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CCC Women Were Odd Men Out

by Steve Kettmann

WIRED, 11.01.2000

BERLIN -- There was a lot of talk about family and Community at this year's Chaos Computer Club annual congress. But a lot of women were wondering: Whose family?

To call Chaos male-dominated is a vast Understatement. And that didn't go down too well in some quarters.

To mollify the women who were there, they were promised a "hack center" of their own. But the hordes of pasty-faced teens with monitors under their arms needed space, and they took over the room. An open confrontation ensued.

"Some of them said they didn't think a women's room was necessary," said Nina Corda, an ISP hotline worker from Bremen who was a key Organizer of the women's room. "They said, 'Just because you're a woman doesn't mean you get special treatment.'"

Corda, a smiling woman who speaks fondly of her days street-fighting against neo-Nazis, was not about to sit still for that sort of talk.

"We are marginalized in the CCC," she said. "Just take a look around."

Corda appealed to the CCC leadership. The top logistical Organizer for the Conference, Tim Pritlove, finally relented and transformed it back to a women's room. Several women-only Workshops were held, including one on Linux instruction in which about 25 attended.

It was a victory in the sense that even though women comprised only about 10 percent of the total attendance, they still were a presence.

"When I asked Tim, he said it didn't look like we were doing anything in the room, because we had only set up one Computer," Corda said. "I said, 'Hacking isn't only about Computers. It's a state of mind.' Technically, I'm not the strongest. For me it's more a political thing.

"Hacking to me is about always wanting to know more, and not thinking that you already know it all."

As a sort of compromise, this year's women room was not called a "women's room" but a "know-it-all free zone."

"They were not that rare and exotic as last year, but it's still a small group," said CCC spokesman Andy Mueller-Maguhn. "I wouldn't say it's a problem. What's remarkable is not so much the number of women but their handling of Computers and their handling of the Situation. In my point of view, the women are starting to get really cool and really tough. They have a Status of self-consciousness which is really remarkable. They say very loud and clear what they want."

Interviews with women at the congress revealed a split. One group favored a more combative demand for inclusion. Another group believed more in jumping right in and making a longer-term bid for influence. "We will take over within 10 years," joked Nika Bertram, a member of the Cologne CCC.

"You have to do things on your own," she said. "What cyber-feminism wants is to find its own way, and then talk to the men, and not hear, 'Your way is not the right way.' Maybe it's better not to have men telling you how to do things.1 But it's actually a very open scene. The boys are very nice. We like them. No one ever said, There is the coffee machine."

Cologne CCC member Christine Ketzer, who helped lead a workshop titled "Big Brother Is Watching," agrees.

"Some women aren't interested in technology for technology," she said. "They are more interested in the social angle. It's really important for women to make themselves visible in the scene. It's very important to talk about the real serious topics and to become network administrators and things like that."

Ketzer and Bertram both thought that the women they knew in the scene tended to shy away from speaking out and making their presence feit. Mueller-Maguhn made much the same point in explaining why more women were not scheduled to lead Workshops.

"Back in November, I sent out emails asking everyone who they wanted to hear, and there were no suggestions like that," he said. "I think it has to do with presenting yourself, and that is more of a man's domain."

It was all disturbingly familiar to Rena Tangens and Barbara Thoens, the most famous women CCC veterans. Tangens attended her first CCC congress in 1988.

"I was shocked," she said. "I was the only woman there. Well, there was one other woman there, but she was making cake. I decided I had to do the Job myself. I led a workshop the next year on finding the advantages of different approaches to Computers."

Thoens soon joined in, and in the mid-90s served a two-year term as CCC President. The two women made a Video making sport of how men explain technology. "They say, 'Let me do it,'" Thoens said, and both women laughed.

But this year's fight over a women's room, one they thought they had settled years ago, left both feeling sad.

"It's not fair," Tangens said. "It's just looking at the male view and ignoring everything else."

Added Thoens: "The way of communicating between men is very loud and noisy, especially in the Berlin CCC. I like that, but some women don't. The men say the women have to shout, too, if they want to be heard. I always try to explain our concept and the men don't understand. I tell them 'It's good for you if there are a lot of women.' But the Berlin group would be happy if it was all men, just so long as you're seriously interested. "I think next year it will be really difficult again organizing the women's room."

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