CCR Special 6 — The Women's Computer Literacy Project

In an early third-season episode of Computer Chronicles that I previously covered, Wendy Woods presented one of her remote segments from the Women’s Computer Literacy Project, a San Francisco-based computer school run by Deborah L. Brecher. This report was part of the episode’s larger theme of “women in computing.” Brecher’s school provided vocational training in computers to all-female classes.

Woods also mentioned Brecher’s book, The Women’s Computer Literacy Handbook, which she wrote as a companion text for her classes. Although the title may sound oft-putting at first, having reviewed the book myself, it was actually a wonderfully written introduction to the subject of mid-1980s computing. Brecher took care in her introduction to note that she was not trying to be “condescending to the woman reader.” To the contrary, her objective was to use analogies to explain “many computer concepts that [were] rarely discussed in beginners’ books because they are believed to be too difficult.”

Woods’ report mentioned several of these analogies, such as how a computer program was like a recipe. Again, in the text Brecher made a clear distinction between using a common experience like cooking to break down computer jargon into easily understood concepts and coding certain uses of a computer as “female,” e.g., using a PC to “store recipes.”

The National Women’s Mailing List

According to Brecher, she had been working in the computer field since the mid-1960s and by the early 1980s had setup her own consulting firm. The earliest reference I found to her instructional work was a November 1981 classified in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, advertising a computer science lecture she gave for the “Careers for Feminists” series at Sonoma State University. Brecher later told the San Francisco Examiner that she gave about a dozen such lectures in the 1981-82 period as part of her first project, the Women’s National Mailing List.

Brecher co-founded the Mailing List with her partner, Jill Lippitt, in 1982. It was a essentially computer database of various services and businesses catering to women’s needs. Individuals subscribed to the list and could designate which types of groups–health, educational, political, et al.–they wanted to have access to their names and addresses. According to a 1985 newsgroup post advertising the list, there was a suggested donation of $3.50 for anyone who registered. Brecher claimed that as of 1984, there were about 60,000 subscribers.

The Women’s Computer Literacy Project grew out of the Mailing List sometime in 1983. Both projects were run out of the same San Francisco address. For the Computer Literacy Project, Brecher and Lippitt enlisted a third partner, Marcia Freedman, to serve as the initial director.

Marcia Freedman (1938 - 2021)

Freedman, who passed away last October, was an American-born Jewish woman who moved to Israel in 1967. She was a notable early leader in the Israeli feminist movement. In December 1973, Freedman was a candidate for the Movement of Civil Rights and Peace–known as Ratz–in elections for the Israeli Knesset (parliament). Israeli elections are based on votes for party lists rather than individuals, and Ratz won enough votes to secure three seats, including one for Fredman, in the Knesset that sat between 1973 and 1977.

During her term, Freedman championed a number of progressive issues, including reproductive and LGBT rights–Freedman was a lesbian herself–and spurred the first Knesset debate on the subject of violence against women. Although Ratz backed the government of Yitzahk Rabin that held power between 1974 and 1977, the Times of Israel noted in its obituary for Freedman that she faced significant pushback from cabinet ministers and other Knesset members:

Transcripts from the July [1976] discussion reported by the press show that many lawmakers at the time were entirely dismissive of the issue and even viewed the topic as humorous.

“What about the other issue, husbands who are battered by their wives?” quipped Mordechai Ben-Porat, while Meir Pa’il said: “If a woman beats her husband, the husband should be arrested.”

“I’m surprised you find this matter so amusing, and this proves exactly what I have to say today,” Freedman responded, but even the minister in charge of the issue, Shlomo Hillel, was dismissive.

Minister of Police Hillel said that there was nothing to discuss since police could not intervene in personal relationships, adding that it was just one manifestation of a general rise in violence.

“In all seriousness… I cannot say that there is a specific problem of violence inflicted by men against their wives,” Hillel said then.

Freedman did not run in the 1977 Knesset election, although she co-founded a new party, the Women’s Party, which failed to win any seats. Freedman did not return to electoral politics but instead helped start a shelter in Israel for victims of domestic violence. By the early 1980s she had returned to the United States and helped Brecher and Lippitt start the Women’s Computer Literacy Project.

Helping Women Overcome Their Computer Fears

The Project initially ran its 10-student classes out of a Victorian-era townhouse in San Francisco. Cathy L. Grossman, writing for the Miami Herald in April 1983, said students could take 10 hours of classes over four weeks for $95, or a single 17-hour weekend course for $185. Brecher also offered the weekend classes for $265 at locations outside of San Francisco, usually at local Radio Shack stores, although Brecher did not use Tandy computers. Instead, the Project used CP/M-based machines donated by manufacturers including Osborne and Compupro.

Brecher’s courses primarily targeted professional women looking for vocational training in computers. In a December 1983 report, Nadine Brozan of the New York Times News Service profiled one of Brecher’s early students, Dr. Jane O’Shaughnessy, the chairman of the emergency medicine department at a New Jersey hospital. O’Shaughnessy told Brozan that she experienced “fear” when it came to using computers “even though I don’t understand it.” She decided to take Brecher’s class because she was “attracted to the idea of a course designed for the sensitives of women.”

To be clear, Brecher and her colleagues saw the computer “phobia” of women such as Dr. O’Shaughnessy as a product of society rather than biology. Marcia Freedman told the Orlando Sentinel in April 1984, “All the research shows that it’s a cultural phenomenon related to early childhood socialization of women’s roles.” Freedman noted that many women suffered from “math anxiety” and that spilled over into computers. This was why Brecher’s approach emphasized the use of analogies to break down computing concepts–basically, to reassure women that they didn’t need an advanced degree in mathematics to do word processing or prepare a spreadsheet.

In her Handbook, Brecher emphasized that her goal was not to teach women how to code or program. To the contrary, she actively discouraged readers from thinking they needed to write their own software. Her concern was how the growing use of computers during the 1980s would affect women in the workplace–not just financially, but physically:

It is the secretaries and the file clerks who will feel the greatest effect from the new automated office. It is women who sit at computer screens all day, whether they are working as telephone operators or order-entry clerks at the chain store. These women will feel any health effect of low-level radiation first–not the middle-management executives who made the decision to automate the office. Although the health risks from radiation have not been determined yet, there have been some alarming reports of birth defects related to pregnant women working at computer terminals. Much research still needs to be done in this area. As informed and educated “computer literates,” we will be best able to push for such needed research.

(To clarify, Brecher was talking here about low-level radiation from cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitors; we’re still about a decade away from LCD monitors becoming commonplace.)

Brecher continued teaching classes through the Women’s Computer Literacy Project until at least 1990, which was when I found the last newspaper reference to her work. The Mailing List continued into the mid-1990s. In 1994, Brecher and Lippitt published The Women’s Information Exchange National Directory, essentially a printed form of their database.

Predicting the Future of Online Information

Brecher’s work with the Mailing List made her acutely aware of the potential dangers that online databases posed to the privacy and security of individuals. In her Handbook, Brecher anticipated the rise of companies selling “dossiers” or curated information profiles online:

A frightening and little discussed assault on individual privacy is the fact that many organizations, businesses, and magazines sell their mailing lists without permission of their members, subscribers, or patrons. Dossier companies and even the government can buy up these lists to see what names are on them. Think about it–the types of magazines you read reveals more about your political affiliation than your voter registration does. And the stores you shop at say something about your lifestyle…

The Orwellian “Big Brother society” is too close for comfort. The problem is that there are no laws that regulate the buying and selling of information.

Brecher noted that her own Mailing List did not collect information about what organizations her subscribers belonged to, largely to avoid creating a dossier. Even though she had no intention of selling such information, she said that no computer system was secure enough to avoid a potential security problem. In that sense, Brecher again anticipated our current-day issues with massive data breaches involving personal information.