Cyberfeminism(s): Origins, Definitions and Overview

Vesna Dragojlov, University of Advancing Technology

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Within our technologically advanced society, we would like to believe that the virtual space and the internet have opened up the potential for women to break out of the boundaries imposed on them through decades under the rule of masculine power. The internet has been hailed as a liberating, democratic space, open to everybody, devoid of gendered, charted territory; unfortunately, that has not been the case. The new space has only inherited old stereotypes. Part of the reason could be that electronic networks emerged from the military research field in which men such as Vannevar Bush, Norbert Wiener and Douglas Engelbart, among many others, have played dominant roles in computer science.

In support of this claim it is noteworthy to mention Sadie Plant, a British cultural theorist, advocate of cyberfeminism and influential author of Zeros and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture. In Zeros and Ones, Plant (1997) implies that dual roles still prevail in a new space of fluid, boundless cyberspace: zeros and ones are at the core of new digital technologies where she sees "1" as man and "0" as woman, i.e., nothing, the "0-ther."

Looking deeper into the history of technology, from the Industrial Revolution to today's information age, the same pattern can be mapped onto the terrain of power and domination that men have historically exercised. Women were kept out of the realm of technology by their many domestic responsibilities (e.g., caring for children housekeeping) and were thus perceived as caring, "homey," "artsy." However, if we analyze the contributions of women and men to their families, we will recognize that, throughout history, although tools were made by men, and the hunting was performed by men, food-gathering, cooking and childrearing were always women's roles. Those stereotypes have prevailed with few exceptions, and they have continued into the digital age.

Yet the exceptions are remarkable. They include Ada Lovelace, a gifted mathematician from the end of the 19th century, who helped Charles Babbage with his work on his famous calculator, the Difference Engine; she also helped with Babbage's analytical engine. It is known today that Lovelace made a major contribution to the construction of both machines, yet she was not given credit until over a century later, in 1979, when a new programming language (ADA) was named for her, "in honor of an obscure but talented mathematician" (Plant, 1997, p. 60). There was also U.S. Navy Captain Grace Hopper, who had a remarkable career in the programming world following World War II, including a major contribution to the formulation of COBOL: "They called her Ada Lovelace of the new machine" (p. 151).

Part of the problematic relationship between women and computer science is generated by women themselves-consider how they have used the new territory of the internet to widen the gap between genders by creating their own cyber-presence in the form of "cybergrrl-ism" in all of its permutations: "webgrrls," "riot grrls," "guerrilla girls," "bad grrls," etc. (Wilding, n.d.) (e.g., figures 6, 9 and 10). Another aspect of this problem could be the education of young women as they are steered away from mathematics and computer sciences and into the humanities from an early age, with their "feminine" intellectual inclinations characterized culturally as more appropriate to humanities, arts and crafts, and social sciences (caring, homey and artsy fit the bill here as well). They are thus creating a paradigm in which fewer women today play leading roles in high-tech industries.

Since the early 1990s, the main goal of cyberfeminism has been to analyze issues of gender, new technologies and, especially, the internet. There are, however, disagreements in terminology: "cyberfeminism" has been associated with the third wave of feminism characterized by the diversity of topics and the fluidity of the approach to gender; at the same time it has been viewed as a term in opposition to feminism. In tracing the roots of this particular state of the gender from the golden age of invention to our current technologically sophisticated era, I am attempting to make a point that, regardless of the admirable technological achievements that act for the betterment of society, age-old gender stereotypes prevail. However, I believe, as the cyberfeminist movement believes, that this new age has indeed created opportunities for women that have yet to be explored. This is, to a certain extent, the intent of this paper.

Cyberfeminism Defined

Typically, the cyberfeminists are not just a carbon copy of traditional feminists, but rather operate from different premises. For example, traditional feminism states that despite the claims of gender being less important in cyberspace, the internet is still a sexist environment and, essentially, the struggle must go on.

Cyberfeminism provides a more optimistic reading and is fairly typical of the enthusiasms generated by the internet. According to cyberfeminists like Sadie Plant, the internet is a quintessentially female technology. First, the values of the internet, like the free exchange of information, the lessening of hierarchy and the nurturing aspects of virtual communities, are female values. Second, networking technology is a final proof that the technology is out of control and that the traditional male quest of control can no longer operate. Hence, she claims that the internet represents nothing less than the death of patriarchy as it is a quintessentially female technology.

Evolution of the Term "Cyberfeminism"

According to Merriam-Webster, the prefix "cyber" refers to everything is associated with computers and computer networks. Following World War II, Norbert Wiener coined the term "cybernetics," revamping the old Greek term meaning "to steer, to govern"; Wiener used the term in an interdisciplinary context of biological, technical and social systems to investigate their automatic processes (Cybernetics, n.d.). The term "cyborg," a mash-up of the term "cybernetic organism," derives from the early 1960s and is used to describe the relationship between humans and machines.

In the 1980s, world-renowned cyberpunk author William Gibson coined the term "cyberspace," which implies a spaceless virtual world of electronic networks, an ethereal space of, as he calls it, "consensual hallucination" (Cyberspace, n.d.). In this non-physical space, the concept of the body as we know it has vanished, with the flesh taking the form of a conductor. This approach in his fiction indicates holistic, sometimes sexist, fantasy, because, for the most part, women are treated as fem-robots ("fembots") and cyberbabes. (Similar concepts have been explored in such foundational science fiction films as The Matrix and Blade Runner.) Gibson's use of that term has exploded into numerous combinations such as cyberbody, cybersex, cybermoney and many other permutations.

In the feminist context, the addition of the prefix "cyber" to feminism-creating cyberfeminism- has created an association between feminism and computer technologies. Cyber-hype and its attachment to feminist movements in the early 1990s created enormous potential-based on its status as synonym for the exciting new computer technology and its aura of euphoria, it inspired new territories for contemplations and redefinitions of both gender and feminism in general. The very concept of Donna Haraway's genderless cyborg, with its fluid nature that lives in the consensual hallucination of the computer matrix and which is neither/ nor (i.e., male/female), releases women from their gendered stereotypes, opens up new territory to both men and women, and creates many opportunities for women to grow as individuals in equal measure with men.

It is interesting to note that the choice fell on "cyber"-and not, for instance, on "techno-" or "virtual"-to indicate an innovative approach to feminism. "Cyber" has the role of differentiating the new theories and practices within the framework of new technologies from the earlier feminist movements that were not associated with computers and technologies. How much has been accomplished since its implementation is yet to be seen, but one thing is certain: it has created a new life.

According to Faith Wilding (n.d.), once we link feminism(s) to "cyber," meaning to govern and control, we create some great opportunities for feminism within the framework of the electronic age. Cyberfeminism(s) could link the disparate lives and experiences of woman trans-nationally and trans-culturally in the integrated circuit, taking into full consideration issues of age, race, class and political differences, thus assigning cyberfeminism(s) its/their heterogeneous characteristics. (Wilding, a U.S. artist and a cyberfeminist, is also an activist who has seized on the global nature of the electronic age as an opportunity for connecting women across nations, offering support and creating a global community.) Within the context of constantly fluctuating electronic media, cyberfeminism(s) grow(s) by continuously changing.

As a result of the dynamic nature of the electronic environment, the definitions of cyberfeminism(s) are very diverse and heterogeneous, so much so that we could easily argue that "cyber" is not the prefix to feminism, that, in fact, feminism is properly suffix to "cyber."
I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.
Donna Haraway, "Cyborg Manifesto"
The phenomenon of the cybernetic organism, or cyborg, has been the focal point of cyberfeminist movements since the publication of Donna Haraway's pioneering and influential article, "The Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century" (1985/1991). The cyborg, which to Haraway is the non-gendered symbol of the future, many consider to be the beginnings of cyberfeminist theories, activism and art. In "Manifesto," she explains how unclear the boundary between the physical and non-physical has become in the new age of technologies and also how the figure of the cyborg undercuts entrenched notions of categories of a single identity, especially of women, where the identity is solely based on sex that pre-exists gender. It is a hybrid body, a creature of the postgendered, postmodern world that becomes the epitome of the polymorphous information society. It is transgendered and surpasses dualities as it embraces multiple personalities that could be only partial or even contradictory; it combines its many parts into a "higher unity." It is a metaphor of feminist subjects, a delineating figure that transcends hierarchical categories of the natural and artificial, organic and technological. Yet, she does not place technology, which is male-dominated, on one side and the female and nature on the other. It is important to note that Haraway has no intention of taking sides in the gendered world (she has never even used the term "cyberfeminism"); instead, she envisions a cyborg that transcends the barriers of gender dualities, hierarchical categories of the natural and artificial, of the organic and technological, a cyborg as a future beyond gender. Her cyborg world is not afraid of having close relationships with animals or machines, and it is not afraid of partial identities and contradictory multiple personalities.

Haraway's famous motto that "I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess" (1985/1991, p. 181) implies the movement from the organic, holistic world in which the female body returns to nature (which was the platform for earlier feminist movements), to the diverse, heterogeneous world of technology that she embraces:
The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world; it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-oedipal symbiosis. In a sense, the cyborg has no origin story in the Western sense; a final irony since the cyborg is also a powerful apocalyptic telos of the "West's" escalating domination of abstract individuation, an ultimate self united at last from dependency, a man in space. (p. 150)
The theme of cyborg as a creature of the postmodern, fragmented world, is a promise that will dissolve the longstanding, clear-cut boundaries between sexes and will become crucial as the cyberfeminist(s) grow(s) with the technological progress.

After Haraway: Sadie Plant and VNS Matrix

Hardware, software, wetware-before their beginnings and beyond their ends, women have been the simulators, assemblers, and the programmers of the digital machine." Sadie Plant, Zeros and Ones

Sadie Plant

The invention of the term cyberfeminism is associated with the year 1992. Two parties, from two different parts of the world, began to use the same term at around the same time, with different platforms: Sadie Plant, a cultural theorist from Great Britain, and the art collective VNS Matrix from Australia. Each side claims the ownership of the movement's initiation. However, both heavily relied on the philosophy of Donna Haraway and the "Cyborg Manifesto," which has become a seminal piece within cyberfeminism.

Sadie Plant is interested in the deep history of the technologically feminine. Plant traces female associations with technology back to the computer programmers Lovelace and Hopper (both mentioned previously) and, by associating the symbolism of the title of Zeros and Ones as a binary code in the machines, she claims that women have always been inextricably tied to technologies, beginning with telephone operators, assemblers, typewriters, etc. (see also Figure 1). For her, women are intelligent machines; the zero that is the nothingness of the binary code is also "0-ther," on the opposite side of 1 (Galloway, n.d.).

In Zeros and Ones, Plant offers an elaborate story, often ephemeral, which connects women and machines as "other" in relation to male culture and promises complex and inter-related networks which in the end will bring down masculine domination. Plant offers a utopian version of the feminine relationship to the machine by indicating that the technologies essentially belong to women: "The matrix weaves itself in a future which has no place for a historical man" (1996, p. 132). Her use of the term "weaving" recalls the history of women's labor, in which women stayed at home and dedicated their time to artwork while men played the roles of hunters and breadwinners (this same association is explored by Freud, who saw a woman as the other/the weaver (Plant, 1997)). Today's technology, represented as matrix, refers back to the network of digital "threads," that is, "weaving." Plant believes that in the new technologies men will lose everything-their domination and power. Technology can now give women something that they never had before-total erasure of the male presence.

Zeros and Ones was written in an era (i.e., the early 1990s) when enthusiasm for new technologies created promises and opened territory for the liberation of women from the rule of men. As indicated earlier, the hybrid cyborg living in the matrix of zeros and ones, freed from gender duality, opens up possibilities for both sexes to explore their identities. Sadie Plant is viewed by many as a utopian because, unfortunately, the internet and new technologies were not created in a vacuum, and all the old gender stereotypes have been directly transferred to this new, "liberating" environment.

At the beginning of the 21st century, however, even as we are seeing some shifts in the voices of women on the internet, inherited structures still prevail. The presence of women on the internet has become more pronounced as they continue to search for their individual voices in e-businesses, RPGs, forums and elsewhere. Additionally, they have organized international conferences dedicated to cyberfeminist issues in an effort to consolidate their heterogeneous platforms.

VNS Matrix

In Australia during the early 1990s, four artists calling themselves VNS Matrix formulated the First Cyberfeminist Manifesto. Their work was in different artistic media, but their topics were often about feminism and cultural theories. Their investigations covered such areas as male domination and control in new technologies, the construction of new social space and issues of identity and sexuality in cyberspace. VNS Matrix referred to themselves as "Geekgirls." Anarchic, ironic, perverse and subversive, their goal was to "infect" certain overarching patriarchal notions of narrative and structure through the use of viral symbology and the belief that "...women who hijack the tools of domination and control introduce a rupture into highly systematised culture by infecting the machines with radical thought, diverting them from their inherent purpose of linear topdown mastery" (VNS Matrix, n.d.).

As a testimony to their anarchic approach to the dominance of men in technologies, VNS Matrix created a billboard poster announcing their "Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century." The centerpiece of the poster occupies three floating, dreamlike, vaguely female figures mutating out of a marine-like fossil base, their arms raised in an expression of power. The figures are both masculine and feminine, products of air, sky, earth and water, simultaneously in the past, present and future. The celestial globe that they hold has the words of the manifesto inscribed in it: "[W]e are the virus of the new world disorder rupturing the symbolic from within" (1991; see figures 4 and 5).The poster announces a new era in cyberfeminist art-one that comments ironically on the masculine fantasies of domination.

The mutating figures in this poster open up the space for Haraway's cyborg: a postmodern, fragmented, post-gendered, post-dualistic world, the world of "All New Gen," a multimedia project that VNS created in 1993 (Figure 3). "All New Gen" was envisioned as an interactive piece in the form of a parody of often violent and male-dominated shoot-'em-up computer games; it makes fun of everything that is masculine and macho-man oriented. The motto of the game is "Be aware that there is no moral code in the zone" (Breeze, n.d.). Here they try not to address any specific gender, since both men and women can play. However, men with stereotypical "masculine" qualities are warned that in this game there is no place for those who feel ego-threatened.

In their work, VNS Matrix make an attempt to rethink the boundary that exists between that which is natural and the technological (the very name of the collective, VNS Matrix speaks to that: "VNS" sounds like "Venus," the goddess of love).

Francesca da Rimini, one of the more active members of the collective who continues to create art, calls herself Gash Girl:
I am Gash Girl . . . Puppet Mistress . . . Voice Idol . . . Doll Yoko.

Exquisite Aberrant Intelligence. Ghost AI.

These are my stories. I will not remain silent. They are all true.

I am not mad. I have wept enough.

( Lies. Lies. ) (gashgirl, n.d.)
This statement has associations with one of her net. art projects, "Doll Yoko" (da Ramini, Dominguez, & Grimm, n.d.), inspired by her stay in Kyoto, Japan, where she learned of the treatment of girls as unwanted children, or "ghosts" as she calls them (Figure 7).Local people showed her a pond where for centuries women had drowned their baby daughters because they were female, not male. The story haunted her; as a result, she created this project, in which she was able to express her disgust by using disturbing imagery; the online environment gave her an opportunity to create a multidimensional, fragmented story that branches off into numerous directions as she weaves elements of her story, including an email dialogue she had at the time, with an activist, a New York-based Mexican activist named Ricardo Dominguez. "Doll Yoko" became an embodiment of all the drowned girls.

All women are ghosts and should rightly be feared." from "Doll Yoko"

Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto" was the major influence upon VNS Matrix. The name of the collective itself, VNS Matrix, is indicative of this, as it requires deciphering, like hacking computer code, which in the name itself finds close ties with technology. "VNS" has its origins in the Roman mythologies (i.e., VNS=Venus, goddess of love). The Latin word "matri" (as in "Matrix") links the term to the female body; "matrix," in technical terms, has many scientific connotations attached to it in modern culture; for instance, the matrix featured in science fiction writer William Gibson's novels is a conceptual space where numbers and codes scroll to form the so-called real events. The matrix also has roots in primitive arcade games. But why did the collective choose to pair the very feminine character of Venus with the male-dominated world of matrices? Venus denotes ideas such as seduction, feminine power and control-as well as love, which is softer than the notion of "matrix." However, as indicated above, "VNS" is coded as "matrix," being made of numbers and codes. Therefore it is easy to find the close connection between the female (VNS/Venus) and the male (Matrix).

The Shifting Nature of Definition

Within the initiation of the cyberfeminist movement, it is worth noting that its initiators approached cyberfeminism from different perspectives. However, these various theories co-exist, and cyberfeminism was created in that context. It is therefore unsurprising that cyberfeminist concepts of the female gender and relationships between women and technologies (as well as the politics therein) are so diverse.

In 1997 at the First International Conference of Cyberfeminists in Kassel, Germany, a group of cyberfeminists from the United States and Europe met with the goal of defining this new movement. This gave birth to the OBN website (OBN is an abbreviation of "Old Boys Network"), which was created to document the conference topics. However, the participants decided not to define the movement because, they acknowledged, cyberfeminism embraces many fields of study: politics, culture, art, communication theories and technology. Instead, they came up with a list of statements of what cyberfeminism is not, entitled "100 anti-theses" (OBN, n.d.). One section of the OBN website is dedicated to Q&A, the results of which are very interesting as it contains various questions regarding cyberfeminism and consequently, very different, sometimes quite contradictory, responses are generated. For instance:
  • Cyberfeminism is certainly feminism whose focus is digital media
  • Driving force for the discussions about art and politics
  • Revised version of feminism committed to new political issues as a result of globalization and new media social structures
  • The new product and marketing strategies at the same time (VNS Matrix, n.d.)
Suzanna Paasonen, a Finnish cyberfeminist whose dissertation was dedicated to the theories and applications of this new movement (resulting in the book Figures of Fantasy), gave a general, possible definition based on the activities of cyberfeminists and cultural theorists in Europe and the U.S. Generally speaking, cyberfeminism embraces feminist acquisition of information and computer technologies on both theoretical and practical levels, and it questions the relationship of the domination of man in the world of technologies. In new media studies, cyberfeminism is considered to be identical with gender studies of new media that explore the inter-relatedness of gender, embodiment and technologies. Aside from this general definition, the concept of cyberfeminism is very fluid, as the OBN group claims. Based on the origins of cyberfeminism, and keeping in mind the theories of Sadie Plant and Donna Haraway as well as the artwork of VNS Matrix, it is possible to deduce three different viewpoints/definitions, according to Paasonen (2005):
  1. Plant's version of cyberfeminism stands for an aim to depict technologically saturated culture and the (im)possibilities of women in this context. Philosopher/feminist Rosi Braidotti and Donna Haraway belong to this category, as well.
  2. The second possible definition of cyberfeminism implies critical analysis of cybernetics in relation to feminism. This definition can be associated with many strains: both Haraway and Sarah Kember as it relates to artificial life, Alison Adams' explorations into artificial intelligence, Katherine Hayles's work in cybernetics, and projects by subRosa, a collective of artists, activists and theoreticians of which Faith Wilding is a founding member. (It is important to note that some of those listed here, such as Adams, do not want any sort of association with cyberfeminism.)
  3. The third possible definition refers to the analysis of women as users of information technologies and digital media, as well as analysis of the structures of power. This movement is prevalent in the U.S.
Today cyberfeminism sits at the crossroads of art, theory and activism. What is needed now is to transfer interests from utopian visions to the critical discussions of power, money and business on the internet.

According to Julianne Pierce, a member of VNS Matrix, new cyberfeminism implies creating foundations on which it is possible to further build so that in this new millennium women can create their own pathways and their own unique companies. However, the question remains: What shall we do with cyberfeminism when it takes roots and reaches its destination? Paasonen proposes that we should take the movement and its future trends very seriously, especially Haraways' proposition from two decades ago-we should explore the possibilities of cooperation between feminists and women, not in the direction of their oppositions; we should think together with the previous movements of feminists and other feminists outside of those.

The division between new and old feminisms, both on and off the internet, does not work in the long run as an analytical approach. Instead, cyberfeminism must live online and offline at the same time, and it must consider all the implications this division brings about. It can question all these problems, but in order to achieve its goals, it must build a solid foundation in order to become situated, be embodied and be political (Paasonen, 2005).

The future is femail! - Verena Kuni

About the Author

Vesna Dragoljov is the Associate Professor in Multimedia at UAT. She teaches a variety of classes related to new media and technology and arts. In her research work, she strives to integrate various fields of study that she has been involved in through her education, including linguistics theories, history of art with a focus on contemporary art, and new media technologies, among others, and how they all play together on an interdisciplinary level to create a new product.