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The following article was written by Annelie Ekelin from Ronneby in Sweden. With Pirjo Elovaara, Annelie launched the "Women Writing on the Net" group in the framework of the Dialogue project. In addition to Ronneby, the towns of Bologna and Lewisham took part in the one-year Dialogue project which was part funded by ISPO, the Information Society Project Office. The project was led by Pamela Lama from Bologna.

The following text is part of the "Storybook" written about Dialogue by its participants entitled "An Online Dialogue for Democracy. Using information and communication technologies to empower citizens in Europe's towns and cities". You can also read two other texts by Annelie about women online taken from the Dialogue StoryBook in Connected Magazine. One is about the paradox of time and the other citizens' involvement.

Writing - a way to knowledge and empowerment

Experiences from working with the local project "Women writing on the net", shows that writing is an excellent method and tool for empowerment and understanding. During the meetings with the women who were involved in the project, writing was one of three main activities integrated with ICT-training and discussions in the group. The aim with the writing was of course to produce material for the website, but writing has also served as a useful tool in order to create a dialogue and a feeling of affinity within the group, to stimulate the individual empowerment and create a fruitful learning process. The participants were, for example, doing writing-exercises related to the introduction of different software, in order to explain abstract structures and technical terms and to deepen the new knowledge they were gaining. Some writing-exercises were meant to stimulate the participants to reflect about what was going on during the project, both inside themselves and within the group and put it in a wider context, discovering the correlation between the individual sphere and the world around. Writing also served as a method to restore and create mental processes.

Four aspects in virtual rooms

In the beginning of the twentieth century a famous English writer, Virginia Wolf, wrote an essay named "A room of one's own". She claimed the right of female writers, as well as male writers, to have physical and social space for creativity and publishing. Times may have changed, but women still need a space of their own, a place where personal expressions are allowed to grow and develop. Internet could be seen as such an important, modern public arena. Having women create their own and common rooms on Internet, symbolic and for real, and "furnish" them with personal thoughts, visions and dreams, is one way to claim the property - on your own terms. It is also a way to recapture the symbolic "home", that historically has locked women in within the private sphere and excluded them from the public sphere.

When you visit the Women Writing on the Net website, you have to enter four virtual rooms. Each one has its own function and represents different aspects of women's writing. On the website you will find one room for the participants personal presentations, the second room contains the virtual cookbook as an example of collaborative writing and in the third you can read poems or short stories. In the fourth room there is space for discussions in a chat-room.

There is the private writing, the collaborative writing, discussing and analysing the writing-process and above all, writing in public. All these different parts have a certain meaning related to women's writing and must be seen in their entirety to shed light on the statement that writing is important for individual empowerment. Writing within the groups has been performed on all these levels. One of the participants, Christin, expressed her expectations about the work: "I want to write more, try different literary genres, and hope we are going to help each other to develop our writing. A small, intimate group of women certainly has a lot to teach and give one another" and another woman wrote in her half-time evaluation: "Working with and thinking about this project, made me more and more involved. Imagine the possibility of reaching a wide audience in co-operation with other women, recounting your favourite recipes, personal writings and pictures! It is very enticing!"

Making myself visible

The first mentioned category above, the autobiographical literary genre or writing about your own experiences, has by tradition always been regarded as a female theme. The private writing in our groups covers many different subjects, such as childhood memories and thoughts about what it is like to work as a personal assistant to a handicapped boy. Some women wrote about their personal relationship to computers, one woman wrote a letter to a local politician, expressing her fear of growing old, in order to protest against the planned closure of an old people's home. Other examples are: a poem expressing mixed feelings about food when you are a diabetic or telling personal things by e-mail to an unknown woman in Bologna.

Describing yourself in metaphorical form is also a way to reflect over the construction of an identity. For example, the apprehension of yourself, how others look upon you and how you want to express yourself. One of the women wrote in her half-time evaluation about this particular exercise: "Describing myself as a house and writing about 'home-homeless' has given me insights about myself, who I am, how my situation in life appears to me today and why it has become like that". This writing exercise also brought up an interesting discussion about experiences of feeling homeless, in your mind or even at home, but also the possibility of looking upon the whole world as your home, when you are browsing the Internet... Set in a wider context this discussion also exposes the expectations and demands about how a female identity is supposed to be, formed by historical, social and cultural patterns and expectations.

Writing together

Women also prefer to write in co-operation, at least in Sweden where statistics show that writing-circles often engage a majority of women. The Virtual cookbook on our homepage is an example of collaborative writing that is meant to put forward women-related experiences and so called "invisible knowledge". To mediate a recipe, passed on by heredity through the generations, is a genuine, female knowledge well worth putting forward. A participant, Anne-Marie, was very enthusiastic about the idea and commented the work with the cookbook like this: "The framework of recipes and the surrounding texts make this a personal and unusual publication that hopefully will interest many people. I believe that this co-operation is the interesting part for others, not the results of the individuals."

Another example of the collaborative writing within our groups was when we collectively formulated women related questions and discussed with local politicians using an on-line forum on the municipality homepage, before local and national elections which took place in Sweden in September 98. This was an opportunity to stress political questions which are important for women. A third example was writing a letter to use informal ways to get in contact with the members of the European parliament, to spread information about the DIALOGUE project and gather support for a trip to Brussels. Doing a writing-exercise about free association is another example of collaborative writing aiming to explain a complicated structure. Actually I told the participant to pick a word or a sentence and write down what first came up in their heads! After having collected these notes, then placing them on a notice board, we could all find connections between the written sentences. We drew lines between them and thanks to this exercise were able to visualise how the Web is structured and follow up with a discussion about links... One of the participants, Inga-Lill, thought this was very inspiring: "It was really fun to use words in this way, to play with them and create a new meaning. In the end, all the pieces put together, made a wholeness."

Reflections about talking

For most of the participants it is the experience of being able to write, both individually and collectively, and finally manage to transform the material into a homepage that is the principal benefit of this project. Inger comments this: "Participating in this project has made me discover that I in fact am able to write, if I only get inspired. I did not believe that before joining the group". The discussions in the group about writing in general and especially the personal texts that were written and presented in the group, also gives an idea about the empowerment that lies within writing.

In the beginning most of the participants felt nervous when they had to read their texts aloud, but after an introduction of some principles on how to give useful and positive criticism they accepted the challenge. Sharing each others thoughts about the texts brought up new perspectives and rethinking causing a development.

Caroline, one of the participants explains her feelings about this activity like this: "It was really fun to get the others response on the writing and listening to their variations on the same theme. The writing-exercises inspired me a lot and it was easy to start writing. On the other hand it was not as easy as I had thought to read my own text and discuss it with the others. That experience gave me another perspective on texts and an insight that a properly prepared text also demands a true engagement from the ones listening. I had not thought about how important this is before."

Solveig had the same experience: "I thought it was very good reading aloud what we had written, to take and give criticism and share positive reflections. Speaking in front of the others was difficult in the beginning, but the atmosphere was so kind and friendly that it soon went on like a dance."

A third participant, Inger, agrees: "It was really scary in the beginning to read the text I had been working so hard to formulate at home. But that feeling has gone away now. That was useful!"

The writing and the need to reflect about the texts and the experiences brought up new questions and a strong need to deepen the discussions within the group. This was very difficult to satisfy and as project leaders we felt very uncomfortable when we had to limit this need because of lack of time.

Caroline comments the time constraint she felt during the project activities in an e-mail about evaluation: "I've learnt the basic principles, but also realised how much work I must be prepared to do in order to learn everything I want. I need time to experiment and make changes before I put my text on the Web. I don't want to hurry on, just because we have to show the results in public. When I'm delivering a work I want to feel proud of it, knowing I couldn't have done this better" Lena also felt pressed by the time limits: "There has been too little time working with the exercises during the lessons. I want more time for discussions and analyses. On the whole it has been frustrating that there not has been enough time to do all the things that we should be able to do and wanted to do."

The relations between the women were growing stronger during the process of the project. This is how Lena felt: "Meeting and discussing with all these women, project leaders as well as the other participants, has made me happier and more positive towards life. I've had the opportunity to share my knowledge and my experiences with others, feeling useful and interesting. Talking with others about private things and hearing about how it could be in other countries is also fruitful, especially hearing about how it was in Bosnia during the war and how it is to be a refugee in a new country, has given me perspective on my own problems. It has been good for me to associate with other women, to listen to the others and most of all: to be fully accepted being myself".

Becoming public

All this writing has a main purpose; to bring women related subjects out into the public, and show new ways to knowledge. This could be done in many ways, but gaining ICT-skills combined with empowerment through writing and discussion in the group seems to have been fruitful for most of the participating women. For many women it needs an enormous physical effort to take possession of this new land in cyberspace, that we got a concrete example of when we were going to decide in the group whether the personal presentations should be public or not. One of the participants told us about a relative working in a travel agency, presenting their staff on a homepage on Internet. After that malicious people harassed her. This was the basis of a discussion in the group about the difficulties for women going public and it all ended up with putting the personal presentations behind a password.

This shows the importance of women representation on the Internet and the fact that even today, we have to fight against forces aiming to exclude women from this public arena. To encourage women to write about their experiences, whether it is an autobiographical text, a letter to a local politician or a poem expressing a feeling, and in a wider context help them to find a path of their own representation and involvement in what goes on in the society still is an on-going process.

I'm glad the process that has been started within the groups seems to continue in different ways, even though we have had our last session with the second group of Women writing on the net. Many of the participants have asked if there is a possibility to continue the project or if we have any plans to start up similar ones. Some women are going to make a web page for their work and a number of women have started a writing group on their own, and also joined a larger, regional network for women aiming to map out and in the long run increase the representation of all women in the region. Finally I would like to give the last word to one of our oldest and most enthusiastic participants, Solveig: "Women writing on the net really have given us a push in the bottom and moved us forward. I think there really is a need for girl power and bitchy women as well!"

Annelie Ekelin, February 1999.

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Created: February 12th, 1999 - Last up-dated: February 12th, 1999