Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Participating in a long tradition

I'm delighted to be a part of this blog, because one of my interests as a historian is in virtual communities before the internet. We tend to think of the way people relate in a computer-facilitated fashion as a completely new thing, but in my work on women and progressive movements during the earlier 20th century I've come across a number of phenomena that one could legitimately call 'virtual communities', involving connections and discussions between individuals who were not physically present to one another.

Many of these centred around periodicals. In Doris Lessing's 'Children of Violence' sequence, Martha Quest, living in a backward British colony in Central Africa, believes she has identified a kindred spirit when she discovers that the man she had just met is a reader of the New Statesman. But as well as providing a means of recognising sympathetic others, radical periodicals provided a forum for debate and connection in themselves.

In 1911 the suffragette Dora Marsden established The Freewoman to discuss a range of issues relating to women's position in society that she believed were being ignored by the suffrage organisations in their focus on obtaining the vote. It was regarded as a dangerous and subversive publication even among feminists, in particular because of its determination to discuss matters to do with sexuality. Its correspondence columns provided a vibrant forum for vigorous discussions, and the facilities it offered for the ventilation of seldom-mentioned issues eventually led to the setting up of real life, real time Discussion Circles. But it also provided a means by which isolated feminists could feel themselves part of a wider community.

Recently published in the UK, Jenna Bailey's Can Any Mother Help Me? Fifty Years of Friendship Through a Secret Magazine provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of a group of women who formed a correspondence club following a letter to the magazine Nursery World from a lonely young mother seeking other women interested in reading and discussing ideas and thoughts. These women, who at that time found no other outlet for their education and ambitions, wrote and circulated letters about their lives, commented on those of others, and kept this going for several decades. They wrote under pseudonymns, but one of them is identifiable as Elaine Morgan (The Descent of Woman) and another is known to be Rose Hacker, a politically active north Londoner who was involved in the marriage guidance movement and a pioneer in sex education. Bailey's book gives a tiny glimpse into the rich surviving archive of the Cooperative Correspondence Club and the importance of this kind of virtual community to its members. (There are reviews here, here, here and here.)

There are other examples of similar circles finding commonalties and sympathies over distance and through time independently of actual face to face encounters (though these sometimes resulted). The internet has certainly brought vast changes to the processes by which this has come about, but I think there is this longer history of people, and perhaps particularly women? reaching out to find the like minds that they did not find in their immediate vicinity.

1 comment:

Helen Merrick said...

I agree! This is one of my interests too - I am also originally a historian, and now teach internet studies - including courses on virtual communities, and I am always at pains to point out examples of pre-net virtual communities.

Another wonderful example is of course SF fandom itself, which I have seen referred to as 'the paper internet' :-) Greg Benford has argued that "the Internet is recapitulating science fiction fandom"; I wrote a paper a while ago on this myself, subtitled
'how sf fans invented virtual community'
- a bit of an overstatement, but like you, I was trying to make the point that such geographically disparate 'communities' and intense communications are not unique to the Net.

Helen :-)