have led CRIAW to revise
its expectations. CRIAW's use of computer networks raises several issues
related to access and brings these complex issues into sharper focus.
Perhaps more than any of the computer network implementations discussed
thus far, CRIAW has attempted to facilitate communication via computer
between several distinct (and at times overlapping) groups. Among the
differences CRIAW has attempted to transcend via computer networking are
linguistic differences, geographic distances, differential access to
resources (for example, by providing some potential participants with
modems and/or access to university-based computer networks), and
differences in knowledge related to computer networking. Their use of
computer networking in an organizational context has hinted at issues
related to additional demands placed on staff members, and the possibility
of computer networking in an organizational context leading to a
redistribution of staff responsibilities.

The American Association of University Women

Another women's organization that has attempted to meet some of its
communication needs via computer is the American Association of University
Women (AAUW). AAUW, like CRIAW, is a national organization. Unlike CRIAW,
membership is only open to women with university degrees. AAUW's interest
in computer networks and the social impacts of technology dates back to the
early 1980s. Interest in computer networking technology resulted in a
hands-on computer networking workshop for members of the Idaho chapter in
1986. For a few years it appeared that interest was waning, yet in December
of 1989 the Association began to offer computer networking services through
an arrangement with The Source, a large commercial computer network.

Although the AAUW National Office has its own mini- computer donated by the
Digital Equipment Corporation, in meeting their computer networking needs,
they negotiated an agreement with The Source; when The Source was acquired
by CompuServe, the agreement was transferred to CompuServe. Perhaps one of
the factors that led to AAUW's decision to use The Source was the concern
expressed by staff that the office would be swamped with information
requests, and the desire to keep their in-house computer system from being
overloaded. They had envisioned a computer system that would allow AAUW to
drop information onto the network, but would prohibit network users from
passing information back to the AAUW office via computer network. As
originally conceived, the system was intended for AAUW leaders, who would
be trained to use it. If successful, the network would be opened to the
general membership.

The board of AAUW, perhaps because they lacked a general understanding of
computer networks, was scarcely involved in decisions related to its
implementation. One member recalls that the proposal to use The Source was
presented to the Board as an "either/or" issue, and the proposal was not
discussed by the Board in analytical terms. A member commented that it was
just simply doomed from the outset. By the time the network was introduced
in December 1989, the notion of developing a core of competent, trained
users had been lost. The system was introduced to the entire membership at
once. Like the Amazon Line, AAUW had failed to provide training or
information about what computer networking required in terms of hardware,
software, or access. By June 1990, The Source had been acquired by
CompuServe, and only ten people were using CompuServe to communicate with
other AAUW members (Sara Harder, Personal Communication, May 1991). By the
fall of that year, any visibility AAUW might have had on CompuServe had
vanished. CompuServe management was unaware of AAUW's use of that network,
and a keyword search for AAUW users in the CompuServe directory produced no

Although all of the factors that contributed to the failure of AAUW's
efforts are unknown, it is possible that one of the factors was the sale of
The Source to CompuServe. Perhaps the initial announcement that AAUW
members could communicate via computer encouraged some to acquire access to
computers and/or the expertise to connect to a computer netework. The
process of acquiring computer equipment, gaining a sense of how it works
and beginning to use it for computer networking often takes an
inexperienced user a year or longer. It may be that by the time some users
were ready to connect to The Source it had vanished. Although anyone who
had an account on The Source was given a complimentary account on
CompuServe at the time The Source was sold, potential Source users would
not have known that AAUW's networking resources had been transferred to
CompuServe. AAUW's experiences with computer networking suggest that an
issue warranting further consideration is that of who owns the resources
that support a group's on-line communication (this issue is addressed again

Each of these examples highlights two points that are often left
unaddressed in promotional literature about computer networks. First, in
order for an organization to obtain or create a computer networking system
that meets its needs, it must have a clear example of what any particular
system can or cannot do. CRIAW's experiences provide a good example of how
a lack of understanding of the relationship between network structure and
an array of communication options can discourage potential users. Secondly,
as both experiences with the Amazon Line and AAUW attest, a tacit
assumption is made that a potential computer network user will be able to
manage the negotiation and purchase of a computer system to meet their
networking needs, and further be able to set the equipment up and have it
function in a home environment. Experiences with each of these networks, as
well as the success of the Women's Bulletin Board (founders of which often
made "house calls" to troubled users), suggest that such an assumption is
inappropriate for women users. While it could be argued that men also need
assistance in setting up computers and gaining access to computer networks,
as Benston (1988) points out, for men access to assistance is often secured
through male peer groups that are not equally accessible to women. Benston
(1986, 1989) further argues that the difficulties women experience in
gaining access to scientific knowledge are heightened by the notion that
scientific experts have both privilege and authority; traditional female
socialization often makes it difficult to challenge (or even assimilate)
scientific knowledge.

(4) Access To Computer Networks In The Context Of
Organizational Structure

With such great variation in the goals of feminist organizations, their
infrastructures and characteristics, there are no hard and fast rules to
govern the introduction of computers in general, and computer networks in
particular, into feminist organizations. Clearly, the introduction of
computer networks into feminist organizations will add an additional layer
of complexity to what is in many cases already a complex and unstable
organizational environment.

Contributors to the collection _Computers for Social Change and Community
Organizing_ (Downing et al., 1991) identify several issues that have
emerged in their efforts to implement computer systems in social change
organizations. Fasano and Shapiro describe these organizations as "small
non-profit political and community-based organizations ... with small
staffs, low budgets, lack of formal bureaucracies :that are: value- driven"
(1991: 130). These organizations are structurally similar to women's
organizations, and hence can provide valuable insights into the use of
computer networks by women's organizations.

Cordero (1991), in writing about a non-profit community development
organization, reports that internal organizational problems related to a
new computer system revolved around training and staffing. She found that
it was easier to obtain funds for hardware or donations of hardware than it
was to obtain funds for staff, training or software. Observations of a St.
John's, Newfoundland women's organization suggest that this situation also
exists in women's organizations. In the organization Cordero writes about,
college interns with little commitment to the organization carried out
initial programming tasks. The resultant system had many "bugs" in the form
of technical problems. High staff turnover made it difficult to both train
people to use the new computer system and obtain information about its

In Cordero's workplace, the organization benefited from having one person
assigned the responsibility of maintaining the computer system. In
addition, a computer specialist (employed part-time as a consultant) was
involved in computer implementation on an ongoing basis. Finally, Cordero
(1991) observed that even when a need for computers is recognized and
computer facilities exist within an organization, individuals may not use
computers because they lack the time to learn (Balka, 1986 reports a
similar phenomenon). To counter these difficulties, Cordero advocated
computer support groups geared towards non-profit organizations.

Several of the computer consultants specializing in non-profits that Fasano
and Shapiro (1991) interviewed reported problems when organizations did not
have a person in the organization who was willing to "champion the process"
of computerization. A woman consultant stated that:

I, in fact, don't even take jobs now unless an organization has one person
who is the computer champion/guru. And if an organization can't come up
with that person, then I tell them they're not ready to install a database
system (1991: 132).

The quotation suggests that specialization of tasks may be desirable in the
implementation of computers within an organizational context. Along these
lines, the Femail mailing list benefited from the assignment of group
moderation tasks to one person. And, perhaps the greatest problem with the
Women's Bulletin Board System was that, although different women performed
different tasks related to the maintenance of that system, areas of the
WBBS set aside for broadcasting information were chronically
under-utilized. The task of placing information on broadcast areas of the
WBBS was left unassigned.

Ironically, although collectivist feminist organizations have stressed the
development of skill and sharing of work tasks, observations suggest that
with regard to the use of computer systems these noble goals have
frequently been abandoned. Often male friends of collective members
voluntarily maintain an organization's computer systems for a period of
time, or consultants are hired to fix what seems like an endless stream of
computer problems. In both collectivist and bureaucratic organizations, the
skill required to maintain computer systems is rarely available in-house,
and despite an awareness of both work processes and group process, computer
systems have fallen outside the realm of feminist analyses and practices.

In the few cases where information is available about the use of computer
networking systems in feminist organizations, overworked staff members have
consistently expressed concern about the increased tasks related to their
usage. Despite rhetoric about the equal valuation of traditional women's
work and work usually performed by men (such as management tasks), one
interviewee (who maintained her organization's computer systems) indicated
that in her organization computer work was equated with clerical work, and
was devalued. Preliminary research conducted by a student in a
communications research methods course I taught at Simon Fraser University
in the fall of 1989 indicated that in one Vancouver women's organization,
all work that required use of a computer was conducted by volunteers rather
than paid staff. In that organization, a paid consultant was responsible
for implementing and maintaining the organization's computer systems.

Despite these potential problems, computer networks can potentially be used
to perform tasks in which many organizations are already engaged (such as
the collection and sharing of information) _and_ to expand the scope of an
organization's activities. In the tradition of good feminist organizing,
the adoption of computer networks by feminist organizations should be
accompanied by a heightened awareness of group process and concern for
working conditions. In addition, organizations should engage in an explicit
process that allows groups to articulate the social goals they wish to
attain in adopting computer networking technology. The adoption of computer
networks by feminist organizations should address explicit social goals,
rather than foster what merely is possible with off-the-shelf hardware and
software. Extensive care should be taken to ensure that whatever system is
selected will meet the communicative goals explicitly articulated by group


Perhaps the greatest issue faced by the women's movement with respect to
the adoption of computer networking technology is access. Access becomes an
issue at several levels. The first relates to communication constraints
imposed by the infrastructure of data lines and value-added carriers. As
discussed, access to computer networks is also determined by the location
of networks and terminals: whether they are located in a public place and
available for use free of charge as Community Memory terminals were, or
whether they are located in a private home or office.

Although many women's centres and organizations in Canada currently own
microcomputers and modems, for the most part these organizations do not
have access to a computer network. Although the location of computers and
modems in women's centres and organizations may be an important step in
widening the sphere of access to feminist computer networks, the
accessibility of the equipment and the existence of a network to call do
not guarantee that potential users will have access to computer networking.
The third level of access that must be addressed if computer networks are
to be successfully utilized for feminist dialogue and organizing is access
to the knowledge and related support mechanisms that will allow a novice
user to successfully contact a computer network. The feasibility of
providing adequate user support services increases when network use occurs
on a co-ordinated rather than episodic basis.

If French-speaking and English-speaking feminists wish to communicate via
computer network, steps will need to be taken to ensure that the
development of adequate bilingual software is developed. (SoliNet, operated
by the Canadian Union of Public Employees currently uses software that
allows a user to interact with the computer in either French or English,
but offers no translation capabilities.)

Finally, communication by computer offers some interesting communication
possibilities that may enhance the ability of Canadian women's
organizations to communicate about difficult issues. For example, an
implementation of an on-line Delphi polling system that allows unsigned
responses might allow system users to communicate candidly and honestly
about difficult issues while encouraging participants to think before
speaking. A widely accessible computer network could increase the number of
voices represented in an organization's decision-making process. To realize
these goals, however, feminists will need to apply the insights gained from
years of productive organizing, and at the same time investigate the social
biases of technological systems that, left unconsidered, threaten to create
computer networking systems which reproduce rather than challenge the power
relations characteristic of western capitalist societies.


:1: See Chapter 2 of Balka (1992) for a discussion of the
history of computer networks which contextualizes the free distribution of

:2: The unrestricted readership of Usenet news groups is a
social decision, supported by technical design.

:3: "/Talk" is the name of the CompuServe command that
invokes private communication within the CIS CB simulator software.

:4: See also Benston (1988), Bernard (1983), Bush (1983)
and Cooley (1980).

:5: Usenet software allows users to supply aliases for a
number of elements in message headers, including name, organizational
affilitation, and name of sending computer.

:6: While an examination of date headers in the sample
showed forty-four different days, these messages were collected over
fifty-two days. Because Soc.women messages are deleted from the host node
regularly and technical difficulties (such as inadequate disk space on the
host machine) result in the host node from time to time rejecting its
messages, gaps exist in the sample. Data were collected over fifty two
days, with no messages from eight days, and a low volume of messages on
thirteen of the forty four days. Low message volume may indicate that not
all messages were received for those days. Similar conditions are likely to
apply to other Usenet sites receiving Soc.women.

:7: One per cent of Femail messages were authored by three
per cent of contributors whose gender could not be determined from either
names or message content.

:8: Message dates used here span the entire month of
February, although access to CIS for this sample occurred between 6 and 28

:9: Since not all contributors are located in the Eastern
time zone, these figures should be considered estimates.


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