"What is the first thing you notice about a person?"
"Whether the person is male or female"
--Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Desk Set
If America Online (AOL) users found that they inspired the invention of new
prejudices, women were expected to find that they could function in cyberspace as
unquestioned equals. In a world where there are no bodies and all that matters is
the quality of your written thoughts, the ideal went, all those physical delineators
like skin color, gender, or disability would vanish. The thing is, although physical
objects don't accompany you into cyberspace, your personality and your
experience of the real world do. By the mid-1990s, endless stories began
appearing in the media about the predominantly male (and white) nature of Net
users and their harassment of women.
There are several different questions tangled up here, of which the easiest is how
many women use the Net and for what purpose. The more difficult issues are
whether women really are discriminated against in a significant way in cyberspace
and how that discrimination is going to be defined. If we're going to object to the
U.S. (or any other) government's attempts to set standards for acceptable speech
on the Net, should we then award moral guardianship to women (or any other
There is no doubt that for a long time cyberspace was predominantly male,
although to what degree depended on where you looked. A staff member at CIX
estimated in late 1992 that perhaps only 2 percent of the system's users were
women. CompuServe has estimated its female membership at 25 percent for the
last several years, AOL claims 38 to 40 percent, and best estimates
are that women make up about one-third of Internet users (see chapter 13). The
WELL's percentage is thought to be near parity.
But bearing in mind that all these systems are divided up by topic, it's logical that
even across a single system women aren't going to be evenly distributed.
CompuServe's now defunct Tennis forum had an almost all-female team of sysops
and a very high percentage (at a guess, 70 percent) of participating female
members. The much bigger Sports Illustrated forum, where the tennis topics moved
after the Tennis forum's closure, is predominantly male, presumably reflecting the
magazine's subscriber base. The media-related forum I co-manage is probably at
least a third female.
A quote from Dee Brown's Wondrous Times on the Frontier about the lives of
women as the American West was opened up offer a good analogy to the earliest
days of the Net, when there were almost no women. "Shortages of women in the
early days of gold-rush California," he writes, "naturally made them more desirable
than in more normally apportioned areas. If a rumor spread that a woman had
arrived in any mining camp, men would travel for miles just to take a look at a
female form and hear a female voice." 
Compare this to Nancy Tamosaitis, in The Joy of Cybersex: "Women in the straight
or bisexual adult bulletin board world wield an immensely high level of power.
According to Boardwatch Magazine, only 10 percent of bulletin board callers are
female. The other 90 percent who are males are eager, often desperate, to talk with
Brown doesn't say whether, out of desperation or desire for attention, frontiersmen
dressed up in drag. Online, of course, this is trivially easy, to the point where in the
early days any lively, provocative female ID was suspected of being a gender-
Carol Atack, who was one of the first women on CIX because of her job writing
computer news, recollected in 1992, "Four to five years ago, there was only a
handful of women (or they may have been lurking). Women tended to be fantasy
figures created by males to act out." Because of that, "I would get messages from
the 'policemen' on CIX to check me out." Because she was lively and noticeable,
Copyright © 1997-99 NYU Press. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without written permission of New York University Press is prohibited.
Be sure to visit the NYU Press Bookstore
[Design by NiceMedia]