Tag Archives: history

If it’s really good, men made it

I feel odd blogging about a movie I haven’t seen, I want to get that out of the way. But a lot of women I trust are telling me that the movie The Social Network (a dramatisation of the founding of Facebook, script by Aaron Sorkin and direction by David Fincher) is infuriatingly sexist. Men made Facebook entirely, apparently, and women granted them sexual favours for it. As is the natural order! (See the Melissa Silverstein and Laurie Penny links in our last spam for this.)

(If you want to discuss The Social Network in particular, rather than the rest of this post, which is about geek women’s invisibility in general, I’ve set up a discussion thread for the movie.)

The erasure of women geeks from geek history is going to continue and snowball, most likely, because here are some of the factors that play into it:

  1. what geeks do is hard! you can tell, because women don’t do it!
  2. you might have heard geeks are not that high up the masculine status chart! you are wrong! because there’s no women doing it and that makes it Man Stuff! which is hard, see 1! (also wot Restructure! said)
  3. s things become important in retrospect, they become men’s work.

On that last point, there was a related discussion in Australia last year about the recent history of rock music. Triple J, a youth music radio station which is part of the government funded ABC network, ran a “Hottest 100 of All Time” poll for songs its listeners like best. Triple J’s airplay is generally “alternative” and in the late 1990s (when I listened most) featured women artists such as PJ Harvey, Courtney Love of Hole, Shirley Manson of Garbage, Liz Phair and Veruca Salt.

There was some leadup criticism about the voting website:

Divided into decades, starting with the 1960s, each page shows between 9 and 15 album covers, with an accompanying note about musicians or bands that influenced the direction of rock and pop. The section on the 60s mentions the Supremes as one of the groups on the Stax/Motown label, and Janis Joplin as appearing at the Monterey Pop Festival. Then the 2000s section mentions the White Stripes. NO other female artists or groups that include women are mentioned.

And although the website was merely a memory jogger and did not restrict listener voting, it turned out it was a harbringer of what the listeners voted for. The top 100 songs contained two female vocalists, both appearing in one-offs as vocalists with Massive Attack (with songwriting credits). There were also five bands with female members. This became a big deal: Triple J was quick to defend itself by noting that it was a listener poll. One of the most interesting pieces of commentary went to air on Triple J’s own coverage, from Catherine Strong, whose PhD research was into changing memories of music (thanks to Lauredhel for this transcript):

Catherine Strong: “What happened with grunge – it’s very interesting, that in the early 1990s, grunge was seen as being a very female-friendly type of music. There were lots of women involved in the grunge. So you had bands like Hole, and L7, and Babes in Toyland. There was also the associated riot grrl movement that was happening at the same time, so bands like Bikini Kill and Heavens to Betsy. At the time, these bands were quite successful: commercially successful, and they were critically acclaimed, they were talked about as being fantastic. There was a lot of celebration in the press of “Women in Rock”, “Isn’t it fantastic to see women in rock?” But then if you look at the media coverage over time, when people talk about grunge over time, the women don’t get talked about anymore. So on the tenth anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death for instance, there were lots of magazines that came out talking about “Let’s look back at grunge”, “what was important about grunge”, “why was grunge such a great thing?”, and the women are hardly mentioned at all. So again you can see the public record leaves the women out – they just disappear, they fall out over time, as people write about it, and think about it looking back.

And the thing in rock that I think is particularly interesting, is that periodically, women are rediscovered. So every five years or so you’ll find that there’s something that will turn up in the media saying “Hey, it’s great! Women are making inroads into rock for the first time!”, when it’s not the first time. So every time those stories come up, I think we as a society, or people who like rock, feel as though progress is being made; but what’s actually happened is we’re just going round and round in circles. Women are being discovered, then they’re being forgotten, then they’re being discovered again, and they’re being forgotten again, and it’s just going round and round like that.”

And here it is, happening with geek history. To avoid one obvious strawman: no, I am not claiming that there was a woman who was more important to the story of Facebook than Mark Zuckerberg! I’m claiming that the movie is part of this pattern in geek history:

  1. when we look back on geek history, things women worked on, and women who were involved in men’s projects will slowly vanish from the story as part of a pattern of making what geeks do important and hard and real
  2. there will continue to be active resistance to women being visible as geeks because the presence of women takes away status points in the masculinity hierarchy and/or that geekdom is a men’s space for men who don’t want to be around women (I keep meaning to find the explicit comments I’ve seen on LWN to this effect, if the lazyweb helps I won’t object)
  3. perhaps most worryingly of all, every few years there will be a brief spotlight on women geeks, everyone will conclude “hooray they’re/we’re here, we’ve been seen, this is the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning of the battle, thank goodness for that” and then a few years later we’ll do it all again (see an example of “but women geeks are new” here).

What do you think? How many rounds of the geek women visibility battle have you been present for? (I’ve been around for at least two major ones, I think.)

Linkspam a go go (8th July, 2010)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

You’re not gonna reach my linkspam (31st March, 2010)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

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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