What if history was written by women?

24 Jul 2018

Zoe Philpott hosts her Ada’s Army workshop at the Inspirefest Fringe. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Zoe Philpott wants to rewrite history to include the missing, forgotten women – and she’s building an army to do it.

“I’m an interactive storyteller. That means I tell stories using technology,” explained Zoe Philpott as she took to the Inspirefest main stage for a second time.

Philpott’s first appearance was a triple threat in 2016, when she presented her work weaving performance art into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), joined a panel discussion on STEAM and, at the Inspirefest Fringe festival, performed her one-woman show, Ada.Ada.Ada.

Performing as Ada Lovelace in a period costume packed with LEDs, Philpott tells the story of how the first computer program was written before computers as we know them even existed. As well as controlling the twinkling LEDs with a special glove, Philpott makes this show come alive by tying the audience into the action with a very simple technology: a length of string.

The purpose of Ada.Ada.Ada is to inspire – particularly, to inspire young women to see a place for them in making the history of STEM just like Lovelace, even if her name is widely forgotten.

Lovelace is just one of many women of sci-tech history whose story is lesser-known than their male peers. For fellow Inspirefest speaker Taylor Denise Richardson, her inspiration was Dr Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space.

Philpott recognised that, while Lovelace is a great role model for some young women, there are more role models to be uncovered who are better suited to others.

“How are we going to get all of these women out there to be role models?” asked Philpott. “What if history were written by women?”

Philpott went on to explain the skewed view that comes through our history books. “The bulk of history was written exclusively by men, and so our culture is full of unconscious bias … We don’t realise just how many things are just male-oriented. We know it, but we still don’t realise it.”

That said, she admits that flipping the script for a women-only history would only introduce new biases. Instead, Philpott wants us all to collaborate, to become ‘Ada’s Army’ and partner in rewriting a history that is inclusive and can reach people through various media and artforms.

This is Philpott’s next project. She asked the Inspirefest audience to help her by suggesting their Lovelaces and Jemisons for the spotlight – a “missing woman” whose story needs to be told. Following the main-stage call to action, Philpott gathered her troops at a Fringe event the following night. Armed with markers, flipcharts and, of course, string, she began weaving together the threads of this new history and her new performance.

As Philpott explained in her keynote, Ada’s Army is still very early in its creative development. Using the language of Silicon Valley, she framed this as an iterative process where the early work in progress is her MVP (minimum viable product) or prototype.

We were given the chance at Inspirefest to help this project along, and the conversation continues.

“If we all get together and start updating history and create an inclusive history, we can own our future,” Philpott concluded.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2019 are available now.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.