Shana Penn. the Women's Guide to the Wired World: A User-Friendly Handbook and Resource Directory

By Steffen-Fluhr, Nancy | Transformations, September 3, 1999 | Go to article overview

Shana Penn. the Women's Guide to the Wired World: A User-Friendly Handbook and Resource Directory


Steffen-Fluhr, Nancy, Transformations


Shana Penn. The Women's Guide to the Wired World: A User-Friendly Handbook and Resource Directory.

Dr. Nancy Steffen-Fluhr is an associate professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. She teaches undergraduate courses in Science Fiction and Women and Technology, plus a Web-based graduate seminar in Collaborative and Interpersonal Communication. Dr. Steffen-Fluhr also serves as co-director of the Constance A. Murray Women's Center @NJIT.

New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1997. Paperback. 307 pages. $18.95.

Although it is not nearly as "user-friendly" as it means to be, The Women's Guide to the Wired World is still the single most valuable resource in print for anybody -- newbie or cyber-goddess -- who wants to do Internet research on gender/women's studies issues. Indeed, it is virtually the only such resource. 1 The one rival text worth considering is Rye Senjen's and Jane Guthrey's The Internet for Women (1996), published by Spinifex Press in Australia. It has a more accessible format than The Women's Guide but a much less extensive list of Internet addresses.

Shana Penn, former director of the Women's East-West Network, is credited as the author of the Women's Guide; however, the project is really a team effort. Chapters by eight other women make up more than half the book. 2 The collaborative nature of the Women's Guide is one of its principal virtues, providing textual richness and a prismatic set of perspectives. The other great virtue is the authors' consistent sensitivity to the needs of women users from diverse social, political, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. The Guide aims to maximize Internet access and online grassroots organizing power for people who can only afford minimal hardware and software. This orientation distinguishes the Women's Guide from other Internet how-to books (e.g. The Internet for Dummies), designed exclusively for middle class U.S. readers who are hooked on expensive techno-toys.

There is a downside to this well-intended political agenda, however. Although the Guide's title plays off the initials WWW, Penn and her collaborators are deeply ambivalent about the Web. "In most parts of the world," Penn insists, "people only have email access; they cannot access the Internet or the World Wide Web" (136). Thus, much of the Guide focuses on non-graphical forms of online communication. Unfortunately, this means that The Woman's Guide was already badly dated on the day it was published. 5 For example, Victoria Vrana's assertion that "the World Wide Web is the Internet of the future" [65] sounds quaint rather than prophetic. So, too, does Vrana's extended discussion of how to do research in "gopherspace" using such tools as "veronica." In the brief time since the book's publication, the Web has almost completely swallowed up gopherspace. Virtually none of the gopher addresses listed in Women's Guide are still viable.

Penn and her publisher, The Feminist Press, have anticipated the need to continually update the Women's Guide's content and have created a supplementary Web site for the book. Unfortunately, a small -- but devastating -- error derails this user-friendly gesture. On pages 2, 4 and 114, the Guide's Web address (URL) is given as http:\\www.ccny.cuny.edu\fempress\wiredworld.

Experienced Net surfers will recognize the problem immediately: the slashes are slanted the wrong way! The problem is compounded by the fact that you reach a dead end once you reach the intended address, http://www.ccny.cuny.edu/fempress/wiredworld.

There is a way around this problem, (as I will explain), but the solution may not occur to novice users, who will simply throw down the book in terminal despair. This would be a shame, however. Despite its pokiness and gaffes, the Women's Guide is an exceptionally valuable research tool, particularly when combined with a good Internet search engine. …

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