THE GEEK GIRL REVOLUTION
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11 women who are changing geek culture

By Ann Hoevel

Chemistry labs. Comic book shops. Deep in the guts of computer programming code. It’s popular to assume that these are the domains of nerdy guys—the type who failed gym class but get their revenge by founding tech companies where they make their former jock classmates sweep the floors.

But that notion is quickly becoming a relic, like the 1980s Weird Science and Revenge of the Nerd-type movies that cultivated it. And it’s fading, frankly, because it’s just wrong.

While popular culture has invested a lot of screentime in the archetype of the nerdy white guy, women in geek culture have, for a long time, been invisible. But that in no way means they don’t exist. Though comic book, technology, and gaming industries have historically catered to men, women have always been a part of them—both as consumers and as creators—outside the spotlight.

Anita Sengupta grew up a huge fan of Doctor Who and Star Trek; she’s now one of the leaders of the team responsible for landing NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars. Actress Ashley Eckstein saw Star Wars fangirls being ignored by merchandisers, so she founded her own geek fashion company for women like her. Jillian Venters was essentially born into sci-fi fandom. She was playing Dungeons & Dragons by age 10 and now operates an online charm school for goths.

Women can be found throughout geek culture, both in areas that have been historically guy-centric and in niches like fanfiction that female geeks have made their own. In the past several years, as women have started making their voices heard about their geek passions, naysayers have tried to claim girl geeks are “faking it”—that they’re just belatedly jumping on the bandwagon as geek culture goes mainstream. But of course, that’s not true either. The same women who have been ignored or even harassed for their interests have the same credibility as their male counterparts—though it seems women are the only ones confronted with demands to prove it.

So we’re here to say, once and for all, that yes, there are lots of female geeks and nerds out there, and they’re making awesome contributions to the world.

Here are 11 women that should serve as role models to the next generation of geek girls.

—Sarah Weber 

1) Lindsey Stirling | YouTube’s violin virtuoso

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Her videos have more than 675 million views on YouTube, and her debut album went platinum in Germany, and her follow-up reached No. 2 on the Billboard top 200 album chart this April—and Lindsey Stirling did it all by playing the violin while dancing. She may have been voted off America’s Got Talent in 2010 (perhaps for confounding Piers Morgan who didn’t see the value in a dubstepping violinist), but Sterling has turned her improbable sensibility and talent into a very legitimate career. When she’s not touring or recording, she spends her spare time as a motivational speaker to teenagers.

What’s it like being a nerd?

Being human, tripping every once in awhile, getting flustered when I talk to a cute boy, wearing goofy glasses just because I want to, being able to be silly and not caring what people think about it.

Who are your heroes?

This might sound cliche, but honestly my parents taught me that it was OK to be myself and to go after my dreams. They always supported and helped me in everything I ever wanted to achieve and they really believed that I could do it. I mean, I look back at some of the things I tried and I wonder if I would be as encouraging to my daughter if she tried to do the same things (laughs). I certainly wouldn’t be who I am today without my mom and dad, that’s for sure. And they definitely fall under the category of “cool nerds.”

What advice can you give to the next generation of geeky, nerdy girls?

Being a nerd is awesome; don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise! Be yourself and be proud of it.

2) Oni Hartstein | Mother of fan conventions

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A marketing professional by day, Oni Hartstein is a webcomic creator, a fan convention founder and operator, and a haunted house aficionado. Her five-year-old Intervention: The Premier Showcase of Online Creativity is a convention’s convention and an incubator for DIY, indie, and technology artists. She also founded (Re)Generation Who: The Doctor Who Convention for Every Generation.

What’s it like being a geek?  

It means you are not necessarily in what people call the mainstream. I’ve always been the person that kind of didn’t fit in, kind of liked books, really liked creating things. I read Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit really early, when other kids were reading The Babysitter’s Club. You’re more on the outside, but then you find other people like yourself. You find people who understand your wavelength, understand your love for books, your love for haunted houses and immersive theater, your love for stuff that requires a little more thought.

Who are your heroes?

He passed away when I was 12, but I would have to say my dad, first off. He was a World War II veteran—I was actually raised by my biological grandfather. He always taught all his daughters to stand up for themselves. As far as heroes in the art world, I really love Mary Blair’s work. It’s so obvious my artwork is a lot like [hers]. She designed the It’s a Small World ride at Disney. She was one of the first female artists who really got [famous]. She had her own ride and a really great children’s book career, and her art is just so cool.

What advice can you give to the next generation of geeky, nerdy girls?

Be positive and focus on your goals no matter what. You are going to get a lot of good and bad in life. Don’t get dragged away from your goals by trying to fix everything or fighting every fight. Fight the fights that will matter in five years. Rise above the stuff that doesn’t. In the end you’ll win because you’ll have achieved and the results don’t lie. Also never let anyone tell you what is important in life. Do what you love as much as is physically possible. That’s what is going to be the engine that powers you throughout whatever may come.

3) Catherine Lewis | Cosplay svengali

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Catherine Lewis runs God Save the Queen Fashions, a company that creates custom cosplay. When she tells people what she does for a living, reactions range from awkward stares to piqued interest, Lewis said.  “Usually once I mention Dragon Con or San Diego Comic-Con, that’s when people are like, ‘Ooooooooh.’”

Sometimes people don’t believe that for Lewis, cosplay is a job—not just a hobby. “Then I’ll explain that I have the shop space over in Doraville (Ga.), and I own that business,” she said. “Technically, I could say I’m in sales.”

What’s it like being a geek?    

It means that when I’m standing in line at the grocery store, I’m looking at person’s jacket in front of me and studying how it’s stitched and studying how it goes together. It means when people ask me about some sort of sewing question, 99 percent of the time I will have a very detailed answer to give them. When you have normal conversations with people they kind of nod their head and are like, “cool.” When I talk to people (about sewing,) they get out their phones or their notebook and they start writing.

Who are your heroes?

More than a hero, I really like to look at friends that also own their own businesses. When I need clarification about my business and how to handle it and some outside perspective, I’ll talk to this guy named Steve Dengler. Steve runs xe.com, which is a currency exchange website.  Whenever I’m feeling a little frustrated or stressed out, I can remember those conversations where he gave so much clarity and inspiration. It always makes me feel better.

I would say Superman (is my hero), but everyone says Superman, so…

What advice can you give to the next generation of geeky, nerdy girls?

Best advice I could give anyone is to focus on the work. That, ultimately, is what matters. If you want to make good costumes, focus on costumes. It’s really easy to get buried in drama, the muck, unnecessary stress. If you can manage your work, your money and your time, and you want to make a profession of (cosplay couture) you will probably be just fine.

And paperwork! It helps if you’re good at paperwork. Running a business out of your home is like easy mode. Running out of commercial space has so much stuff involved with it, it’s incredibly overwhelming. You have to get your business permit, certificate of occupancy, Fire Marshall inspection, getting your lease set up, I have payroll that I have to do every two weeks, quarterly taxes, I mean, there’s a whole bunch of stuff people don’t realize you have to do.

4) Ashley Eckstein | Fangirl fashionista

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Ashley Eckstein noticed the need for fandom merchandise while voicing the beloved character Ashoka on the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars series. The only Star Wars T-shirts she saw at conventions were shapeless boy’s or men’s options, emblazoned with images that all but ignored female characters and female sensibility.

In 2009, she founded Her Universe, a global clothing brand for female sci-fi fans young and old. “What most people don’t realize is that close to half of all sci-fi fans, fantasy fans and geeks, really are women. And that’s a hard statistic,” Eckstein said.

What’s it like being a geek?  

To me it is beating your own drum and being comfortable and confident and OK with doing your own thing. It’s definitely a challenge at times, especially when you’re younger because society is still telling you to conform. But I feel like there’s a whole generation of geek girls that are now adults that now realize that it’s OK. That we can be geek girls and be proud of that.

Who are your heroes?

My parents always told me I could do anything. If I had a crazy dream, they never told me “no.” It was always, “Yes, you can achieve that.” My husband is the same way.

Outside the family, I was so inspired as a little girl (and in fact I was her for Halloween in third grade) by Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female Supreme Court justice of the United States. As a female, she could sit in one of the highest seats, the most powerful seat in the land. If she could do it, I felt like as a female I could achieve something just as big. I was definitely made fun of for that. I was also Cousin It the next year, so let’s just be real.

What advice can you give to the next generation of geeky, nerdy girls?

My advice to geeks in the next generation is that you’re not alone. It’s hard, when you’re young, to think outside of your school or your class or your group of friends. A lot of these girls are the only ones in their class that would rather rush home and watch Star Wars Rebels than the stereotype of what girls should watch. There’s actually an army of fangirls out there that like the same things that they do. Sometimes the Internet can be a dangerous place, truly, for kids. However, it can also be an amazing place where girls can discover these communities online of very supportive and inspirational women who love the same things they do.

5) Kimberly Bryant | The great computing equalizer

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Kimberly Bryant is the founder and executive director of Black Girls CODE, a high-growth, high-impact, nonprofit organization “working to create access to technology coding for girls of color ages 7 to 17,” she said. The organization started off attempting to bridge the digital divide for girls of color in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2001. Black Girls CODE now serves girls in seven U.S. cities and Johannesburg, South Africa.

What’s it like being a nerd?   

I grew up as a nerdy kid, always into reading books, math, and science. I was not really heavily into coding or gaming or technology as a kid, but more broadly interested in general intellectual pursuits. I think the geek phenom is currently identified with computer scientists, gamers, and those generally interested in tech and tech gadgetry. My daughter is certainly more of a geek than I am and has been a heavy gamer since the age of 7. She is the “true computer scientist” in our family.

Who are your heroes?

I have many heroes and folks that inspire me. Growing up my heroes were folks like Martin Luther King, Oprah, and Thurgood Marshall. I originally thought I would be a lawyer instead of an engineer, so I was very inspired by Thurgood Marshall. All of these role models played a significant role in terms of shaping my views of both leadership and social justice. Today I am most inspired by my daughter, Kai, and the many girls like her who attend our programs. These young tech divas are bright, driven, and passionate about technology, and I am certain that they will make a lasting impact on the future of technology.

What advice can you give to the next generation of geeky, nerdy girls?

Be bold and develop grit. Surviving in male-dominated fields is not an easy path for women and girls to take, but I believe very strongly that women and girls have so much to offer with our unique skills and talents. It’s important to be bold and take calculated risks in pursuing our “nerdy” and “geeky” passions, and of course to survive in the field a fair amount of grit is important too. 

6) Melinda Hartwig | Dreaming of Ancient Egypt

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Melinda Hartwig is an Egyptologist and associate professor at Georgia State University who specializes in the art history and archaeology of ancient Egypt. She curates and installs museum exhibits, directs archaeological digs in Egypt, and has appeared on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic as an expert on pyramids and Egyptian tombs.

“Someone will invariably ask if I’ve found anything like gold, and I tell them that happily, I have not,” she said. “If I did, my project would turn into a media circus. I work quietly and happily under the radar, documenting tombs and preserving them. And of course, I always publish my results or I would be no better than a tomb robber!”

What’s it like being a nerd?     

I’m completely engrossed in what I do, sometimes to the exclusion of the details of everyday life like shopping or doing laundry (my poor husband!). I’m a big-picture girl but often use the jargon of nerd. I am also an extroverted introvert, because I love explaining ancient Egypt to the public. But really, I am happiest alone, sitting in a tomb chapel working on an inscription or in front of my computer with a cup of coffee.

Who are your heroes?

I am always inspired by women of stature, women who took the road less traveled and didn’t give in to society’s idea of who they should be. But I also value women who balance their humanity with their ambition and smarts. And they need to be fun to drink with. In that group, I would put Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor, Helen Mirren, and those are the ones who are alive!

What advice can you give to the next generation of geeky, nerdy girls?

Follow what you love. Don’t listen to any negativity about you or your goals. Realize that you are your own best cheerleader and take time to celebrate the little victories along the way. Know the money will come eventually. And never, never, never give up.

7) Jillian Venters | Goth culture chronicler

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Jillian Venters is a mild-mannered technical writer/editor at her day job. But once she leaves the office, she is the lady who guides the Goth community through all kinds of manners crises. She runs Gothic Charm School, the related Tumblr and Twitter accounts, and even wrote a book about the conversations she has with the gothic community.

“I’m kind of this weird fairy god mother, auntie creature to a large community of goths online,” she said. “I try to give advice to goths or any other subculture types, because a lot of the big issues that alternative-lifestyle people have don’t narrowly fit into any one niche. It’s, ‘Help, I am slightly different from the norm, how do I deal with these problems?’

What’s it like being a geek?     

In my personal lexicon, geek is more towards the pop culture and gaming and having a wide breadth of interests that you want to talk to like-minded people about. I follow the paths of things that really appeal to me, which turns out to be lurid 19th century gothic literature and how it manifests in pop culture.

My parents really had no expectation that I was going to be a normal kid. My dad proudly talks about how he raised me to be his revenge upon society—my dad is old-school science-fiction fandom. When I was 10 and came home and said, “My friends are playing this game called Dungeons and Dragons.” Dad promptly went and got a set and we sat down and we did RPGs. It was great! So, being a geek also means not feeling you have to be defined by any gender-specific or culture-specific label or interest.

Who are your heroes?

Ray Bradbury. I kinda joke that Ray Bradbury is my patron saint, but he is my all-time favorite author. Everything I’ve ever read about him, every interview, he was genuinely a nice man. Just genuinely a sweetheart, was always kind to people he met, was always kind to fans. And was always upfront about, “These are the things that interest me, these are the things I want to write. Some other people don’t think that rocket ships or space ships are appropriate to write about, but whatever, I’m going to take my toy dinosaurs and go elsewhere.”

One of my other big idols is Miss Manners, Judith Martin, because she is just so common sense with an edge of snark but very kind. She’s one of those people who will give advice, but also be perfectly willing to say, “The question you asked is kind of ridiculous.” She’s another person who is unfailingly kind to fans, has always been really gracious to people. That’s a big thing for me.

What advice can you give to the next generation of geeky, nerdy girls?

The biggest piece of advice is the one my dad gave me when I was about 8 or 9 and started really noticing that the things I was interested in and the things that made me really excited were perhaps different than some of the other kids’. So dad sat me down and he said, “OK, you’re weird. There is nothing wrong with being weird. Be proud of it. Always embrace who you are. Don’t ever let anyone tell you you can’t be who you want to be or what you want to be. Because at the end of the day, the most important opinion about who you are is your own.” 

8) Anita Sengupta | Actual rocket scientist

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Anita Sengupta is the Cold Atom Laboratory project manager for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She is most famous for landing things on Mars.

“I did the parachute for (NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity). I land things on Mars. That’s kind of the opposite of rocket science because you use things to slow you down as opposed to speed you up.”

Her doctorate is in plasma physics. “That one’s closer to Star Trek, because when they say “ion drive” (on Star Trek) that’s what my Ph.D. is in,” Sengupta said. But what she’s doing at the Cold Atom Laboratory is hardest to explain to people outside NASA, she said. It’s atomic physics for the International Space Station. “When you get down to temperatures just at absolute zero, matter starts to behave instead of like particles, like billiard balls—like waves, like light does.”

What’s it like being a geek?     

I’m a huge science fiction fan. That’s actually the reason I got into what I’m doing because I was a massive Doctor Who and Star Trek fan when I was a little kid. I wanted to enable some kind of space exploration. That’s always been my life. My community of friends have always been people who loved science fiction. To me it’s completely normal, words like “geek” and “nerd” didn’t come into it because those were just my friends. When I find people who don’t like science fiction I’m like, “What’s wrong with you?”

Who are your heroes?

What amazed me about (Doctor Who) was that he was so intelligent … and could do anything and knew everything. The capacity to do be able to do anything and know everything was amazing, that was a good thing to strive for. And he was compassionate and everyone respected him. He was a nice person. I liked Spock and Data, too. Spock is from the original Star Trek and Data was from The Next Generation—what I watched growing up. I loved Data. I think I like characters who are tortured souls. Also because (Spock and Data are) so innocent and honest about everything, I have always tried to live my life that way as well.

What advice can you give to the next generation of geeky, nerdy girls?

I think the amazing thing, in terms of future careers—all of future career potential, best job prospects, stable income, good income, intellectually stimulating careers—they’re all in the technology sector. So whether your focus is aerospace like I did, or computers or planes, trains, motorcycles—high tech is where it’s at. So if you’re already wired for that, you’re setting yourself up for a great career path. So number one, go off and get your degree in engineering, computer science, or one of the hard sciences. I think it’s a good thing—it probably means that you’ll be really successful in life.

9) Karen Tanenbaum | Tinkerer of steampunk stories

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Programmer Karen Tanenbaum is working on a grant for developing a workshop to encourage STEM learning in young girls through playful, Maker-based activities. Her alter ego is that of steampunk wearables tinkerer, as half of the husband-and-wife duo Tanenbaum Fabrications. Deeply entrenched in both the Maker Faire and steampunk communities, Karen and her husband Josh create prop designs that center on the convergence of storytelling and technology. They even write academic papers about their steampunk gadgets.

“I think the exponential growth of the Maker movement and, on a smaller scale, Steampunk show that people have a keen urge to relate to technology in a different way,” she said. ”We want to take apart, reconfigure it, reinvent it.”

What’s it like being a geek?     

We actually named our website the Geek Movement (although we don’t update it any more). Being a geek is really to follow your passion. I think that more and more these days there’s a growing acceptance of that, that people are more into being weird and being a little unusual and being really excited about things. Everything from getting really deep into fandom to collecting things to making weird stuff. It’s being really into something and hopefully in a constructive way that allows you to create things, connect with people, and share that. It’s not that you’re weird and that drives you to be alone—it’s that you’re weird and you find other people to be weird with.

Who are your heroes?

There are some great female geek role models out there right now. For me the top two would be Limor Fried, who is the creator of Adafruit Industries, and she’s done a bunch of work on open-source hardware and software and technologies. And then on the more popular culture side of things, Felicia Day is one of those classic geek girls who goes out and does her weird stuff and is really inspiring about it.

What advice can you give to the next generation of geeky, nerdy girls?

The best thing you can do is one: Commit to your own passions. Don’t let people tell you those things aren’t interesting or cool. And then two: Do your best to find people who feel the same way. There are so many opportunities now to connect, online and through conventions and fairs and all these other kinds of things. Finding that group of people that you can share that with is what keeps you going.

10) Trachette Jackson | Unleashing the potential of math

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“I describe myself as a mathematical biologist who works in the area of computational cancer research,” said Trachette Jackson, an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Michigan and the codirector of the Mathematical Biology Research Group. (She was also the first African American woman to receive the Alfred P. Sloan Research Award in Mathematics in 2003.)

“I typically tell people that I use mathematical equations to describe how tumors grow and to optimize therapy,” she said. “Most people are surprised that mathematics can play role in answering such questions.”

What’s it like being a nerd?

I am definitely a bit of nerd in that I’m somewhat of an introvert and I can easily get caught up in thinking about my work. I really, truly enjoy solving mathematical problems—to me it’s fun!

Who are your heroes?

My heroes are all of the underrepresented minority mathematicians who paved the way for me. I work hard to do for others what their legacies have done for me.

What advice can you give to the next generation of geeky, nerdy girls?

My advice would be to embrace your true self!  Don’t hide your inner scientist/mathematician—let her out into the world and she won’t let you down!

11) Jenna Busch | Pop culture reorganizer

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Jenna Busch started her career in show biz as an actor. Then she was a makeup artist and later became an entertainment reporter and producer. She hosts the show Cocktails with Stan alongside Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee. She wrote two stories for the comic book anthology Womanthology, “Archetypes” (art by Elisa Feliz) and “Ladybird” (coauthored by Rachel Pandich and art by Janet Lee.) She currently writes about women in the entertainment and comics industries for a slew of influential pop culture outlets ranging from Blastr to the Huffington Post. She also founded Legion of Leia this year, a community-building endeavor that promotes female fans and supporters of female fans.

“Legion of Leia was in reaction to the announcement of the Star Wars (Episode VII) cast. There was only one new female and there were seven new men,” Busch said. “I didn’t want to just complain about it. I asked the community to use pictures of Princess Leia as their avatar for social media.” Hundreds of thousands of people did it, and a new geek hub was born.

What’s it like being a geek?

It’s funny, being a geek now is so different than what it was when I was a kid. I never had problem being a fan of geek things when I was little. I was a fan of Star Wars; none of my friends weren’t fans of Star Wars. But the older I got and the more I got into it, the more people seemed to be surprised by it. For me it’s about just about being a geek, it’s what it means to be a female geek. You get, “Oh, you don’t look like a geek,” or “You play video games? Really?” which is weird because 50 percent of gamers are women. They say, “Oh, you read comic books? You write comic books?” Same thing, 48 percent of comic book purchasers are women.

Who are your heroes?

My first entry into geekdom was Star Wars, but my second was a fantasy novel called Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey. I was probably too young to read all her books when I started reading them, but I did. I read everything that she wrote, and she did sci-fi and she did fantasy. She had a fantasy world that after many, many novels, became sci-fi. She blew my mind. When I was a little kid (there wasn’t Wikipedia, back in the olden days), but I did everything I could to find out more about her. I found out that when she started writing, there really were no other women doing it. She had gotten divorced, she had all these kids, she was a single mom, and she decided later in her life that she was going to start writing sci-fi and fantasy. I guess if you think about it, the fact that I’m on my third career probably says that I tried to follow her example.

What advice can you give to the next generation of geeky, nerdy girls?

First of all, don’t be afraid to change your path whenever you want to. And I don’t mean just changing careers, I mean taking leaps of faith. Even though you might fail, it’s really important to take them. The other advice, and this is really important now, especially with things like Gamergate and what’s happened recently—don’t stop talking about what you love and don’t stop talking about things that you think are wrong in the community… it would be so easy to run. I know there are definitely days where, after having to ban 27 people from my Facebook page that I think, “Why am I doing this again?” But it’s important.

When I go to conventions and somebody brings up their young son, they’ll say, “My son wouldn’t get the Guardians of the Galaxy T-shirt because Gamora wasn’t on it and he wanted the whole team.” Or, “I want my son to see that there are powerful women as well as powerful men.” I had a little girl tug on my leg when I was showing someone the comic book that I did, and she said, “Are you in that book?” and I said, “Yeah,” and she said, “Can I hug you?” Her mom said that she loved comic books, but she didn’t know that girls did that. So despite all of the things that are just false about females in the geek world right now, talking about it, making our voices heard is really important.

 

Illustration by J. Longo