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Emily Balch in the 21st Century: The Influence of Facebook in a New Era

Hillary G's picture


 Hillary Godwin

March 3, 2011


 Emily Balch in the 21st Century:
The Influence of Facebook in a New Era


             Today, it is hard to imagine a world without computers. The Internet allows us to receive information instantly from anywhere in the world. It is difficult to imagine going to the trouble of getting a book published, when everything you want to say can be posted for free on a personalized weblog. Up until twenty years ago, communicating with someone thousands of miles away required either a postage stamp or an expensive phone bill. Now, it only takes the click of a button to convey information to anyone on Earth (as long as they have internet connection).


            But even as recently as half a century ago, distributing ideas wasn’t so easy. Emily Balch won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946 for her humanitarian work with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). A Bryn Mawr College alum, she was an expert in economics and sociology, and used her expertise in the social sciences to support her anti-war activism during World War I. In order to reach the public with her words, she wrote several books and became an editor for a liberal news magazine called The Nation. Print was the best form of communication technology in the mid-1900s, and indeed, she used it to the best of her ability in order to get her voice heard across the nation.


            So, what if Emily Balch had been alive today? What if she had grown up in the 21st century? How would she have used technology to help her cause? I decided she would start by having a Facebook.


            To explore these questions, I created a Facebook profile for her using a picture of her as a profile picture. Balch would probably not have put her picture next to her written works while she was alive, because women were not usually taken seriously in the world of academia. Being able to publish articles and books without her picture attached to them maintained a level of anonymity—aside from her name, her publications essentially concealed her gender behind black and white text, which made her words seem more credible, and therefore more accessible to the public. Today, however, most public figures have Facebooks that portray them accurately in their profile pictures, so Balch would probably have done the same.



            In the patriarchal American society of her time, being female was often a disadvantage in the world of science and information. However, in her case, after both attending and teaching at women’s colleges, being female may have propelled her toward overcoming adversity, harnessing her independence, and finding the motivation to succeed. In addition to her anti-war efforts, Balch was a vocal advocate of women’s suffrage and social equality.


             In the article “Tinysex and Gender Trouble,” Sherry Turkle postulates the effect of portraying oneself online as a particular gender, and what happens when people decide to intentionally portray themselves as the other gender. The article had examples of people who used gender-swapping to be more assertive—interestingly, one of them, Case, “sees aggressiveness as acceptable only in women,” while “Zoe sees it as acceptable only for men.” The article illuminated the idea that gender is socially constructed. Gender roles are still very much alive in American society today, though they tend to be more oriented around tendencies and behavior, rather than a person’s capabilities. Although her gender would have still played a role in her development as an activist in the modern world, it would not have hindered Balch's credibility as drastically.


            Having a Facebook would have allowed Balch to remain in touch with other influential people she met during her lifetime. Her Facebook “friends” probably would have included people like Jane Addams, Norman Angell, and other writers and activists of the time. Using Facebook’s “status update” feature, Balch would have been able to keep others informed of her challenges and accomplishments, perhaps in a more personal way than she was ever able to convey through published work.


              In some ways, Facebook would have provided Balch with challenges unrelated to gender. Although it would have given her an outlet through which to communicate her ideas, one could ask whether she would ever have been heard amidst the millions of other facebook users with their own agendas. With this new age of technology, our society has been introduced to the concept of Information Overload. We are exposed to so much information on such a consistent basis that it becomes difficult to filter out the important voices from the barrage of noise. 


This raises an important question: has communication technology become so accessible that we have lost the ability to distinguish the “important” voices from the white noise of the internet? And if so, will the great thinkers, activists, scientists, and writers of our time get the recognition they deserve?


These are troubling questions, though their implications are not entirely bleak. Social networking websites like Facebook offer every individual the ability to get their voice heard on an equal playing field. This allows people a chance to express themselves in a public forum, which is an opportunity that most people never had before.


Regardless of what direction we’re going in, we seem to be going there pretty fast. In the last twenty years alone, communication technology has advanced from corded house phones to a wireless world in which we can be reached almost anywhere, anytime. On our phones we can now use applications to read horoscopes, monitor our diets, check tomorrow’s weather, and trace the night sky. And it’s just the beginning of our journey through the possibilities of technology. Who knows? Perhaps the next Nobel Prize winner will be found through Facebook. 




 Link to the Emily Balch Facebook page: 



Sherry Turkle. “Tinysex and Gender Trouble.” Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Simon and Schuster, 1995. 210-232


Liz McCormack's picture

I liked this idea

of imagining how Emily Balch might have engaged with 21st century communications technologies.  Your idea also raised for me the question of how her advocacy and organizational strategies might have been realized distinctively.  Facebook and other internet tools, twitter, etc., would have been useful not only for keeping in touch with her peers, but also in motivating and organizing regular folks of similar hearts and minds.  If you wanted to build on this idea, you might identify a modern version of Ms Balch.  Who today is playing the role she did with regard to the issues she cared about and how is their campaign enhanced, if at all?

Btw, I loved the post about winning the Nobel peace prize.  "You go girl" would be my comment back with a thumbs up.