Digital Suffragists: Women, the Web, and the Future of Democracy

by Marie Tessier, MIT Press, 2021, 288 pp.
Hardcover $27.95, ISBN: 978-0-2620-4601-5

Marie Tessier’s Digital Suffragists: Women, the Web, and the Future of Democracy scrutinizes the history of platforms that limit women’s voices and examines how the underrepresentation of women online impacts our digital democracy. Tessier situates her analysis of online news comments within the history of women’s participation in and activism surrounding democracy. Tessier’s argument combines her own analysis of online comments with existing analyses of women’s historic and contemporary participation in public news and media platforms. 

Tessier begins her book by tracing her own career as a journalist-turned-comment moderator during the rise of Web 2.0 in the early 2000s. Her book tells the story of a history of silencing women, citing Mary Beard’s example of Penelope in the Odyssey and drawing a line to Representative Ted Yoho’s verbal attack on Alexandria Ocasio Cortez in the summer of 2020. She explores how the changing news environment has so far failed to illuminate women’s voices online, even as continued change provides more opportunity for news organizations to fix this disparity.

The book’s introduction also delineates what analyzing online comments can and cannot do. An analysis of currently available data cannot provide a nuanced approach to gender outside of the cisgender binary, and it cannot further question additional barriers placed on members of other marginalized identities.  

In Chapter 1, Tessier explores how women’s online commentary on news events is suppressed, using several examples, ranging from the response to California wildfires of 2020 to Dylan Farrow’s 2014 accusations against Woody Allen.  

Chapter 2 furthers this analysis by exploring how women’s participation in other avenues of democracy is similarly challenged and reduced, and how the internet is simply a new platform in a history of silencing women. 

Chapter 3 explores gendered patterns in communication across a variety of forums, exploring the problems in engagement that carry over into online incidents such as the Gamergate events of 2013 and 2014. Tessier looks to examples from Harvard Business School and Harvey Mudd college as two models attempting to address differences in communication by creating systems that foreground women’s voices.  

In Chapter 4, Tessier looks at the ways in which women are attacked, online and offline, for attempting to make their voices heard. This sobering chapter notes the real consequences of women’s attempts to contribute to democracy and advocate for change, emphasizing ways that trolling culture and the darker misogynist corners of online comment sections perpetuate psychological and physical harm.  

Chapter 5 explores a business approach to including women in the news by increasing their presence in the newsroom. Women’s participation in the reporting of news has stagnated in recent years, but Tessier shows how news organizations are working to elevate women’s voices.  

In Chapter 6, Tessier places responsibility for women’s underrepresentation on the design and development of these platforms themselves, citing a history of technological fumbles when it comes to including anyone other than white men in online spaces.  

In her seventh chapter, Tessier wonders if the solution to this problem may lie in emerging anti-bias technology. She explores strides in the design justice movement and inclusive rules of design from institutions like Stanford University and the European Union who are committed to developing new technology with gender inclusion at its forefront.  

Tessier’s conclusion provides lucid and concise steps for moving toward a more egalitarian online platform, from simply promoting women’s comments in online news platforms to creating meaningful consequences for cyber-harassment and other online attacks.  

Digital Suffragists consistently acknowledges its own shortcomings in addressing trans and non-binary commenters, commenters of color, and other marginalized participants in the online comment sections. Tessier’s solutions are also generally limited to the concerns of white women, with the idea that making comment sections more egalitarian in general will provide for greater representation of all groups. Her analysis invites further conversation about whether these or additional changes might result in egalitarian commentary from a wider swath of society.  

Overall, Tessier’s book provides an excellent overview of the online landscape for women’s participation in democracy. It combines existing research on the topic with Tessier’s analysis in a clear and succinct way and provides concrete, reasonable steps toward more inclusive online spaces.  I appreciate the clear-eyed, yet hopeful approach of this book in addressing both institutional responsibility and personal opportunity for affecting change. We live, Tessier writes, in “a society where conversations online are the new public square” (191).  Digital Suffragists serves as a road map to a society in which we’re all heard in equal measure.

Mariah Wahl, Smithsonian Institution