NEW YORK -- As Americans reacted with jaw-dropping disbelief this week to news of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's sexcapades, the Internet was swamped with commentary. And one new website, hoping to carve out a distinctive niche, bannered a provocative question to its readers: Should Silda Wall Spitzer stand by her man?
"It's painful to see these women, time and time again be dragged out to these press conferences," answered actress Marlo Thomas. "There outta be a law against wives standing next to their accused husbands. A law!" fumed Lesley Stahl, a veteran correspondent for CBS' "60 Minutes." "I don't know what to think," added actress Candice Bergen. "And probably neither does she."
This celebrity exchange, posted the morning after the story broke, was no random accident in cyberspace. Thomas, Stahl and Bergen are part of a newly launched website, Wowowow.com, that is targeting upscale women over 40 -- one of the fastest growing demographics on the Internet. Sponsors are betting that these Web users are hungry for intelligent conversation aimed at them. Since the site began March 1 other daily topics -- all inviting response -- have included "Which Women Should Be on Mt. Rushmore?" plus ruminations on Hillary Rodham Clinton and a woman's need for personal space.
With its bright blue-red graphics, and a Good or Bad Hair Day weather box perched at the top, the site has a stylish, inviting look. But like any Internet start-up, Wowowow (which stands for Women on the Web) faces tough questions: Can it gain traction in a fiercely competitive online market in which rival women's websites like iVillage, More and Glam Media are firmly entrenched? And will its affluent celebrity trappings connect with, or turn off, Internet users? It's far too early to tell, yet the five women who helped launch the fledgling site are brimming with confidence.
Besides Stahl, they are gossip columnist Liz Smith, former Random House Publisher and Simon & Schuster President Joni Evans, advertising executive Mary Wells and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. They're joined by other contributors, including Thomas, Bergen, Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, playwright Jane Wagner, Joan Cooney (co-founder of "Sesame Street"), Sheila Nevins (president of HBO Documentary and Family), author Julia Reed, Joan Juliet Buck, former editor of French Vogue, and etiquette maven Judith Martin.
"We came up with this idea a year ago, and it grew out of the idea that there was really nothing online for intelligent women who are not just looking to shop or engage in matchmaking, but want something substantial," said Evans, the site's chief executive. "This began as a conversation among us, and then the idea hit. Why not extend it and put it on online, to reach a bigger audience?"
The bigger audience is out there: Women's community sites experienced the largest growth last year (35%) along with political sites, according to a comScore Media Metrix study of 100 major U.S. Internet destinations. And women users outnumbered men on the Web for the first time in 2007, according to Ad Age.
Many of the sites targeting female Web users, however, are laden with shopping, gossip, fashion and entertainment content. Wowowow will provide its share, with ad sponsorship from Tiffany, Citi and Sony. But as the founding mothers relaxed recently in Wells' Manhattan penthouse, their talk turned to what intelligent women really want on the Web.
"We bounce!" said Stahl, leaning forward on a living room sofa. "Women are interested in everything. We bounce from what happened today in the stock market, to where did you get those shoes? What do you think about Hillary and Obama, and gosh, tell me about that mascara. We're bouncing and that's the site!"
But timeliness is also crucial, and on that score Wowowow is still learning the ropes. On the morning that Spitzer resigned, the question of the day was: "From James Frey to J.T. Leroy and Beyond: Why Are Publishers Such Easy Marks for Fake Memoirs?"
Stahl and her pals all contributed to the site's $1-million start-up costs and concede they are learning on the fly, aided by a small staff of tech-savvy assistants. As of now, the women's daily online conversations grow out of telephone chats that are taped, transcribed and posted. Members also dash off commentaries -- as when Noonan opined on the resignation of Barack Obama advisor Samantha Power, who had called Clinton "a monster."
"Advice to the Clinton campaign," she wrote, in a piece finished four minutes before Power quit. "Do some jujitsu. Flip it, surprise your foes; show grace. Say you accept Powers' apology and don't want to see a young woman lose her job. 'There's been enough job loss in America already.' Shock 'em and show some class."