Patriarchy in action: the New York Times rewrites history

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012 · 38 Comments »

This past weekend, the New York Times published an article on Silicon Valley that started like this:

MEN invented the Internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolized Mr. Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died. Nerds. Geeks. Give them their due. Without men, we would never know what our friends were doing five minutes ago.

The only good thing about this stupid article is the major shitstorm it provoked. Xeni Jardin at BoingBoing published an excellent rebuttal, and women and non-idiots everywhere chimed in with stories of the female inventors and pioneers who helped create modern computing. I don’t have much to add on that score, though if you’re interested I suggest you run down biographies of Radia Perlman (the “Mother of the Internet” who developed the STP network protocol), Sally Floyd (whose work on congestion control made the internet scalable and stable), Elizabeth Feinler (the pioneering ARPANET manager who created the domain name system), and, for the Stone Age angle, Grace Hopper (in the early 1950s she invented the compiler, which is of such humongous importance to everything that it’s like she invented the wheel and the alphabet).

But I’m not really going to get into all that. What I want to do is address a certain line of defense some people are taking on behalf of the Times.

For example, this guy argues that it was technically correct to say that men invented the internet because the key ARPANET-era conceptual pioneers were all men: “Paul Baran, Donald Davies, Robert Taylor, JCR Licklider, Lawrence Roberts, Vince Cerf, Leonard Kleinrock, and Robert Kahn. Arguably, there are others from that timeframe that contributed significantly, but its from these core group of people that the primary supporting concepts for the internet were born.”

Yep, those eight guys were all important, though I don’t know if that particular collection of names makes sense as the canon. But regardless, the real problem with this argument is that the Times wasn’t talking about those guys. The New York Times was not talking about the specific individuals who came up with packet-switching or developed TCP/IP.

The Times was talking about men. Men as a group. Male humans. Male geekdom, to be precise.

Let’s look at the Times article again (bolding mine):

MEN invented the Internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolized Mr. Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died. Nerds. Geeks. Give them their due. Without men, we would never know what our friends were doing five minutes ago.

But are these men trapped in the past even as they create the future?

See? The Times isn’t talking about ARPANET pioneers, who are all either dead or retired now and certainly aren’t out there in Silicon Valley creating the future. The “men” referred to in the article are the same “men” who allegedly invented civilization, the “men” who made all the discoveries and composed all the music and thought all the thoughts, the “men” who built the world and who now have to share it with johnny-come-lately feminists. Those men.

What the Times is doing here is the same thing Stephen King did when he offered up this bit of lying drivel as the credo for the women’s movement:

Thank you, Men, for the railroads. Thank you, Men, for inventing the automobile and killing the red Indians who thought it might be nice to hold on to America for a while longer, since they were here first. Thank you, Men, for the hospitals, the police, the schools. Now I’d like to vote, please, and have the right to set my own course and make my own destiny. Once I was chattel, but now that is obsolete. My days of slavery must be over; I need to be a slave no more than I need to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a tiny boat with sails. Jet planes are safer and quicker than little boats with sails and freedom makes more sense than slavery. I am not afraid of flying. Thank you, Men.

Nauseating, isn’t it? That’s in The Stand, by the way, and when I came to that passage I instantly became an ex-Stephen King reader. Never again, fucktwit. But this is what men do: steal credit for every goddamn thing in the world, and then whine about having to share. Whine that if it weren’t for them we wouldn’t have anything and why won’t you bitches be grateful?

It’s like that Baumeister clown—remember him?—who argued that not only did women fail to contribute anything to human civilization, but they couldn’t even handle childbirth properly until men became obstetricians and took over.

So here’s what I want to say to all that:

  1. Women invented all the core technologies that made civilization possible. This isn’t some feminist myth; it’s what modern anthropologists believe. Women are thought to have invented pottery, basketmaking, weaving, textiles, horticulture, and agriculture. That’s right: without women’s inventions, we wouldn’t be able to carry things or store things or tie things up or go fishing or hunt with nets or haft a blade or wear clothes or grow our food or live in permanent settlements. Suck on that.
  2. Women have continued to be involved in the creation and advancement of civilization throughout history, whether you know it or not. Pick anything—a technology, a science, an art form, a school of thought—and start digging into the background. You’ll find women there, I guarantee, making critical contributions and often inventing the damn shit in the first place.
  3. Women have made those contributions in spite of astonishing hurdles. Hurdles like not being allowed to go to school. Hurdles like not being allowed to work in an office with men, or join a professional society, or walk on the street, or own property. Example: look up Lise Meitner some time. When she was born in 1878 it was illegal in Austria for girls to attend school past the age of 13. Once the laws finally eased up and she could go to university, she wasn’t allowed to study with the men. Then she got a research post but wasn’t allowed to use the lab on account of girl cooties. Her whole life was like this, but she still managed to discover nuclear fucking fission. Then the Nobel committee gave the prize to her junior male colleague and ignored her existence completely.
  4. Men in all patriarchal civilizations, including ours, have worked to downplay or deny women’s creative contributions. That’s because patriarchy is founded on the belief that women are breeding stock and men are the only people who can think. The easiest way for men to erase women’s contributions is to simply ignore that they happened. Because when you ignore something, it gets forgotten. People in the next generation don’t hear about it, and so they grow up thinking that no women have ever done anything. And then when women in their generation do stuff, they think “it’s a fluke, never happened before in the history of the world, ignore it.” And so they ignore it, and it gets forgotten. And on and on and on. The New York Times article is a perfect illustration of this principle in action.
  5. Finally, and this is important: even those women who weren’t inventors and intellectuals, even those women who really did spend all their lives doing stereotypical “women’s work”—they also built this world. The mundane labor of life is what makes everything else possible. Before you can have scientists and engineers and artists, you have to have a whole bunch of people (and it’s usually women) to hold down the basics: to grow and harvest and cook the food, to provide clothes and shelter, to fetch the firewood and the water, to nurture and nurse, to tend and teach. Every single scrap of civilized inventing and dreaming and thinking rides on top of that foundation. Never forget that.

That’s all.

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38 Responses to “Patriarchy in action: the New York Times rewrites history”

  1. Derick Winkworth says:

    Thanks for linking to me. I am going to write a follow up to that post. I understand there many contexts in which you can interpret “Men invented the internet.” My technical observation was about Paul Baran and the original team that built the first iteration of the ARPANET that would later become the internet.

    However, I know as well as anyone in the field of network engineering, that the internet and networking as we know it today has been massively influenced by the contribution of women. (Good call by the way on Elizabeth Feinler!).

    When the “internet” was “invented” is a matter of huge debate. I happen to believe that it started with Paul Baran’s “On Distributed Communications” papers. A lot of people think that. From this perspective one could, technically, argue that it was created by “men.” But that is a network engineer’s point-of-view of when the internet began and its a historical detail.

    The evolution of ARPANET into the internet as a global communications mechanism for the “common” people is a much different point-of-view and it most certainly could not have happened without the specific concerted efforts of the many women who worked on it. Not just from a technical perspective, but also from other areas of IT as well: Project management, product management, marketing, executive management, etc.

    I have two daughters, I don’t want them to think they can’t get into Systems Engineering because its a boys club. Its really not a boys club if you really are a engineering nerd. God, I hope not. Many of us know exactly how profoundly women have steered the course of computer science and engineering in general.

    Also, you are correct… I left some of the original canon out. I’ll have to update that.

    Oh, and don’t forget about Judy Estrin! She helped develop the original TCP/IP specification.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Estrin

  2. RKMK says:

    A-fuckin’-men, Violet.

  3. RKMK says:

    “Its really not a boys club if you really are a engineering nerd. ”

    No, it’s still a boys club. Thanks for playing.

  4. Derick Winkworth says:

    Let me rephrase that. No self-respecting engineer can logically defend anti-female sentiment as it has no bearing on the outcome of the engineering process.

  5. Violet Socks says:

    Yeah, I have to agree with RKMK: it’s still a boys club. Or at least it was back when I was alive.

    Derick, I understand the point you were making about ARPANET and the packet-switching guys, and that’s cool. But you see my point, I hope, which is that this New York Times writer doesn’t know any of that stuff. I bet you a million dollars he’s never even heard of Paul Baran. He was talking about male geekdom as an entity, as a continuing culture. Men invented the internet and now they have to share it with women and Oh Noes! Which is bullshit, because that just erases the women who were there and invented things and contributed.

    I doubt if this guy was even doing it on purpose; he’s probably just channeling what he’s seen in movies or what he thinks happened. Which is what I meant about how this stuff gets perpetuated.

  6. j_bird says:

    No self-respecting engineer can logically defend anti-female sentiment as it has no bearing on the outcome of the engineering process.

    This sentence is a little unclear. To say that anti-female sentiment has no bearing on the outcome of the engineering process is to say that sexism never affects women — that it never affects their ability to successfully complete a project. This is patently untrue; I promise you that if you tried to work with the level of harassment that some women face, your work output would suffer too.

    But I think perhaps you meant that gender does not affect a person’s innate engineering ability, and thus anti-female sentiments are logically unfounded. *That* I would agree with. :-) However, I can say from my own experience that male scientists are not always completely rational or logical and will express anti-female sentiments even when they cannot be defended logically. Having to call them out and argue through the issue every time it comes up is exhausting and demoralizing and distracts women from their work.

  7. Mike McQuaid says:

    From a male software engineer: if random insertions of women in bikinis into slides, CEOs commenting on female coworkers/clients/customers being “hot”, the repeated assumption that we want to work with more women to get laid rather than have a heterogeneous working culture and the explicit and implicit sexism that I hear in my field doesn’t make it a boys club then I really don’t know what does.

    The software field is appallingly sexist. I’m trying (and many others are trying) what we can to change that but it’s still a place that’s less professional in dealing with gender than pretty much any other industry I can think of.

    I hope your daughters go into engineering and kick ass. I hope they don’t encounter and sexism along the way. Sadly though, unless there’s miraculous and incredibly quick changes, they will encounter that and you’d be better accepting that and teaching them how to deal with the patriarchy than letting them be brutally disappointed when they have to deal with this shit.

  8. anna says:

    Here’s a timeline of women in computing worldwide: http://timelinewomenworldcomputing.blogspot.com/

    And a timeline of women in American computing: http://timelineamericanwomencomputing.blogspot.com/

  9. quixote says:

    Historiann has a dynamite post about The Great Forgetting. “[Women's history] evaporates because the culture has a stake in erasing women from history and denying that their participation or leadership ever mattered.”

    As Steve Biko said, the first weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. The stories we tell ourselves are the easiest and most insidious way of ring-fencing minds. And the NYTimes is, after all, the Paper of Record.

  10. tinfoil hattie says:

    Thanks for this, Violet. And thanks to all who have clarified that yes: engineering, software development – hell, even online gaming – are still one big fat boys’ club. Along with Mike McQuaid – I hope, Mr. Winkworth, that you will do more feminist reading before your daughters head out into the world and face what all us exhausted, semi-embittered feminists already know as the truth. You will be shocked, and your daughters will become demoralized. It is a boys’ club, and it isn’t getting much better.

    As a side example, take a look at the HIStory channel some time. All the programming features men. All of it. Men, Men, MEN. More specifically, WHITE men. Which completely reinforces Violet’s excellent point: “The easiest way for men to erase women’s contributions is to simply ignore that they happened. Because when you ignore something, it gets forgotten. People in the next generation don’t hear about it, and grow up thinking that no women have ever done anything.”

    I once read a letter to the editor of the WaPo – years ago! YEARS! – in which the letter-writer, a woman, referred to this as “symbolic annihilation.” The term stuck, and I think it’s more pertinent than ever. Maybe even more deliberate than symbolic by now. It certainly seems that way.

  11. Violet Socks says:

    Speaking of cable TV, I’m reminded of a bad experience I once had with Nick at Nite. I was up all night finishing a paper or something (this was in college) and I had the TV on running back-to-back episodes of The Brady Bunch. The episode that sent me into a rage was the one where Mike and Carol switch places for a day, and so Mike is in the kitchen helping the oldest daughter bake a cake. He starts lecturing her on her inefficiency, saying “we men created all these labor-saving technologies to make you women’s lives easier; now use them!”

    Which made me crazy because LILLIAN GILBRETH. The woman who invented the modern kitchen and the “work triangle,” the woman who pioneered industrial engineering and its domestic application. HELLO? And not just her, but all those women before her, like Catherine Beecher, who spent her life arguing for a streamlined kitchen. Not to mention the women who invented the COOKING STOVE, the DISHWASHER, the REFRIGERATOR, and the IRONING BOARD.

    See, even now this makes me so angry I have to break out the all caps. It’s so casual, you see: just a stupid little TV sitcom, just a single line of dialogue in passing. Not the History Channel, not some documentary. Just a throwaway line. And that’s what makes it so fucking insidious. This shit SURROUNDS us. It seeps into our brains from the time we’re little kids.

  12. Lin says:

    In regards to the Baumeister quote in your previous post, in which he explains how men improved upon childbirth, his ignorance is breathtaking. Google childbirth fever and any number of sites will explain how this disease was almost entirely iatrogenic, resulting from male doctors who were too stupid and arrogant to wash their hands. Hundreds of thousands of mothers died needlessly. What an idiot.

  13. Toonces says:

    Men innovate, women sell crap at Best Buy:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2p4dvkhbsCU

  14. anna says:

    Not only are many women’s achievements forgotten, but many women were never able to achieve because of oppression, as you point out. The female Isaac Newton would have been married off at age 13 and not allowed to go to school.Just read “What if Shakespeare Had Had a Sister?” by Virginia Woolf: http://egophelia.free.fr/2femme/woolfroomsister.htm

  15. anna says:

    “to make you women’s lives easier”

    Because God forbid men should do housework. That’s for women to spend their lives on. And this in the middle of second-wave feminism!

  16. Violet Socks says:

    Yes, exactly. I forgot to say that that was part of the rage inducement as well—the casual assumption that kitchen duty is only something women do. The whole thing was just awful: the “women’s work” crap, the idea that men had invented all these things to make our little lives easier so we wouldn’t have to worry our pretty heads while serving our men, the complete erasure of all the women engineers and inventors who actually came up with the labor-saving technology…RAGE.

  17. Cheryl says:

    Thanks so much for this post! Could I have your permission to print out those 5 points you make at the end? I’d like to put them on my wall and read them at least once a day. Actually, that would make a great poster.

    This whole post should somehow find its way to Stephen King. Seriously, I wonder what he tells his daughter? That if it weren’t for The Men she’d be chattel? 0_o He probably congratulates himself on being “truthful.”

    Also, The Brady Bunch was unbelievably sexist. It could have been used as propaganda. Never mind; it was.

  18. Sweet Sue says:

    Brilliant, Violet.
    I can’t believe that we are still fighting this crap, yet, women will still be fighting this crap when you and I are piles of dust on somebody’s mantel.

  19. anna says:

    Say Violet, who invented the cooking stove, the refrigerator, and the ironing board? I know Josephine Cochrane invented the first practical mechanical dishwasher.

  20. Violet Socks says:

    Refrigerator: Florence Parpart
    Ironing board: Sarah Boone
    Cook stove: I know of two different women who came up with stove designs in the 19th century. Elizabeth Hawks invented the induction cook stove. Mary Evard invented the “Reliance Cook Stove,” an ingenious design that had different chambers for wood and coal and adjustable compartments for baking/roasting/etc.

    Also: Margaret Colvin invented the rotary washing machine.

  21. Violet Socks says:

    Oh, Cheryl, of course you can print anything.

    Yeah, I would hope Stephen King has evolved since he wrote that.

  22. cabochon says:

    Thank you for this excellent post. I read Invisible Women some years back, which is a quite reputable study of how ancient women invented the very basics that allowed for civilization. I recommend the book.

  23. tinfoil hattie says:

    This post is so great. And so are the comments. I keep coming back because of the great “oh my dog, it’s not just ME!” feeling of relief from reading it.

  24. tinfoil hattie says:

    toonces, I hate, hate, HATE that fecking ad. HATE IT

  25. Miss Andrist says:

    I am a Sr. LAMP/Js developer. One of the 3% who are female. There are 15 developers in my department. I am the only female. There was another when I started, on the .NET team, but she left to accept another opportunity.

    I started working with PHP when 5 was in beta. Almost eight years on the nose later, I have yet to set foot in IRC to ask for help. Guess why?

    I encounter sexism at work every single day. I’ve been there seven months; I am in the top 20% of question answerers on StackOverflow for multiple disciplines. I used to be proud of this (it’s part of why I was hired.) Now I avoid any reference to it to my coworkers. My friends congratulate me; my coworkers mock me.

    It’s the little things. It’s being treated like the maid: asked to fix other people’s errors, being expected to stay late to help others. It’s being dismissed, ignored, passed over. I’m good enough to take on all the hardest projects and teach everyone anything, but I am never asked to interview candidates. It’s having the effort or significance of my work minimized if it is mentioned at all – until something goes wrong. My work is viewed with suspicion; the last major system break saw only my changes backed out. I had to point out that removing my code had no impact and yet they persisted in blaming my work, which only proved that they all fail at debugging.

    It turned out to be caused by corrupt data, when the lead of another team forgot to tell us that we were all using the wrong database – in fact, we weren’t even on the right server. He’d changed it, and forgotten to tell the other 14 people working on the project. For almost a week.

    It’s being mocked and ridiculed on the slightest suspicion anything has gone wrong. It’s being barked at by team members I trained to “FIX IT!” It’s male corporatism at every turn. I stick around because it didn’t used to be like this and they only undercut me about $10K a year. Familiarity breeds contempt, I guess.

    It’s really depressing. No matter how hard I work, how legit I am, men seem to need to take me down a peg.

    -Miss Andrist

  26. Nina M. says:

    Violet, is there *any* subject you don’t know about? I am constantly amazed by your range of knowledge.

    I hope you know that you are fabulous!

  27. scott says:

    I was going to try to speculate about why a male writer would need to write this whole “Dudes rule the interwebz!” piece, but then Miss Andrist supplied the answer, which is just taking down women a peg and trying to tell them who’s “really” in charge. That’s the whole impulse right there, and I’m really sorry that Miss A has to be on the receiving end of it, especially when she’s just trying to do her job.

  28. Molly NH says:

    just to add my 2 cents….. The ice cream maker
    you know the crank type with rock salt that was invented by a woman !!!
    (ok she did screw up by selling her invention for about 100 bucks but maybe she just wanted to go shopping as soon as possible)

  29. Delphyne says:

    17 year old female human builds anti cancer nano particles. I wonder how soon that story will disappear.

    http://realitypod.com/2012/06/anti-cancer-nano-particles-built-by-a-17-years-old-girl-makes-her-win-100000/

  30. Delphyne says:

    I think I wound up in spam hell. Maybe it was the link??

  31. Derick Winkworth says:

    …and not as soon as this discussion happens here, I find that Microsoft just did this at their developer conference (read the lyrics in the video):

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUMjxnKzUlQ

  32. Lexia says:

    Miss Andrist, my experience matches yours, but more in mainframes and midranges. Thank you for posting your experience and thank you Dr. Socks for exposing this bias yet again.

    So many people of both sexes honestly believe job discrimination does not exist, at the same time and without any sense of contradiction acknowledging that all or almost all IT people they know are male and that their default image of an IT worker is male.

    It’s like that passage in “Next Time She’ll Be Dead” where Ann Jones describes a TV program about a woman who had left her husband, but was forced to kill him in self defense after he tracked her and her daughters down to her hotel room, raped her at knifepoint in front of her children and then said he would kill her and them. These facts were all known to the interviewer and the legal expert who were on the panel, but Ms. Jones was asked repeatedly by both “But why didn’t she leave him?” She was practically screaming “SHE DID. SHE WAS IN A HOTEL ROOM” and kept getting the same oblivious question.

    Same thing whenever I tell people that computer aptitude is -not- an allele on the Y chromosome, even though most of my managers and coworkers after about 1985 acted as though it were. After getting past “Huh?”, they’ll then solemnly tell me discrimination is no longer an issue, because they know this GUY in computers, or their husband is in computers, or their brother, etc.

    Propaganda like the NYT’s is very effective.

  33. propertius says:

    http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/06/sorry-young-white-guy-youre-not-the-most-important-demographic-in-tech/258087/

  34. scott says:

    Interesting Atlantic article. Also interesting that these tech companies are so wedded to their misogyny that they’re very slow to realize that it would be more profitable to give a damn what women think and feel. Even in a country that’s exalted the almighty dollar over the last 30+ years, they’d rather make a little less money if that means they can preserve their god-given right to dump on women.

  35. Lexia says:

    Scott,

    The male managers who are in charge of these decisions are actually making a very shrewd decision: they’re preserving higher salaries and the power that goes with them for themselves.

    If all men in all companies discriminate against women, then no company loses out in price competition, and all men profit from the unnecessarily higher salaries paid to men.

    The difference can be huge: in just one recent example, a state university recently hired a man into another of their virtually all-male IT positions at a salary of $86,000/yr. A woman who fit the qualifications could have been hired for $45,000. They had to raid a neighboring private university to get the man, too.

    Among those who actually end up paying for this difference, the male owners and share holders (overwhelmingly white men, therefore the very effective gag of shrieking that only “privileged white women” care about employment discrimination) need their pool of economically dependent women from which to choose their unpaid housekeepers and nannies and indentured sex partners, so the difference in profits is well worth it to them; consumers are at the end of a long connection to the cost of this bigotry and so are also pretty much okay with it.

    Plus, I just had the blinding revelation that most women expect to work in sex-segregated employment, expect their husband’s job to be the one that determines their economic and social status, not their own, and at some level realize that women competing with their husbands will lower their own standard of living, so -they’re- not concerned either.

    Leaves a pretty small group of people who do care.

  36. Doctress Julia says:

    APPLAUSE!!!!

    You are THE SHITZNIT.

    May I share the living shit out of this post, please?

    Also, may I be your house slave and bodyguard?

  37. Violet Socks says:

    Thank you, Doctress Julia, though I don’t need a bodyguard or house person. Yes, by all means, share the joy!

  38. Doctress Julia says:

    Well… OK. lol

    My next question is this: does anyone have any suggestions as to groups, classes, or workshops that are for women who want to learn asp.net? Is that what I should be learning if I desire a job in the field of computer science?

    I’ve hit a wall with how much I can learn on my own.