- Religious Feminists and the Digital Divide
“So, should I be on Facebook? And if so, how much do I share?”
This was a pressing question for religious leaders in 2011 when I first began working with the New Media Project, a Lilly Endowment–funded endeavor to help religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology.1
By 2015, dozens of leaders in religion and digital media gathered to ask more nuanced questions: How does our denominational structure influence the kinds of digital technologies we engage? How do we best represent our theological perspective online—in both content and form? How do we translate hashtag activism into concrete ministry?
Admittedly, navigating the public–private spheres has long been a pressing concern for public scholars and religious leaders. Yet, as religious leaders continue to engage the digital world, the concerns shift from a personal focus and [End Page 144] marketing techniques to concern about the content/message and the ways that virtual reality intersects (or doesn’t) with face-to-face reality. These issues are only magnified when we consider how feminist scholarship and activism occur online.
I am grateful to Gina Messina-Dysert for drawing attention to the ways feminist studies in religion operate in the digital world. I affirm many things Messina-Dysert writes in the lead-in essay, especially her descriptions and examples of how the intersection of technology and feminist studies in religion can serve to widen the conversation, include a greater diversity of voices, connect movements, and facilitate feminist activism.
Messina-Dysert offers a balanced perspective on the important roles of digital technology, print journals, books, and other traditional forms of advancing knowledge. If, as Messina-Dysert suggests, engaging digital technology offers opportunities for “those who have been oppressed to claim power,” expands “movements committed to feminist ideologies,” and offers spaces where “hierarchies can be eliminated” (136), then it’s worth exploring digital spheres as the future for feminist studies in religion.
Space constraints prevent me from providing exhaustive commentary, so I’ll respond to one issue that Messina-Dysert raises and bring black feminist and womanist experiences to bear in my response. At the end of her lead-in essay, Messina-Dysert notes that “many voices continue to be excluded” and that there are “countless persons who do not have access to the Internet” (139). If the digital world does indeed present a cutting-edge venue for feminist religious scholarship and activism, it’s important to focus on the barriers to such engagement—and imagine ways to overcome them.
The term digital divide refers to the gap between people and places with regard to modern information and communications technology. Since the late 1990s, the term has referred primarily to those with and without Internet access: “The digital divide typically exists between those in cities and those in rural areas; between the educated and uneducated; between socioeconomic groups; and globally, between the more and less industrially developed nations.”2 The digital divide is particularly meaningful between the first and two-thirds worlds and within several communities of color. Two anecdotes come to mind. A couple of years ago, I was on a planning committee bringing an African woman scholar of religion to give a lecture at a university in the United States. At one point, the primary contact person reminded us committee members that we could not send the contract as an attachment because the scholar did not have [End Page 145] sufficient bandwidth to download e-mail attachments. In another instance, a colleague working with feminist activists in West Africa indicated that their project stalled because the Internet service in West Africa disconnected and was never restored.