Looking to the Future
Donna Kidwell: Master of Her DomainDonna Kidwell was running meetings for Her Domain when something unexpected happened -- a man walked in. No one scary, just someone's boyfriend coming along for the ride. Only problem: Her Domain, a support and networking group for those interested in technology, really is, well, her domain. "So there's this terribly awkward moment," Kidwell says, re-creating the moment by clasping her hands together and brightening her voice, "where I say, 'Sorry you can't stay. But there's a really great coffeehouse right over there.'"
That pesky girls-only issue is always good for drumming up debate -- Does it help or hinder? Empower or ghettoize? -- but at Her Domain, it is simply a rule. And for the 500 or so women using the group as a business network, taking their classes (on such topics as XML, Dreamweaver, and recruiting), and chatting on the group's listserv, that's just fine. Kidwell is still challenged on the gender issue all the time. But the thirtysomething mother, who works at the unconventional Athens Group consulting company (and who can certainly hold her own in any academic tête-ô-tête), is confident in its purpose. "If you have an environment that is all women, there are individuals who will feel more comfortable asking their questions," Kidwell says. "They'll feel less likely to be flamed or completely denigrated for asking what might be a stupid question on another, more technical list."
She didn't always feel like this. Back in the mid-Nineties, when the Web was picking up steam and what is now Her Domain was a local chapter of the national group Webgirls, Kidwell was reluctant to join. She was reluctant to jump on the tech bandwagon in general, even though she'd been active on BBSs, which preceded the Web. To her, the burgeoning Internet was just fancy graphics. Or worse -- a shopping mall. "But I started hearing more and more women that I respected interested in their Webgirls group, and I thought, regardless of the technology itself, there's something to women getting together to discuss their use of technology." She became one of the group's most active members and, in 1998, after Her Domain split off and began the incorporation process, its president. Kidwell also began telecommuting to work while raising her children, and the experience prompted an about-face on her feelings for the ol' World Wide Web. "I quickly became an advocate of women, especially, embracing those technologies [that could help them] step out and actually orchestrate their own lives and their own careers and motherhood and the whole nine yards."
Another epiphany came (as it often does) hand-in-hand with tragedy, when Kidwell's mother-in-law had a stroke. Afterward, a friend sent Kidwell's mother-in-law a new computer, even dispatching three different young men to set her up. But instead of lifting her spirits, it frustrated and baffled her -- and so did those young men. "They were terribly impatient with her," Kidwell says, "but she didn't have the vocabulary. She just kind of looks at the box and goes, 'There's a lot of potential there. I can do lots of things.' But the barrier is very thick." Kidwell put two and two together and got a new focus for Her Domain. "If you're 35 and older and you're new to technology, then your methods of entry are much more intimidating. That's where our group does really well."
With her vast interests and searching mind, Kidwell is a natural for SXSW Interactive, having put together last year's panel on the "Cyborgification of the Individual." This year she has organized "Forbidden Fruit: Women and the Web." The topic of women online isn't just a curiosity for Kidwell, it is kind of a life thread.
"In any society, women are the purveyors of culture, she says. "They are the ones who teach children etiquette and how to relate to other people. If there is an Internet culture, and there are arguments about that, but if there is such a thing, then I think the Internet culture is also going to be defined by women."
"Forbidden Fruit: Women and the Web" will be held on the festival's day stage Tuesday, March 13, at 2:15pm. More information about Her Domain can be found at www.herdomain.org