SocietyScience & Technology What Did It Mean To Be A Woman On The Internet In The 1990s?

What Did It Mean To Be A Woman On The Internet In The 1990s?

For the first four years of my Internet life there was no “world-wide-web.” So was I on the Internet at all?

Posted by Radhika Gajjala

For the first four years of my Internet life there was no “world-wide-web.” So was I on the Internet at all?

My first encounters with computer programming happened in 1988 when I took short courses to learn Wordstar (a word processing program), BASIC and COBOL (programming languages) in Bhopal, India (no I don’t remember how to program in those languages – I didn’t continue in that direction). I had read books about artificial intelligence and “ELIZA, and I wondered if the computer would write poetry for me as well. I was always an avid reader and I used to dabble in creative writing. At that time I was living in my in-laws’ house in Bhopal with my five-year old child.

My first encounters with the Internet were in 1989 in university computer labs, in Pittsburgh, PA as a wife of a graduate student. Soon after, in 1990, I too started graduate school so we bought a basic DOS PC and hooked up a modem to it so we could dial into the university system for Internet connection. Our six-year old son started to play some rudimentary games on that PC as well.

Image Credit: Radhika Gajjala

Writing for me, until the modem arrived in our apartment, had been my solitude space. The space I expressed my anger, joy and curiosity regularly in notebooks. When I wanted to write out to the others or to a larger public – I would either hand-write letters, or the type out the occasional article/poem/short story to send for publication in a newspaper or magazine.

But with the arrival of a modem, I found myself writing outward – one to one emails to people I knew, posts to email listprocs and building environments in text-based MOOs. I wrote less for myself in solitude and more to other people in public spaces not knowing who might actually respond more and more – but nonetheless expecting a response unlike when writing in solitude. But I could not write “home” – not in those early years of Internet connectivity – because my family in India was not yet connected to the Internet. My connection to my family in India was still through long distance ground line timed trunk calls.

I read UseNet bulletin boards (soc.cult.india for instance), I tried out IRC, I built homes on MOOs. The Usenet BBs were unwelcoming – I don’t think I ever posted more than a line or two to them. Then, eventually I joined an email list called “SAWnet” (South Asian Women’s network) after an Indian friend at the University told me about it. This network was started as a women-only group in reaction to the marginalization and harassment of women on newsgroups such as soc-cult.india.

Later in 1994, I came across the “Spoon Collectiveand the majordomo email lists facilitated through the infrastructural support provided by Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) at University of Virginia. This connection with IATH based projects also led me to dabbling in creative experiments in the PMC MOO and eventually taking over the moderation of the Postcolonial list as the previous moderators transitioned to other projects. Later, I also started the third-world-women list, the sa-cyborgs list and the women-writing-culture list through the Spoon Collective.

Image Credit: Radhika Gajjala

Around the same time I joined several of the volunteer moderators of SAWnet as well – after starting a research project (eventually to become the focal point of my PhD dissertation). Through volunteering to do these tasks, I learned some behind the scene processes entailed in the production of Internet facilitated public spaces (and semi-public spaces, since SAWnet was a women-only space and membership was restricted to women).

This is only a very brief slice of my history on the Internet as an Indian woman. During this period of time – women actually connecting from India were rare. Being an Indian woman on the Internet often meant you were an Indian woman outside of India or in very specialized and technical locations in India. The huge wave of service work through Indian offshore work had not yet started.

Key issues (among many) that became visible in those early days continue to this day as research interests for me in my teaching and research on feminist digital media in relation to the Indian context and global digital media. These are issues that center around digital access and inclusion:

  • In 2000 Tizuana Terranova wrote about those early days of listproc founding and management specifically in relation to chat-host volunteers on AOL (America Online) who, in 1999, had asked the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate if AOL owed them backwages (Terranova, 2000). She coined the term “free labor.”
  • The trickiness around creation of “safe spaces” for women in such a format – where the verification of who is a woman and even the assumption of “women-only” as somehow a safe-space raised problematic concerns in relation to issues around transnational feminism.
  • Male-dominated Hindu Nationalist discourses on most Indian public spaces – UseNet to the world-wide-web (see here for an article that discusses early manifestations of Hindutva on the Internet).
  • Queer, Transgender, and CiS women empowerment and/or activism across class, caste, geography and culture.

In this short essay I merely introduce these issues as prompts for possible future discussion. To follow up on these issues you can reach me via DM or by pinging me on Twitter.

As I sign off – I’d like to invite readers to join discussions that I will be setting up – specifically around Digital domesticity vs Digital streets and around the topic of Digital Feminisms and NGOization. I will be setting up a WhatsApp channel for further discussions – if interested in joining – email me at or DM me via Twitter.

Radhika Gajjala is Professor of Media and Communication and American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, USA. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter

Featured Image Credit: Early 1990’s Internet Commercial

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