When the first websites bloomed five years back and corporations floundered trying to figure out how to turn a buck from Internet technology, urban women wasted no time taking the Web into their own hands. Putting liberation and self-expression before the bottom line, they created irreverent sites that flourished to the point where a dedicated Web gal could spend hours surfing all the female-produced and -oriented material online. But now, thanks to EstroNet ( and ChickClick (www.chick, two umbrella sites that link to scads of old and brand-new women’s E-zines, keeping up with the techno-estrogen elite just got easier.

EstroNet serves as a collaborative front door to seven different women’s E-zines: Bust, Gurl, Hues, Maxi, Minx, Wench, and Women’s Zone. Clicking past the top page, the user comes to an index that gives bullet descriptions of each site. Bust lets you ask anonymous questions of sexpert Susie Bright. Hues (”a magazine for women of all cultures, shapes, and lifestyles”) has, among its many innovative articles, Latinas rating the movie Evita. In Women’s Zone, Spike Gillespie’s bracing ”Ask Me About My Abortion” approaches the conflicts of a complex issue with informed candor. Overall, EstroNet has ideal balance, with the polemics of politically charged ‘zines like Wench providing intellectual ballast for frisky sass-fests like Minx.

The dubiously named ChickClick is bigger and lighter at heart. The brainchild of Web designer Heidi Swanson, it links to 21 diverse sites, including RiotGrrl, the hugely popular creation of Floridian Web despot Nikki Douglas, as well as Douglas’ new creation, GrrlGamer. Other sites range from biting comic-strip narratives (Spacegirl, BimBionic) to useful hard information (Lawgirl) to inspired venting (Disgruntled Housewife). ChickClick has the right female-friendly style and voice, but the overall package could use some intellectual heft. Groovy graphics, ”Go girl” encouragements, and first-person testimonials are fine, but as dominant themes, the overall effect is a bit treacly. Still, that’s a minor complaint. What’s important about this site, as well as EstroNet, is that while women’s print magazines often leave a woman starving for anything she can relate to, ChickClick has an abundance of female wonder, diversity, and fun. Maybe even an overabundance: I wish there were a Reader’s Digest-type version for busy women with little time to spend online (QuickChick?).

Visually, both EstroNet and ChickClick are steeped in what’s come to be the standard grrl aesthetic. Call it barbed wire and bubble gum: an ironic use of pastels and cursive type (don’t forget that send-up of ditz script, an i dotted with a heart) mixed with a few butch effects (guns, knives) and cheesecake illos to symbolize the reappropriation of the objectified female form. Then it’s all trimmed with kinderwhore-meets-Hello Kitty girly garnishes. A skeptic might wonder if this kinda cute, kinda menacing effect doesn’t put a distracting gloss on the sites’ essential feminism. After all, who outside the alterna-culture is likely to take a female over the age of 8 wearing pink barrettes and a plastic Barbie watch all that seriously? But the juxtapositioning gets at the heart of the grrl politic: A woman can be fun and babeular and still be sharp. Like a kitten with a whip. And a T1 line. For all that, a woman over 22 might find the unending whimsy a bit precious.

When all is said and done, EstroNet and ChickClick represent exactly what makes the Web great — useful information, provocative thought, and handsome visuals laid out with clarity and taste. But more to the point, these sites should be valued for providing a new opportunity for young women to express themselves. Even if it means occasionally getting stuck in the barbed wire and bubble gum. A