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**This Post is part of a larger series of activist we should know**

“People have to be made to understand that they cannot look for salvation anywhere but to themselves” 

               -Ella Baker

As students, and certainly students in North Carolina, we have heard much about the Greensboro Sit-Ins and the Civil Rights Movement.  We heard about injustice—probably for only for a few days in our US History course—as if it happened, was discovered to be wrong, and then changed by a few super-humans who lead us to the promised land of equality before the law.  This reduced, linear reading of history leaves us with few lessons to carry forward—little to nourish ourselves as citizens in a world still yearning for people committed to make change and confront ever more entrenched oppressions.  These histories leave us merely with monuments to what was.  We look on them with reverence and wait for our next hero.

As seekers of justice we cannot be satisfied with the dominant narrative of history.  We must sharpen our eyes and dig through the past in hopes of finding the roots of our current struggles.  We must discover our ancestors, learn from their efforts, and carry forward their vision with ours.  We must look to groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and figures like Ella Jo Baker.

Ella Baker grew up near the North Carolina-Virginia border on what today we would call a cooperative farm.  Her parents believed in building community among African-Americans and thus she grew up surrounded by a large group of extended family that worked together and shared resources to sustain each other.  Out of this work Ms. Baker quickly gained a sense of collective struggle and a self-sufficient streak.  Her upbringing in this collectivist, deeply democratic setting informed her belief on the importance of radical democracy in organizing work.

Ella Baker went on to become a leading field organizer and director of the NAACP, founder of In Friendship, and the first organizer of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  She brought to all of these organizations perhaps the largest network of committed people built by any civil rights leader.  She left all of these organizations with a want for something that none of the major civil rights groups could give her: an organization that took seriously building a struggle which would uplift the voices of Black-Americans on the ground in the most dangerous areas of the southern United States while building long term leadership and attacking the roots of a society she believed did not meet the needs of working people.  In many ways, the nomadic nature of her activist career made her a perfect candidate to facilitate the convergence of young activists that came to be the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

As the sit-in movement was sweeping the country, Ella Baker used her influence within SCLC to solicit funds and organize a conference of the young activists to take place in April 1960 in Raleigh, North Carolina at Shaw University.  While organizations from the NAACP to CORE lobbied for the students to join their ranks, Baker offered students a different perspective.  She told them to build their own organization.  They agreed with her and formed the group that would become SNCC.  While I certainly cannot do justice to the legacy of SNCC in this post, there are many sources I would encourage you to explore.  First among these is Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom in which he describes eloquently the impact of this organization.

SNCC initiated the mass-based, disruptive political style we associate with the sixties, and it provided philosophical and organizational models and hands on training for people who would become leaders in the student power movement, the anti-war movement, and the feminist movement

This formation of this dynamic group was made possible by the mentorship of Ella Baker.

Knowing the legacy of Ms. Baker brings with it a responsibility to carry on and fulfill her mission.  She envisioned a movement which would be led not by ministers or the privileged, but by the people who most needed it.  She recognized the importance of nonviolent direct action and encouraged activist to take up the work of building collectives that would be capable of meeting injustice head on.  She believed in the importance of organizing the American South and uplifting the voices of the working class, young people, and people of color. In the end she hoped to build a society of cooperation and collective action which brought her back to the interdependent community of her youth. As Payne states in his book, the complex political legacy of SNCC “went back at least as far as Miss Baker’s grandfather’s farm.”  The question now is how much further we can carry it.



Courtesy of Dr. Vigil of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Feminist. Revolutionary. Historian.


On October 8th and 9th, The Department of Women’s and Gender Studies will host a two-day event organized around the work of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a long-time feminist and historian of indigenous peoples.  A native of rural Oklahoma, Dr. Dunbar-Ortiz holds a PhD in History from the University of California, Los Angeles. She was co-founder of the Department of Ethnic Studies at California State University, East Bay, where she taught Native American Studies. Among her many publications are The Great Sioux Nation: An Oral History of the Sioux Nation and its Struggle for Sovereignty, which will be republished by the University of Nebraska Press in 2013.  She is currently writing a history of the United States from the perspective of Indigenous Peoples.

Dr. Dunbar-Ortiz has played an important role in the development of indigenous and feminist organizations, nationally and globally. From 1997 to 2005, she served as a non-governmental representative in United Nations sessions devoted to the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, the Decade for the World’s Indigenous Peoples, and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, among others. She was the founding director of the Indigenous World Association and the Interim Director of the Women’s Studies Program at California State University – Hayward (now Cal State East Bay) from 1995 to 1997.

Dunbar-Ortiz is equally well-known and respected for the several memoirs she has published that reflect the movements and activities in which she has participated. These books include Red Dirt:  Growing Up Okie (London and New York: Verso, 1997; republished by University of Oklahoma Press, 2005); Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960 – 1975 (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2002) and Blood on the Border: Memoir of the Contra War (Cambridge: South End Press, 2005).

The events are co-sponsored by: American Indian Center, American Indian Studies, Carolina Indian Circle, Carolina Women’s Center, Center for Global Initiatives, Curriculum in Global Studies, Department of American Studies, Department of Anthropology, Department of History, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, First Nations Graduate Circle, Feminist Students United!, the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, the Institute for the Study of the Americas, Social and Economic Justice Minor, The Sonja Haynes Stone Center, and The Southern Oral History Program and UNC Latina/o Studies Program.

Posted by Zachary MacHardy

Talking about women in computer science can be a bit of a downer, so I figured it might lighten the mood a bit and open this post with a bit of a game.  The rules are simple:  Go to the Wikipedia page on the “History of Computer Science,”and count the number of times women are mentioned.  It’s okay.  I’ll wait.  Alright, you back? Truth is, that wasn’t a very fun game, was it? At any rate, (At the time of this writing) here’s the answer (Drum roll): 1 time!  Did you spot where?  I’ll go ahead and quote it here:

Just chillaxin at Harvard, doin some computing.

“Before the 1920s, computers (sometimes computors) were human clerks that performed computations. They were usually under the lead of a physicist. Many thousands of computers were employed in commerce, government, and research establishments. Most of these computers were women, and they were known to have a degree in calculus. Some performed astronomical calculations for calendars.”

Oh cool, degrees in calculus!  They were known to have them!  That’s right y’all: the place of women in the history of computer science is, according to the Wikipedia narrative we all know and love, as predecessors to the literal objects that we know today as computers.  This certainly would be a disheartening story, were it actually representative of the part women have played in computer science.  Luckily for us, this isn’t exactly the case.  Truthfully, despite rather distressing rates of under-representation, women have taken an active and vital role in the development of modern computers, and continue to do so to this day. Just to name a few:  Grete Hermann, who did foundational work on computerized algebra; Grace Hopper, the mother of COBOL and writer of the first compiler ever for an electronic computer; Mary Allen Wilkes, inventor of the first minicomputer OS; Roberta Williams, a pioneer of adventure gaming and developer of King’s quest; Frances Allen, first female recipient of the Turing award, famous for her invaluable work on compiler optimization.  Each of these women has done invaluable service to the field.  But before any of them had even been born, before the first computer had even been manufactured, the very first computer program the world had ever seen had already been written, and by a woman to boot.  On that note, then, let me introduce you to the mother of computer programming, the author of what is widely acknowledged as the first computer program, the namesake for the programming language Ada, and general all-around smarty pants: Ada Lovelace.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace: A Badass

Augusta Ada Byron was born in England on the 10th of December 1815, to Lord George Gordon Byron (Yes, that Lord Byron), and Anne Isabella Milbanke.  Ada never knew Byron, since he opted to leave her and her mother while she was only a month old, then proceeded to kick the bucket while she was nine. Understandably, this disappearing act did little to endear Lord Byron to Ada’s mother, and, in an attempt to ensure that none of the poetic insanity of the father took hold of the daughter, Ada was schooled in mathematics and science from a very young age.  She quickly proved adept in her lessons, and by the age of seventeen had been noted by the prominent mathematician Augustus De Morgan (of De Morgan’s laws) as having the potential to become a “mathematical investigator, perhaps of first rate eminence.”

Ada soon began to attend Court and met many prominent personages of the time, among them Charles Dickens, Michael Faraday, and importantly, Charles Babbage.  She married William King in 1835, and in 1838 gained the title of “Countess of Lovelace.”   Lovelace and Babbage maintained a correspondence for many years, and, noting her mathematical prowess, Babbage dubbed her the “Enchantress of Numbers.”

It was in 1842 that the work for which Ada is so well known began.  Originally, Ada was to produce a translation of Luigi Menabrea’s notes on Charles Babbage’s proposed “Analytical Engine,” the first Turing-complete design for a mechanical computer.  But the translation work was quickly supplanted by the addition of a lengthy (significantly longer than the translation itself) collection of notes of her own design (which are available for your perusal here, if you’re up for a bit of a dry read) detailing the hypothetical workings of the analytical engine.  Buried deep within these notes, in “Note G”, Ada details what is widely recognized to be the very first computer program, geared toward the algorithmic calculation of Bernoulli numbers.  It is likely that even beyond this translation, Ada had an active hand in the development of the analytical engine, but little is known of the further extent of her influence.  Regardless, her design of the first computer program and her astute observations on the future of computer utility beyond mathematical calculation had a profound impact on computer science (She even predicted that electronic music might be composed via computers.  In the nineteenth century!).

Unfortunately Ada didn’t live to see the construction of the Analytical engine.  She passed away in 1852 at the age of 36, due to medical complications related to the treatment of uterine cancer.  But her work was not forgotten.  A programming language commissioned by the US DOD in the 70’s to replace the hundreds of languages previously in use was named Ada in her honor.  The British Computer society awards the Lovelace medal annually to those who have advanced work in Information systems.  Annually, Lovelace is honored in a celebration of Ada Lovelace day, intended to raise awareness of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  Certainly her work, as well as the work of many other women in computer science, has not gone unrecognized, Wikipedia references or no.

The Dire State of Digital Diversity

                But visibility of these contributions to those outside the field is low.  The situation of women in computer science is a dire one, despite the invaluable contributions of various women to the discipline.  We are facing a demographic crisis, as computer science is one of the very few disciplines which has become gradually more male-dominated over the last 30 years.  A recent study by the Computing Research Association puts the percentage of female recipients of Bachelor’s degrees in computer science at around 14%; this is certainly a far cry from the figure of nearly 40% participation taken in the mid-80s.  The question of why participation by women has declined is a complex one, and certainly one which requires a reevaluation of how we as a society choose to socialize our children, among other things.  But what is not in doubt is that this dire imbalance needs to be addressed – The lack of women in the discipline is not only embarrassing for the computer science community but detrimental to progress.  It is not a question of whether or not brilliant women have been dissuaded from entering the discipline, but, unfortunately, a question of how many.

Way to castrate Turing, Britain

Though the focus of this post is on participation by women in computer science, I would be remiss to conclude without addressing the overwhelming heteronormative and cisgendered biases also present.  By all rights, computer scientists should be natural allies in the fight for queer rights; perhaps the most brilliant, influential man in the history of computer science, Alan Turing, committed suicide after being forced to undergo chemical castration by the British Government for that most heinous of crimes: being homosexual.  This despite the fact that his work was invaluable to the British in breaking German ciphers during World War 2 (way to go y’all).  The designer of the instruction set for the enormously successful ARM processor was Sophie Wilson, a transgendered woman.  Lynn Conway, another transgendered woman, was the inventor of generalized dynamic instruction handling, an important advance in computing efficiency used by most computers today.

This is not even to mention the dearth of black, latino, (or really non-white, non-east or southeast Asian) computer scientists.  Diversity abounds among the great minds who have contributed to the field of computer science as well as among those who may yet contribute.  Yet the canonical image of the computer scientist is decidedly male, heterosexual, cisgendered, and one of a very small set of ethnic backgrounds.  This is an injustice to the myriad of brilliant contributions made by those who do not fit into this restrictive stereotype.  There is nothing inherently male, inherently white or Asian or Indian or straight or gay or cis or trans or anything about computing.  So let me end this post with a plea.  Don’t be fooled by the stereotypical image of the computer scientist.  Encourage your sister, your daughter, your friend, your mother, your roommate, anyone of any gender or sexuality or race or age or creed to seriously consider the discipline.  Don’t let the preconceived notion of who is well suited to computers and who is not influence the future of computer science.  Don’t let a computer scientist tell you that, well, there’s a certain set of people who just “get” computers.  That’s bullshit.  This is a discipline whose efforts have had far-reaching effects the world over as the world advances into the digital age.  The computer science community has enough white, straight, men in its ranks; We will need a diversity of experiences and opinions if we are to have any hope of contributing meaningfully to progress for us all.

Feminist Students United (FSU) is a progressive feminist organization which affirms that no form of oppression can be overcome until all aspects of racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism are dismantled. We acknowledge intersecting identities and strive to be mindful of these intersections in all our work. We endeavor to create an environment which is non-hierarchical and supportive in nature, and we work to bring about change in our community through education, outreach, direct action and community organizing.

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