Anita's Quilt

Systerhood and Feminism

In 2012, Carol Muller and Kathy Richardson set out to memorialize the spirit of inspiration that their close friend Anita Borg brought to their lives. The original project, a community blog known as Anita’s Quilt, showcased the array of people whose lives Anita influenced and energized. This year, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Systers—the online community that Anita Borg founded to support women in tech—by republishing some of our favorite Anita’s Quilt stories.

A version of this post was published on Anita’s Quilt on September 13, 2012.

 By Ellen Spertus

Although I’m a computer science professor at a women’s college and have been an advocate for women in computing for more than twenty years, I wasn’t always a feminist. I used to be a male-identified misogynist. My transformation occurred because of, and as a part of, the Systers community.

I grew up in a family intellectually dominated by my father, an MIT graduate, and my older brother, a math prodigy. With my precocious intellect and passion for computers, I identified with my brother and father rather than with my housewife mother and math-phobic older sister. I felt that my status within my family and with my peers was as an honorary male—not able to equal the best men, but certainly better than other females. I felt that women’s underrepresentation in the sciences was due to their own lack of interest and abilities in the “hard” (therefore “better”) sciences. Nevertheless, I hoped to find girls like myself at computer camp and college. But I was unable to find or befriend the few such women I found, even when I entered MIT.

I don’t remember how I found out about Systers, but I joined as a junior or senior in college, back when the list had only a few hundred subscribers. Among the Systers were two female MIT computer science professors, Barbara Liskov (now a Turing Award winner) and Nancy Lynch, if I remember correctly. It became immediately clear to me that women had made—and were continuing to make—tremendous contributions to CS, and I began reading about the unique problems women faced.

Like most MIT students, I resented the few nontechnical electives I was required to take, and took the classes most similar to my major. Second semester of my senior year, I took Sherry Turkle’s “Women and Computers” and chose as my term paper topic a question I had long wondered about: Why are there so few female computer scientists?

I posed the question to Systers and received a torrent of valuable information, including personal histories, stories, and valuable references. (This was in 1990, before search engines or even the Web existed.) I shared a draft, in which I argued against affirmative action programs on the grounds that they caused people to doubt women’s qualifications, and was told by someone who attended MIT back when it was harder for women to be admitted than for men (because of limited housing) that her qualifications were still doubted. At the beginning of the semester, I didn’t think I would be able to write the required twenty pages on the topic; I ended up writing more a hundred pages. I also rewrote the narrative in my own brain about women (and, by extension, myself), realizing—as Ann Richards once said of Ginger Rogers—that women in tech had been doing the metaphorical equivalent of dancing backwards and in high heels.

I put the report online and sent the link to Systers. Word spread wider and faster than I could have imagined. Department heads distributed my work to their entire CS departments. Newsletters reprinted chapters. I began receiving email from readers whose minds were changed or experiences affirmed by the report. I had feared the report might diminish my status at MIT, where I was now a graduate student, and in the broader computer science committee. But the department gave me an award, and my increased visibility helped, rather than hindered, my career.

One of the many invitations I received was to speak at Smith College, a women’s liberal arts school. That experience opened my eyes to a different mode of education, less harsh and more respectful of diverse fields than at an engineering school. After earning my Ph.D., I joined the CS faculty at Mills College, where I recently became a full professor.

I still occasionally hear from people touched by my report; a few have asked me to write a followup on how things have changed for women in the past twenty years, but I think that’s a job for the next generation.

If you want to contribute to the narrative of women in technology today, start by telling your own stories on Systers. Continue by reading others’ stories and looking for common themes, and reading past reports—such as the 1983 MIT Barriers to Equality report or my own—and writing about what has or has not changed.

 

Do you have a story of persistence that honors Anita’s legacy? Share it with us for a chance to be featured here.

Or, join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter using the hashtag #TechWomenPersist.