Women’s Movement, Part Two

I’ve been waiting to weigh in on this until the dust settles, but Sarah Lacy’s great keynote at Startup Fest means it won’t settle any time soon, so here’s what I think of the current state of women in Tech.

They are at once very privileged and very disadvantaged.

My qualifications to comment? Three time female entrepreneur who grew up in the 1950s and has seen several cycles of women’s issues. The author of “Why Women Shouldn’t Code,” a much maligned essay on why coding is like the last century’s stenography.

Let’s start here: I had a mother who didn’t work outside the home. A father who thought success meant not having a wife who had to work. Available occupations for women? Nurse, teacher, stenographer, typist, maid. Best possible outcome for a woman? Marriage. Sex before marriage? Never. Virginity? Critical.

Mother? Apparently miserable but without self-knowledge. Constant migraines and possible addiction to first Anacin then Valium. Father? Always stressed and dead at 57.

The world I grew up in? Full of cognitive dissonance.

Daughter? (That would be me). A daddy’s girl who was immediately spotted as assertive. Encouraged by her father to think outside the box, as long as that meant going to law school, and first mastering typing and shorthand. Always more comfortable with boys than girls. In today’s world might have been gender fluid, though not gay. In that world, known as a tomboy and the smartest person in the room.

Fast forward to college. By then, a misfit graduate of a science high school with an interest in literature. Neither a girly-girl nor a real outlier. Still assertive. Not a virgin. Already knew sex could be traded for other things like power. However, never had two consecutive thoughts about the consequences.

And then came the world after college where women with Ivy League degrees like my own, who lived in New York, could aspire to careers in advertising and publishing, but as typists and secretaries, and men knocked up those secretaries in a world where abortion was still illegal.

I accompanied a co-worker to one of those illegal abortions in New Jersey and she almost bled to death on the subway home. The guy did pay for the procedure, however; on a scale of one to ten we both agreed he was a good guy.

Soon after that, I fled off to another Ivy League school for a Masters degree, my dad all the while still begging me to go to law school. But I knew if I went, I’d only be a legal secretary, so I refused. And after my M.A. I married for the first time (of five). I briefly worked at J.Walter Thompson, even then a famous agency, but of course I was a secretary and it was just like Mad Men so I applied to get a PhD while my husband went to medical school.

World shaking events happened during the time I was trying to figure out what to do with my life: the rise of Castro, the Bay of Pigs, the assassination of Jack Kennedy, the killing of Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement and the beginnings of the Viet Nam war. It was a tumultuous time that loosened social bonds.

Does that sound familiar? Not that different from now. For women, all that meant the Summer of Love, free love, and drugs. And the dawn of the women’s movement. And the birth of the Pill.

Somewhere in there women got the right to have credit in their own names. You heard it here. I couldn’t get my own credit card. No way a mortgage. In 1975 the first women’s bank opened. I invested in it. Eventually it failed because of lack of need, but at the time it was a huge gesture of protest. Investing in it was like doing a Kickstarter. We weren’t after a return.

The 70s were full of strident women. Even though I had moved to Phoenix to be a professor, there were still plenty of opportunities to rock the boat there. There was failing to stand for a moment of silent prayer to honor Dwight Eisenhower’s death (I’m an atheist) and accepting an invitation to be the faculty advisor to Students for a Democratic Society. And accepting a Planned Parenthood ad for the student newspaper when I was its advisor. There was walking uninvited into the Men’s Grill at Phoenix Country Club because I knew the deals happened there are women weren’t allowed.

Lots of little quiet rights fights.

The gains for women during the 70s were enormous. That being said, I still couldn’t teach at the same college as the father of my children, I had to hide the fact that both children were born out of wedlock (due to the timing of various divorces), and when the Dean of my college found out I was pregnant he still said I should quit when I began “showing.”

I didn’t. I was still lecturing while in labor, barely drove myself to the hospital, gave birth to Samantha by Lamaze without anaesthetic, made the hospital allow her father in the delivery room (the first man in Arizona ever to do that,) and left the hospital the next day by charging Sam to my new credit card. No such thing as maternity leave.

One week later, I was back at work, demonstrating that I wasn’t going to quit. They could not find a law on the books to keep me from working or to keep me from bringing the baby to work, so they had to let me.

I fought every rule that tried to keep women down. I got thrown out of a French restaurant in Scottsdale for nursing under the table and off a bus in NY for the same reason. Along the way I made advances for all the women after me, but never with forethought. I was just leading my little life.

We haven’t even gotten to my “angel” investment in New Times, later Village Voice Media, and GoVideo, where I got a 50x return. That’s how I discovered that investing made even a woman powerful.

Nor to the first of my marketing companies, Hardaway Connections. Nor to the bulk of my business dealings with men, during which I discovered that sex is also a powerful tool — for women who know the rules and aren’t afraid to level the playing field by using it. It’s never about the sex. It’s about power.

Yes, I used sex as power. I slept with clients, partners — basically anyone I wanted to sleep with. My rules? Don’t get pregnant; don’t ruin anyone’s marriage. And don’t do anything I didn’t want to do.

How did I learn these rules? From the men around me. I saw the way the game was played and decided to go for the goal. I don’t ever remember feeling harassed, violated, or at a disadvantage. If that was the game, I was in. I just didn’t want to hurt anyone, and as far as I know I did not. Many of the players aren’t here anymore, but I’ve never left a marriage or a relationship on bad terms.

Which brings me to the current situation in the tech industry. You women stepping forward now are standing on the shoulders of the women of the 70s, who fought for the basic rights to work at occupations reserved for men and took women far enough that you women now have the liberty to make a different set of decisions about how you will play the game. You’re fighting to get funded equally, and paid equally. That’s light years ahead of where we were.

In my day, I played to win — by any rules. I did not have the right or the power to change the rules. You do.

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