The first computers were women. At Moogfest yesterday, writer and artist Claire Evans—who's also known as half of the electropop duo Yacht—put a feminist spin on all of computing and Internet history, pointing out that while the tech industry is currently struggling to keep female programmers, that wasn't always the case.
"For close to 200 years, a computer wasn't a thing, it was a job, as in someone who computes," she noted.
Much of the large-scale science and math of the 19th and early 20th centuries was aided by these "computers," rows of women doing calculations to classify stars or boil down statistics. Computing was considered such a feminine job that problems were classified in terms of "kilogirls" or how long it would take to do a problem in "girl years," Evans said.
This wasn't because women were considered good at math; it was because they could be paid less than men, and thus more of them could be hired on the same salary.
That carried on through the first decades of electronic computers, all the way to the 1970s, Evans pointed out. While hardware was considered a masculine pursuit, the software was largely left to women. The six original programmers of the ENIAC, the first electronic computer, were women, although recognizing their effort was left for decades later.
"The field had no established scientific or engineering identity at the time," Evans said. "Women running computers was the norm, because they were coming from a world where computers wore skirts. The space was wide open for women, and in the '60s, half of computer programmers were women. Now, we're looking at more like 12 percent."
That shift happened in the 1970s, and "it happened fairly quickly," Evans said. Explicit efforts to exclude women from programming included ads appealing to men only and application tests that focused on skills boys, rather than girls, were likely to learn in school. But the entire early history of computing shows that without cultural barriers thrown up before them, women become programmers just as often as men do.
The Same Goes For The Internet
The early Internet was also, potentially, a highly feminist space, Evans said, as she ran down how feminist groups used everything from text-only multi-user games to early websites to define themselves on the Net.
"Historically, feminist activism depended on groups of people getting together in rooms, so what the Web represented to feminists was this massive community concept, of consciousness-raising on a global scale," she said.
But we all know what's become of that: violent comment trolls.
Google Proposes 'Professional Women' Emoji
So why did this change? "The transmission of images in a practical and effective way, and the transmission of funds, were the two most transformative things," Evans said. Modern Internet companies needed our identities so they could sell us things, and the easy transmission of photos and videos made identity less mutable.
But "the paint's not dry" on the history of the Internet yet, and if women understand that technology isn't a man's world, they can make their mark.
"Women are not ancillary to the Internet. We were instrumental to the technologies that developed and underpinned it," she said. "If women and girls can see themselves in the DNA of our most transformative and powerful technologies, then I hope we can see ourselves in its future."