New York — For years, Marti McGee shunned the Internet.
Seeing only men talk about it on television, the Internet "didn't seem to be a mainstream thing for a woman," she said. It took her college-bound children demanding it for e-mail to get the Missouri teacher to sign on and become a regular.
McGee is contributing to an Internet phenomenon in which peer pressure and attitude changes are bringing millions of American women online, virtually wiping out the gender gap among U.S. Internet users.
Women now make up half the U.S. online population, up from about 40 percent in 1996. According to researchers at Jupiter Communications, that's nearly 61 million American women online.
McGee quickly found uses beyond e-mail. Last fall, she began surfing the Web to buy airline tickets. This summer, she went on eBay to find a pump for her backyard pond in Springfield, Mo.
"I'm beginning to think this Bill Gates is really right, that the Internet is going to be an integral part of our lives one day," McGee said.
"It's become more practical," said Anita Allen-Castellito, a University of Pennsylvania professor who tracks gender on the Internet. "It's taken this long for it to become truly more convenient and for people to do ordinary things over the Internet."
It's also taken a reversal of online history. The Internet's builders in government and academia came from fields of technology long dominated by men. And their earliest computer tools were often so clunky the Internet was hard to navigate.
Though men embraced gadgetry for the sake of gadgetry, women simply didn't have the patience, said Nancy Evans, co-founder of the women's Web site iVillage.
Women overcame their loathing for technology when tools got better and sites became more useful. "For women, it's not about sitting at a computer," said Stacy Elliott, a Microsoft consumer liaison who studies how women respond to technology. "It's about the benefits."
As friends told friends, the number of women and girls on online expanded rapidly.
About one-fifth of the increase comes from women over age 50, many of whom went online for health research, according to a May study of adults by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
"The Internet has begun to look a lot like the rest of America," said Lee Rainie, who directs the Pew project. "In the early days, it was a pretty unique, select group of folks."
Sue Jenkins, of Glasgow, Ky., connected last year after friends told her about e-mail's virtues. She now uses the Internet to research medication, play card games and share photos of her new granddaughter.
Worldwide, it may require longer to close the gender gap, researchers say.
Men currently make up 59 percent of the online population worldwide, according to a March survey of 34 countries by the Angus Reid Group in Vancouver, British Columbia. Women still lag in many developing countries, but are catching up in such industrialized nations as Australia and the Netherlands.