Girls need modems! The battle cry of hacktivist Jude Milhon
Hacker, writer, activist, feminist... these are just a few of the words used to describe the cyber giant Judith (Jude) Milhon. However, there is no one singular word that can aptly encompass all that Milhon did to pave the way for women in computing and to make the internet a safe and empowering place for all.
Milhon was born in D.C. in 1939, though she was raised in Indiana1. Before breaking into the world of cyberspace, Milhon was a passionate civil rights activist who surrounded herself with like-minded people and fought for social change. Her most famous civil rights involvement was in 1965, when she participated in the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama1. Milhon was arrested numerous times for civil disobedience in relation to the movement3. Her early involvement in this type of activism heavily foreshadowed what was to come in her professional career.
After developing an interest in coding and self-educating through a book titled “Teach Yourself Fortran,” Milhon moved to New York City to pursue a career as a programmer3. Her introduction to the field was a position with the self-service store Horn and Hadart, writing software for their vending machines3. Later, with several years of programming experience under her belt, she moved across the country to Berkely, California1. Once settled there, Milhon took a job with the Berkeley Computer Company, working on microcoding the communications controller for the BCC super timesharing machine2. She also kept up her humanitarian spirit, working at the Berkeley Free Clinic, a radical healthcare collective, as a trainer and medic2.
During the New Left “hippie” movement of the late 1960s and early 70s, Milhon mingled within various groups whose visions for social change matched her own2. She ended up finding her niche amongst a group of computer specialists who became colloquially known as “hackers”2. For Milhon, this was the beginning of the intersection of activism and computer science.
Prior to Milhon’s involvement in the cyber community, the internet was a resource reserved for only a small selection of users including the US military and some colleges. Wanting to expand its reach and accessibility, Milhon, with the help of her partner and hacker colleagues, launched the Community Memory Project in 19731. The project was the first public computer network system and allowed everyday people to access the shared web and interact with others through a machine1. The network was housed in a teletype machine inside of a cardboard box which was then placed inside a record store for community use. Musicians immediately took to using the machine to promote concerts, sell instruments and connect with each other, and others quickly caught on as well1. This digital “bulletin board” sparked the creation of many other similar projects that helped connect an even larger network of users.
Concurrently with her work to expand internet accessibility, Milhon was an avid writer and feminist who used her wit and technical knowledge to encourage other women to enter the male-dominated world of computing. The catchphrase for her long-running campaign to get women involved in technology was “Girls need modems!”1 She published several books that blended social activism and radical identity stances with the subject of computing, specifically hacking1.
While fighting for women’s inclusion in the technology sector, Milhon also grew highly critical of the government, condemning their intrusiveness and often narrow-minded views1. She adopted a digital counterculture mindset and used her hacking skills for encryption work and the furtherance of online privacy3. At the start of the 1990s, she took the role of senior editor for a cyber-culture magazine with an anarchist tone–Mondo 20001. Milhon said that hacking was a sort of “martial art” and “a way of defending against politically correct politicians, overly intrusive laws, bigots and narrow-minded people of all persuasions"1.
Milhon was so passionate about using her digital prowess to protect the underserved and expand the reach of the internet that she was a founding member of the “cypherpunks,” a term she coined to represent the organization of digital privacy activists like herself who worked to use cryptography and other privacy building techniques to fight corruption3. Up until her death in 2003 she remained an active voice in the world of online privacy and digital anarchy. She also continued to publish books highlighting the importance of technology in protecting and empowering women and would often give advice and encouragement to women online who were interested in a similar path2.
Fittingly, Milhon was known in the cyber community by the pseudonym “St. Jude.”
Dodson, S. (2003, August 07). Obituary: Judith Milhon. Retrieved March 25, 2021, from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2003/aug/08/guardianobituaries.obituaries
Lebkowsky, J. (2003, August 1). Inkwell: Authors and artists. Retrieved March 26, 2021, from https://people.well.com/conf/inkwell.vue/topics/190/St-Jude-Memorial-and-Virtual-Wak-page01.html
Women in Technology: Jude Milhon. (2019, February 15). Retrieved March 26, 2021, from https://www.gradiant.org/en/blog/women-technology-jude-milhon/