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FromTheIssue

Women of the Year 2003

Joan Blades
by Ellen Hawkes

Call her the mother of cyberspace mobilization or the Joan of Arc of high tech -- Joan Blades has harnessed the power, reach and speed of the Internet to enlist millions in virtual grassroots organizing and advocacy.

Her mood is as sunny as the Berkeley, Calif., home from which she and husband Wes Boyd oversee their political-action website, MoveOn.org. “I have a real sense of optimism that we are revolutionizing the way we do politics in this country,” she says with a warm smile. “Through our site, ordinary citizens who once felt powerless are much more involved in the democratic process in a direct and meaningful way.”

Born and raised in Berkeley, Blades says that she wasn’t overtly political in earlier years. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, and Golden Gate University School of Law, she translated a budding social awareness into divorce mediation and writing her groundbreaking book, Mediate Your Divorce.

In the early 1990s, Blades moved into what she laughingly refers to as “high-tech geekdom” when she and husband Wes, an accomplished software designer, formed Berkeley Systems, a software company most famous for its “flying toasters” screen saver and the computer game “You Don’t Know Jack.” After selling the company to Cendant in 1997 for about $13.8 million, the couple focused on developing educational software while raising their two children. But in September 1998, they became frustrated by Congress’ obsession with the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and impeachment proceedings.

Applying their Internet and programming savvy to political organizing, the couple created a website to circulate their petition to Congress to “Censure and Move On.” In just over two weeks the number of signers had snowballed to 200,000. By the time of the impeachment hearings, MoveOn’s membership had grown to 500,000, and the site had generated more than 250,000 phone calls and 1 million e-mails to Congress.

“We were amazed by the outpouring,” recalls Blades. “We hadn’t expected it, but our ‘?ash campaign’ made it clear that mainstream Americans were eager to engage in a way they never had before.”

The couple soon extended the online organization to other issues and created both the MoveOn Political Action Committee, a coalition that fundraises for candidates supported by the membership, and the ActionForum, in which members post comments and rate those of others to determine MoveOn’s priorities for the future. MoveOn also encourages volunteers toward more traditional “face-to-face” activism, such as constituent meetings and local community groups. It has organized responses to the 2000 and 2002 elections as well as to policy issues such as gun control and environmental protection. Outraged at reports of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s treatment of women that emerged during California’s gubernatorial campaign last October, Blades helped raise $500,000 in 24 hours for an ad campaign to let women voters know what kind of man they could be electing.

In 2003, MoveOn gained even more attention with its “Let the Inspections Work” petitions, hand-delivered by 9,000 volunteers to the home offices of Senators and House members across the country. It also helped mobilize millions to protest the war and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance newspaper ads and television commercials. This past fall, it prompted thousands of phone calls to the House and Senate urging the rejection of George W. Bush’s request for $87 billion more for the continued occupation of Iraq.

Primarily supported by members’ donations, MoveOn.org now has five full-time staffers in addition to Blades and Boyd. Blades’ optimism is reflected in MoveOn’s current membership: 1.7 million in the U.S. and 2.3 million globally.

Most of all, Blades is looking ahead to the 2004 presidential election. “Whatever their particular areas of concern, whether it be peace, the environment, women’s rights, health care or the economy, our members have reached the consensus it’s time for a change in leadership,” she says. “That is now our top priority.”

Thanks to Blades’ vision and her continuing belief that online grassroots participation will provide the political voice of the future, MoveOn.org will undoubtedly be a force to be reckoned with in the 2004 election.

 
           
     

Copyright Ms. Magazine 2009