Monday, 11 June 2007

The Hand that Hits the Keyboard

Her Bad Mother asked all of us involved in BlogRhet to answer the following: How does (or DOES) blogging empower women? (Possible variations - has it, or how has it, empowered you? Is blogging a radical act?) Doesn't have to be specific to mom-bloggers, but should be specific to *women.* The MommyBlogs Toronto site is holding a contest regarding these questions -- winner to receive a package to Blogher. I'm not going, alas.

Writing something down is empowering. All through history, from the time that writing was regarded as the mysterious power of magical seers, the act of setting down an action or a thought has given the written word great power. The writing of chronicles, in specific, has been used by scrupulous men to record the deeds of states and heroes. By unscrupulous men, such chronicles have revised history, advanced the world view, ethics and religion of the writer and formed the opinions of the 'unlettered'. The 'Articles' that founded the protestant religion were posted on a church door. Spoken words of power, such as those in Shakespeare's plays, have entered and enriched the language in which they were written, but only when written do they endure.
I postulate that the antecedent of the blog is not really the diary, but rather a chronicle, the earliest form of which, kept by monks, has enormously influenced later events. The chronicles that survive their authors are referred to over and over again, analyzed and used both critically and uncritically to teach young people. When the printing press brought preserved text within the reach of many people, newsletters circulated in coffee shops in England and Europe gave middle class men access to the governments of their world. And with that access came the rise of democratic change. These observations are oversimplified, but I think they are sound.

When you look at the enduring early novels, you see the author using a form of chronicle, the direct address to the reader, to engage interest. "Reader, I married him," says Jane Eyre. The novel purports to be written in the words of the heroine, recollected after the fact. A great many chronicles/diaries that have survived from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries also show evidence of being written with an audience in mind. Some of them have been published as books, in fact, of advice of a father to his son, of the change of a government and religious outlook, or simply of a life vivaciously lived. Whom was Samuel Pepys writing for, if not for posterity. And how posterity values him, warts and all.

A blog seems to me to be a blend of a newsletter, a chronicle and a self conscious diary. I often find myself thinking of Lucy Maud Montgomery's diaries, a work over which she took obsessive care and frequently edited. How she would have valued a delete button -- so much easier to hide emendation that way than by taking a razor blade to remove pages. I think of LMM as the first woman blogger, because of the self consciousness and because of the subject matter. She wrote about her children, her work, her home and herself, just as we do. Her popularity was always in her mind, I believe, as she wrote because she knew that her fame would preserve the diaries and many women would read them. And mostly, I think, she was candid. Edited, but the voice and the emotions are real.

This aspect, the reality of the subject matter, the singular voice of the woman writer recording and observing and editing the events of her life, is what gives the blog its power. I want to read about you and I want you to read about me. The act of exchanging thoughts and comments on events and feelings and beliefs is the generating element that links all of us who write and illustrate our chronicles. And in the linkage lies power. The format of the blog, allowing graphics and photographs and providing a place for immediate response is a very powerful tool, and the reciprocal nature of the genre makes building a community at once simple and complex.

When I was a young mother I had a small version of this community -- my husband was a PhD student at a large university, one among several dozen in the Engineering school. Many of his fellow students were the same age and at the same stage of life and among the wives there were a double handful of us who were SAHMs from very similar backgrounds. We phoned each other daily, met as often as possible and made ourselves into a mutual aid society. It was good and supportive, but it was not immediate and not as link friendly. (What we needed was telephone conferencing.) I think that of all of us from that group I was the only one who wrote to my family (my mother and my aunt) in detail and regularly. It was a chronicle of my life, and the children's growth, that they needed and responded to. So it was somewhat blog like, but the response time was much longer.

Immediacy is one of the keys to the power of the blogger's world. That and linkage are the two aspects of blogs that are new and now. The reasons that the blogs are written are many but I have been collecting the BlogRhet meme responses and I am starting to work out some categories. There are women who primarily began to write to provide a chronicle of their lives for far-flung relatives and friends. Many cite reasons to do with mental health ranging from an outlet and refreshment from stress, through depression, post partum and otherwise to simple loneliness. Other women were motivated by a desire to write, either for themselves or to provide a record for future generations. Some are not clear themselves -- the water looked inviting to them, they jumped in and found themselves swimming. All the respondents, however, talk about how the immediacy and the sense of community have encouraged them to continue.

And a lot of us are continuing. Our voices are becoming legion. The variations in what we do with our blogs are less important than the simple fact that the numbers are increasing. I am sure there is disenchantment and women who just can't find the time to write and read enough to stay connected. But the majority are finding the time -- less than they want but it is important enough to keep on with, even at the end of a frantically busy and stressful day. And I can only surmise that what keeps us coming back is the sense of community, of empowerment, of being part of a many voiced, many eyed collective where we all can know something of one another and rely on one another. Not in a small and ephemeral group but as parts of a continuing whole.
I am saying that the whole has power. Like the chronicling monks, keeping their solitary candles of scholarship alive in the dark of the chaotic centuries, this multi voiced record we are keeping may take a long time to be useful. Or not. I am not an historian -- but there are some of us who are. I am not a psychologist or statistician or sociologist. But there are some of us who are. I am posting these observations in the knowledge that, unlike the monk chroniclers, other minds than mine, with different and probably better skills, will have immediate access to what I am writing and can use it, correct it and comment on it so that the discussion becomes more refined. I think it is too soon to wonder what will we do with this power we are generating. But it is not too soon to look at what kind of community we are building. And never to soon to foster it.
I think that we are joining voices - and writing history as it's never really been written before.
June 11 Edit. TBM added this comment, but it is a much better conclusion than mine so I have incorporated it.


  1. Oh I just loved this!

    What you said about immediacy was very insightful. I think that aspect of blogging is what draws many, many woman to this world. You call out and the responses come. It is indeed an intricate dance that is both exciting and rewarding. For me, as a woman, the community is what has kept me coming back for more. I know of 2 men who read my blog, but most of my readers, I think, are women. I am very aware of that, yet I also want to be inclusive of my male readers now and in the future.. Hmmm, interesting stuff here.

    Thanks for this thoughtful post!

  2. Wonderful, Mary.

    (My own take on this pales. I'll be slinking away now.)

    Thank you for this.

  3. Wow, Mary, this was fabulous. Very thought-provoking, and so eloquent. I'm intrigued by your comparison to chronicles.

  4. For me, blogging has an element of performance to it. Lots of us writing on similar topics and each trying, at least a tiny bit, to impress the other with our insight & the quality of our writing.

    That's of course not *all* that blogging is or even the main, but it's an element. And it's the primary way that I think it differs from conversation.

  5. Thanks, Christine, and so is your comment. I think that the connectivity should appeal to men as well, if they are interested in our type of conversation. I note that not all women are interested, either.
    SM, you just get right back here. I love your take on things. And it's needed. I can be a bit of a pedant but that doesn't make me right.
    Thanks, Alejna. What I have in mind is the fact that the chronicles are, for long periods, the only records we have and many of them are pretty monkcentric.
    Jennifer, I love the comment -- but I have met some really performance oriented conversationalists as well. I think some people are like that, written or spoken. But, yes, I think we all write to be read, and there is a desire to get nice things said to you. In conversation we rarely say things like 'nicely said' but here it is done often.

  6. There's power in the whole. Yes.

    I love your take here. I think that we are joining voices - and writing history as it's never really been written before.

  7. Excellent, Mary. Yes, that immediacy is there but it is also one of blogging's greatest drawbacks. It pulls you in and then threatens to drown you with abundance.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. SM -- I answered by eamil. If you don't get the email, drop me another comment.

  10. Jennifer's right - there is that performance element, that desire to impress, and it affects everything we write. But at least it is balanced, I think, by a genuine delight in being impressed by other writers. I welcome the writerliness of the blogosphere - I wouldn't trade it for a more natural or informal conversation in which there would be less freedom to be self-consciously literary.