Tag Archives: history

Studies show that women evolved to linkspam (23rd September 2009)

The long, long trail

Hello everybody

I spent the past weekend at the 18th Annual Women’s History Network conference, which this year was held in the rather lovely surroundings of St Hilda’s College, Oxford. It was one of the original Oxford women’s colleges (and the last to admit men, within the past 2 years), but with the passage of time it is no longer of the austerity that Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own might lead one to anticipate. The food was certainly not as dire as that she recorded, though not quite of the standard I enjoyed at a conference in Lady Margaret Hall some years ago. The rooms were very comfortable, and being a women’s college (and a women-run conference) there was an adequate supply of loos (a topic which is much on my mind because of a book on the topic I was recently sent — I think there will be blogging about this later on).

Apart from these matters of physical comfort, it was an intellectually stimulating few days. The theme this year was ‘Women, Gender & Political Spaces:  Historical Perspectives’ and there was a good deal of resonance between the issues discussed in historical context and present-day concerns. There were over a hundred papers, in 6 sessions of 6 strands each, as well as 5 plenary lectures, which meant that perforce I missed a lot of fascinating things.

My own paper was on the emergence of an abortion law reform movement in the UK in the 1930s, bringing the subject out from being either something doctors talked of as a strictly professional matter, or something that women exchanged information about in whispers, into a topic for public discussion and the advocacy of legislation to make safe abortion legal and accessible. The role of women activists was central to this development.

There was an excellent panel on women and learned societies, which was perhaps a little depressing in demonstrating how long a tradition there has been of men not wanting women impinging upon their serious manly spaces where they do serious manly learned things.  However, the papers did show that there was some degree of ambivalence and some possibilities of flexibility: Claire Jones’ paper on the Royal Society indicated that the Society, although it did not admit women to the prestige of Fellowship until after the Second World War*, did publish their articles in its journals, and gave them grants in support of their research, and even occasionally awarded them medals for work of outstanding importance.  A good point was raised in discussion that this desire of men to keep their homosocial spaces unsullied (and to position themselves as part of a completely male genealogy of Great Minds) does suggest that we need a lot more critical and analytical work directly on masculinity (or various versions of masculinity in particular contexts).

This question of men resisting the influx of women into previously male spaces also arose in a paper on women on juries — even after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919 gave women the right to sit on juries, the qualifications still privileged men, while both judges and barristers took various measures to exclude women through the process of challenge. The ambiguous potential of legal systems for women was explored in other panels: for example,  Kimberley Welch presented on her research on women’s successful use of courts in antebellum Mississippi and Lousiana in cases of matrimonial dispute.

Some of the themes that recurred across various panels and plenaries: women’s capacity to negotiate some degree of advantage for themselves within apparently profoundly patriarchal systems; that changes do not just happen but have to be campaigned for; the ways that women’s stories get left out of the accepted narratives (this is something else that might get blogged in more detail). There is an exciting diversity of  historical research going on about women and gender. It was also lovely just to reconnect with other scholars and friends in the field.

* Well, they did make the astronomer Caroline Herschel and the mathematician and science writer Mary Somerville honorary Fellows, but they could trust them to know their place as ladies and not to try and actually attend meetings of the Society.

I’ve got 64K memory, how about you?

Barcelona‘s song “C-64″ is a perfect love song to teenage computing in the 80s. I had such a crush on my Commodore!

I’ve got 64k memory
I’ve got cartridge boards on ebony
I’ve got power cords strung out the door
Think I’ll set up my bulletin board
Got a modem when I turned thirteen
But my dad doesn’t know what telephony means
Only 1200 baud
Never leave my room
My skins turning pale
Knocks on the door
Please don’t disturb me I’m here with my C-64

You can hear the first 30 seconds of C-64 on Last.fm but it doesn’t seem to be on sale anywhere. Here’s a hilarious, horrible commercial instead. Apparently Commodore nerds have their own gang sign?!

I would sit on the floor writing long horrible BASIC programs to make “sprites” move around and other sprites shoot them.

My first computer encounter was in a children’s museum in Boston with a room-sized vacuum tube affair with a black and white screen that could play tic-tac-toe. I was sure someone was pulling my leg and there was a person in there, like the illustrations of chess-playing automaton hoaxes. Later in a kids’ programming class on Saturdays I cried along with every other kid when our punch cards didn’t work. Then onward to stolen moments with my dad’s work computer, with a neighbor’s Kaypro “portable” and another neighbor’s Apple II. Mostly I was writing programs that wrote poetry and trying to understand arrays of arrays of arrays, grammar, and how to make random sentences that made sense. Then for months I diagrammed out how to structure a program that could play solitaire – a program I never managed to write. With no Internet, and no books, I had only what I could pick up from random people or figure out for myself. The Commodore 64 though, had books and sound and color, so along with the random poetry generators, I made 7 layers of sprites sail around the screen and learned a lot about waveforms. For games, mostly I played Zork and every other interactive fiction game I could get my hands on.

When my parents bought me the C-64, it was a big deal, a subject of debate and worry to spend all that money but also a lot of speeches about How Things were Different Now because of Feminism; I would have Opportunities that maybe women before me didn’t have. So I had the vague sense that the computer was important beyond what I could do with it; I had to live up to it.

All these computers were the closest thing possible to an alien or a robot. They were like a dream come true, science fiction made real, mysterious stories of UFOs or spontaneous combustion or Atlantis, that would obey my commands. I loved computers passionately!

Questions for the geeky women out there,

And I don’t mean this as any sort of chest-beating old-school-boasty geekier-than-thou thing where whoever touched a PDP-6 wins, but sincerely to explore experiences and emotions and our bonds with machines,

What was your first encounter with computers? What did you first do with them? Were you playing games? Doing Internet stuff? Bulletin boards? Art? Chatting? What did your earliest computer encounters mean to you? And what computer did you first own? How did you feel about your TRS-80, ZX Spectrum, C-64, or whatever came before or after that?

When it changed (1998?)

Anthropologist Biella Coleman just posted “1998 and the Irish Accent is Why I Study F/OSS”. She quotes a rumination by Don Marti on 1998 as a crucial and strange year in tech:

…there was all this fascinating news and code for 
recruiting new hackers at the same time that there
 was a huge power grab intended to drive hackers out.

Biella tells her own 1998 story as well:

…that was the year I ditched my other project and decided to go with F/OSS for my dissertation….I let the idea go for a few weeks, possibly months until one Very Important Conversation over coffee transpired with an Irish classmate…

So I asked my co-bloggers to tell us whether 1998 was a pivotal year for them, too. For most of us, it was.

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