From Adam's Atoms to Eve's e-Forums
By Caryn McTighe Musil, Director of the Program on the Status & Education of Women
Association of American Colleges & Universities
Women often advance most rapidly in new arenas, where the rules of the game are still being drafted and biased referees have not yet appeared on the sidelines. When communications, for example, exploded in the last decades of the 20th century, women flooded the field as professors and practitioners. The same was true when development offices became established within institutions. Women likewise found advantages in the burgeoning disciplines of computer and Internet technology--where they had to storm not only the playing field, but the barricades of the very heart of the military-industrial complex. By helping to recalibrate how cyberspace would be used, they shifted the Internet from developing cyber bombs to creating what Kortney Ryan Ziegler refers to as “cyber-bonds.”
Unveiled in 1946, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) is often regarded as the first generation of the reprogrammable computer, created to calculate artillery firing tables for the U.S. Army Ballistics Research Lab. John von Neumann soon applied its principles in order to design hydrogen bombs using computer simulations. By 1973 the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) invented a system that networked computers so they could share military information. They called it the Internet. Before the century’s close, it would change everything about daily life, from communication to community.
This issue of On Campus with Women dramatizes how important it is that women have stepped in to help transform the applications of and discourses surrounding this new technology. Developed as a formidable weapon in a time of war, the Internet is now a tool used for educational, intellectual, and civic ends. Once the province of highly specialized technicians, it is now a global town square open to a multitude of voices and perspectives. The edges of cyberspace’s new frontiers have barely been crossed. But even in experimental innovations such as those surveyed in this issue of OCWW, the initial forays are intriguing--particularly for women looking for new modes of operating in the academic world.
As books morph into blogs and academic journals migrate into cyberspace, women are discovering how to lay claim to new technology for their own ends. The Internet has become a frame for a feminist lens, where repressed knowledge can be expressed and global scholarly connections forged. Its uses are being transformed by women’s centers and feminists in disciplinary associations; by former academics and those inventing alternative modes of collaborative scholarship; by those at the center of power and those with outsider status.
But none of these transformations would be possible if women had opted to sit on the sidelines. They had to muscle their way in, assert new codes of civil discourse on-line, and conquer their initial cyberphobia so they could adapt the Internet to their own creative, civic, and intellectual ends. I can remember the end of the 1980s when Mary Ellen Capek, then the Executive Director of the National Council for Research on Women, exhorted women’s research centers not only to use the available technology, but to shape it. She cautioned that if women watched passively instead of plunging onto the playing field, they once more risked erasure in history. She was greeted with skepticism and resistance, but eventually Capek’s persistence reaped converts. These women were among an early wave of feminists who helped create a different knowledge network for ends dramatically divergent from those initial artillery firing tables.
While many of women’s forays into cyberspace are experimental at this juncture, creativity is their hallmark. Women’s efforts to use the new technology are connecting ideas, cultures, and careers, representing a radical departure from ENIAC and DARPA, and none too soon. In a world where cyber bombs can become all too real, women’s “cyber-bonds” lay the rules for a radical new defense. These women are writing a new game plan--and inviting us all to join the team.