Technology will save us? Newnham College doctoral student Rosa Campbell describes feminist uses of technology

Image of a laptop and a cup of coffee

Photo: Chris Montgomery

My Ph.D. is an in-depth study into the Australian Women's Liberation movement, across the years 1969-1990. I consider this social movement in global context, exploring how texts, tactics, people, and ideas from across the world informed Women's Liberation in Australia.

To be a little more concrete, I explore global women's peace networks, First Nations women's networks across the Pacific, migrant women's activism within Australia, the impact of Vietnamese and Chinese communism on the movement, and the impact of the US, UK, and European feminism on the Australian movement. In terms of methodology, I combine archival research with oral history interviews.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the vast majority of my 20+ oral history interviews have  taken place on Zoom, the video conferencing software known to most of us. Zoom has certainly changed my research, and my vocabulary, ‘I’m zoomed out,’ I say to my partner. ‘Zoom doom gloom’ he rhymes back. But despite zoom fatigue this technology has enabled my research to continue and for me to stay connected to historians in the Faculty at Cambridge and around the world.

Alongside my PhD, I am active in a range of political campaigns, including my local Renters Union and my local baby bank, which is like a food bank except that it provides necessities for little ones. Technology has enabled us to stay active and connected throughout the pandemic locally and closed the distance on global connections. It is now more common than ever to drop in on a meeting, or attend a seminar thousands of miles away. But, our reliance on technology reveals inequalities too; many require a smart phone, a computer, fast internet and computer literacy which many people in my community, as across the world, just don’t have.

Perhaps I have the power and pitfalls of technology on my mind, but I’m now in the process of transcribing my oral history interviews and I’ve been struck by how often my interviewees discuss the way technology changed, inspired and enabled their feminist activism across the decades I study.   

In 1975 a group of Vietnamese women visited Australia at the invitation of Australian feminists. Martha Ansara, a feminist film maker explained, that she, along with a friend ‘actually filmed the whole visit.’ Sadly the tapes have been mislaid but Ansara explained that they were able to do this because ‘half inch VHS Portapaks had just come out.’

Portapaks were an early hand-held battery powered camera that was decent quality and affordable. The Portapak enabled the generation that had come of age with the Vietnam war televised into their living rooms to make films on their own terms. This included, in Ansara’s case, about the war in Vietnam from the perspective of Vietnamese women, a perspective which never would have been broadcast by the nightly news. As Paul Ryan, the North American video artist wrote, ‘the video portapak helped trigger a range of activity linking video with social change.’

Other feminists I talked to discussed how fax technology enabled their work. Gail Hewison, ran the Sydney Feminist Bookshop with her sisters, Jane and Libby from 1982-2011 when it closed. She said that women would often want books from overseas, especially the US, but also the UK. The Feminist Bookshop would place these orders, with varying degrees of rapidity. Gail, who took over the bookshop in 1982, said they  ‘just about always had a fax machine,’ but suggested that ‘before fax machines the orders would just be posted.’ The fax machine would have sped up the process of getting feminist books a little, but interviewees often discussed waiting for books in Australia, or coming from outside Sydney to stock up. Jane Bullen, a Canberra feminist said that she would often come ‘up to Sydney for the weekend and part of what you did was go to The Feminist Bookshop…get a little pile of books and take them home,’ because the books ‘especially the lesbian ones’ were not available in Canberra at the time.

The development of communications technology in the 1980s also ushered in the change from foolscap paper to standard A4, a ripple recalled by Professor Rhonda Small. Small was involved in an ambitious project called ‘Women in Industry, Contraception and Health.’ WICH sought to get migrant women information they needed about contraception and health through peer to peer education in their own languages, and through providing information, often during factory lunch hours. Small recalled ‘a bizarre memory’ during our interview, of how after the birth of her first child, ‘she did a lot of work preparing a whole lot of information sheets in different languages’ switching them from foolscap to A4 to enable photocopying. She did this important behind- the- scenes- work of  ‘cutting, chopping and pasting’  in the small amounts of time she could snatch when her child was asleep.   

Communications technology, both new and older, was also important at Pine Gap Women’s Peace Camp, where 800 women camped on the red sands at Pine Gap, a US military installation in the Northern Territory. This camp took place in response to the global reescalation of the nuclear missile crisis in the early 1980s. It was also inspired by other women around the world who had established anti-nuclear women’s camps including Greenham Common, Newbury in Britain, and Comiso, Silicy in Italy. In the lead up to the camp, groups of activists from across Australia were able to exchange tactics, and information about when they were arriving, via fax.

However, during the camp itself, which did not have a phone or running water, let alone access to a fax machine, women made good use of much older telegram technology. Messages to campers were sent to the pub at Alice Springs. Telegrams enabled women to send personal messages, such as a woman called Virginia who sent ‘love to her Sydney roomates’. Angela and Sandy telegraphed that they were ‘with you singing for our lives all the songs from your songbook’; ‘sisters in Hobart’ sent the simple message: ‘close the gap all our love.’ The telegrams reveal global connections which are of great interest to me, including one received from Aotearoa/New Zealand sending messages in Maori of ‘Kia-Koha- strength’ and ‘Aroha—love.’

While in some ways technology enabled activism, it also had the potential to be used against women’s interests, leading to reactions against it.  Women at Pine Gap were, like those at Greenham Common and Comiso camps, protesting the escalation of nuclear technology. Technologies too were a site of debate in the feminist movement, and Zohl de Ishtar recalled that, in the early 70s, she went to a Women’s Liberation march which she ‘vaguely remember[ed] was in part about…the right for the Pill.’ But she said that she soon realised that the pill led to “a lot of pressure on young women to cough up everytime with a boy, and so there was a lot of unwanted date sex.’ While the pill had allegedly liberated women and ‘suddenly, women were free’, for many women ‘there wasn’t any freedom in it at all.’

Reproductive technologies also revealed the differences between women and the way that state control of women was uneven.  In 1975, a group of Aboriginal women including Professor Marcia Langton intervened in the Women and Politics Conference. They gave out a leaflet with the support of African American Feminist Florynce Kennedy who was a guest at the conference, to conference attendees ‘ask[ing] that all women present…support us in our fight’. One of their suggestions was that women ‘help[…] stop forced sterilisation on our black women in the Northern Territory while white women campaign for the right to abortion.’

At the moment, as our lives are being transformed- for better and worse- by communication technologies such as zoom and whatsapp, the women I am lucky enough to interview point to the way that technology has always had a role to play in both upholding inequality and challenging it, then, as now.