by Audrey Watters on 04 Jul, 2010
I realize that today's date compels blogs to feature some sort of "patriotic" post: the funniest YouTube firecracker accidents, the top 10 Lou Greenwood iPhone apps. Whatever. But I found Mashable's post "The 10 Founding Fathers of the Web" today to be particularly irksome. And while I realize it both fulfills the obligatory Independence Day post and it probably meets some sort of SEO for "who founded the Web" questions, I protest. Strongly. As the largest tech blog with the largest reach, Mashable needs to do better. You see, like many people, I am deeply suspicious of the label "Founding Father" as it is both sexist and elitist, as it reflects a mythological rather than historical representation of this country's path to independence, and as it implies that the United States was created by a handful of men who co-wrote and co-signed a couple of documents. The phrase ignores the contribution of colonists, merchants, soldiers, slaves, and yes, women. And it's the latter that I find not just offensive but counter-productive when invoked to discuss the history of the Web. By choosing to feature "fathers," Mashable is perpetuating the notion that computing is a field founded for men, by men, and with men. It perpetuates the notion that women have not contributed to the Web -- either in its infancy or in its development. It perpetuates the notion that the Web and that computer technology is a man's world. As the National Center for Women in Information Technology continues to show, women and girls are reluctant to pursue careers in technology. Why should they, you might ask, when women have made no contribution to the field, when there are only "founding fathers"? It's daunting to be a trailblazer, to join an industry in which no one of your gender has ever "founded" anything, has never contributed anything of value. Using exclusionary language like "founding fathers" only perpetuates what is already a sorry state for women in technology: we make up less than 25% of those who work in the field. We struggle to convince girls that computing is a career path worth pursuing. I mean, why would a girl want to join a field in which there are no female role models? The thing is, Mashable, women have always been involved in technology, just as we were involved in the founding of this country. Let me remind you of Abigail Adams who wrote to her husband, "If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation." It took over one hundred years for that fomenting rebellion to actually grant women the right to vote, and frankly I have no interest in waiting a century to see women represented (and credited) for their work in technology. So let me point you to this list, that had you decided to look beyond your sexist and exclusionary "founding father" language, would have helped you uncover women, as well as men, who were crucial to the development of the Web technologies. Here are just a few:
Ada Lovelace, often described as the first programmer
Grace Hopper, developed the first compiler for a programming language, her work led to the development of COBOL
Mary Allen Wilkes, engineer at MIT, generally considered to be the first user of a home computer
Sally Floyd, worked to develop TCP
Kim Polese, project manager for Java.
It's Kim's absence from Mashable's list that I find most troubling. Whatever your opinion is on Java, it's hard to deny the role that the language played in the development of the Web as we know it. By strictly adhering to a list of "fathers," women have again found themselves written out of history, despite the fact that their contributions have been there all along.
Audrey Watters is an education writer, rabble-rouser, rambler, recovering academic, lifelong learner, serial dropout, part-time badass, mom.
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