Judith Milhon: Hacking on the edges of polite computing society

The stereotype of 1980s hackers is that they were isolated young men with a penchant for mischief. But can we learn more about the origins of American techno-culture if we search for hackers that were women?

This story explores the career and activism of Judith Milhon or “St. Jude” (1939–2003), a self-proclaimed hacker, programmer, journalist, and cyberpunk from the era of time-share computing and early PCs.

Beyond a passing reference by journalists, Milhon’s life has not been well studied. However, she was a fascinating advocate for technology and free speech who believed in equal rights, freedom of expression, and the emerging benefits of online computing. Milhon had deep roots in American counterculture, moving from marches in Montgomery to work on early Unix, to articles advocating for sexual freedom, recreational drug use, and the latest trends in cyberculture. Her struggles and successes show us much about gender stereotyping and computing on the margins of society.

Judith Behling police photo, Montgomery Police Department, 1965. Courtesy Alabama Department of Archives and History. (Individuals Active in Civil Disturbances, Vol. 1.)

Hacking the System

Many Americans learned about hacking by watching War Games, the 1983 techno-thriller staring Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy. But hackers have been observed since at least the 1960s, when they were recognized for reconfiguring systems, devising clever tricks, or subverting security protocols. In sociological terms, hackers and cyberpunks tend to inhabit marginal positions in technical communities. They respond to, and protest against, the dominant social, technical, and economic structures that emerge as computing gains momentum in society.

In 1984, Steven Levy wrote that hacking had become a label of derision in the U.S., implying unprofessional or illegal activity. In Hackers, Levy hoped to restore the label as a badge of honor, suggesting that true hackers cultivate a philosophy of sharing, decentralization, and social improvement. Levy’s rebranding didn’t stick, however, and hacking has remained a pejorative term up to the present. Of the hackers that have been studied, most are white and male. Hackers that are women almost never appear in popular narratives or history books.

Activism and Civil Rights

Judith Elaine Milhon was born on March 12, 1939 in Anderson, Indiana. She attended schools in Indiana and married Robert A. Behling in 1961, taking his last name. Attracted to the nascent countercultural movement, Judith Behling moved near Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and established a communal household there with her husband, young daughter, and a growing collection of friends.

Antioch had long been associated with abolitionist movements and social action, and in the mid-1960s it drew activists, intellectuals, and “hippies” from across the region. In March 1965, Behling and her friends decided to engage more directly with the civil rights struggle, and they participated with Martin Luther King, Jr in the landmark voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

The protests gained momentum, and in the following month Behling was arrested for trespassing in Montgomery. On her intake form Judith was listed as a “housewife” from Yellow Springs, Ohio. Judith was interesting enough to the authorities that her mug shot and personal details were recorded in a Montgomery Police Department book compiled for local law enforcement officials (Individuals Active in Civil Disturbances, 1965). A little later, Behling was arrested for civil disobedience in Jackson, Mississippi, and after this arrest she served jail time.

Behling’s run-ins with the authorities greatly influenced her views on society and they solidified her reputation as an advocate for civil rights and free speech. The arrests also made her wary of public photographs, and for this reason it is hard to find many images of her in archival materials or the records of computer companies. (I spent a week at the impressive Computer History Museum looking.)

Behling started programming in 1967 after reading a book on FORTRAN, like many self-taught programmers from her era. After learning the basics, she took a job as a programmer for the vending machine firm Horn & Hardart in New York City.

Horn & Hardart ran the popular Automat restaurants that dispensed pie, coffee, and hot food through coin-operated vending machines. The firm was computerizing their systems and Behling learned about their hardware, software, and data processing operations — valuable skills during the burgeoning era of corporate computing.

In 1968, Behling moved to the San Francisco Bay Area with her daughter and long-time friend, Efrem Lipkin. Judith separated from her husband and a divorce was granted by California courts in 1970. After this, Judith went by the name of Jude Milhon. Soon after arriving in California, Milhon worked at Berkeley Computer Company (BCC), an outgrowth of Project Genie, and she helped to implement the communications controller of the BCC timesharing system.

Milhon thrived in Berkeley and soon met other people who shared her interests. During the Summer of 1968, Milhon met Lee Felsenstein, a local engineer and long-time political activist, and Milhon soon introduced Felsenstein to Efrem Lipkin. In 1971, the three partnered with other local activists at Project One, a high-tech commune in San Francisco that occupied space in an abandoned candy warehouse.

Although Project One was organized into several fascinating subgroups, Milhon, Felsenstein, and Lipkin were attracted to Resource One, a venture designed to build a people’s computing center using an old Scientific Data Systems 940 time-sharing computer. Their goal was to create the region’s first public computerized bulletin board system (BBS). Jude Milhon was not the only female programmer in the group. Another self-described hacker and activist was Pam Hart, a woman featured along with other Resource One volunteers in a 1972 Rolling Stone article written by iconic publisher Stewart Brand.

In 1973, a subset of the Resource One group broke away and partnered to launch the Community Memory project in Berkeley, a social networking experiment highlighted in early histories of computing. By using a teleprinter and simple commands, novice users could compose short messages, associate them with keywords, and post them to the system for others to see. During the 14-month trial period in 1973–1974, about 8,000 total entries were made on two public terminals. The service functioned as a pre-Web social network, a proto-Craigslist of the 1970s and 80s.

Community Memory terminal in Leopold’s Records, Berkeley, California (1974). This was one of two early terminals used during the Community Memory trial program in 1973–74. Courtesy Computer History Museum.

Jude Milhon was excited about Community Memory and its goals, but she was suspicious of hierarchy and she particularly disliked the male stereotypes associated with engineers and hackers in the Bay Area. Milhon once remarked after visiting a Home Brew Computer Club meeting in 1975 that there was a conspicuous lack of female hardware hackers, and that it was frustrating to see the male hacker obsession with technological play and power.

In the coming years, Milhon worked on BSD, a Unix-based operating system developed by the Computer Systems Research Group at UC Berkeley. There she worked with a range of Unix features and tools. When the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) formed in 1983, Milhon joined the group and shared their concern about the potential use of computers in warfare. Of major interest to CPSR was the U.S. government’s support for the Strategic Defense Initiative — the so-called “Star Wars” missile shield project.

Milhon turned to journalism as an outlet for her ideas about computing and activism. In the mid-1980s, she contributed to the magazine High Frontiers, founded in 1984 by Ken Goffman, a skilled editor and writer who used the pseudonym “R. U. Sirius” in print. The magazine was based in San Francisco and it had a strongly counterculture orientation. For example, it creatively explored the local fringe community on topics related to technology, drugs, sex, and social issues.

In 1988, the magazine changed its name to Reality Hackers, a title that more clearly emphasized the growing synthesis among programming, hacking, and psychedelic cultures. Milhon formally joined the magazine as Editor-in-Chief, taking the pseudonym “St. Jude” to emulate the public posture of the leading editors and contributors. In 1989, the magazine reorganized, changed its name to Mondo 2000, and St. Jude became an associate editor and contributor of interviews and essays. She also spent a lot of time hacking in the emerging online world of modems, bulletin boards, and personal computers.

Mondo 2000 and The Cyberpunk Handbook

Mondo 2000 was an astonishing publication for its era, helping to give birth to a creative expression called cyberpunk culture, a futuristic, science fiction aesthetic that interposed hacking, high technology, drug use, sex, and goth sensibilities.

The magazine editors described their content mashup as “a tale of early digital culture, drugs, sex, surrealism, gonzo anthropology, death, digital culture, media hype, conspiracy paranoia, celebrities, transhumanism, irresponsible journalism, appropriation, hackers, pranks, theft, fun and desktop publishing.”

Regular contributors to the magazine included science fiction writers and cultural critics like William Gibson, Timothy Leary, Maerian Morris, and Robert Anton Wilson. The vivid design and literary format of Mondo 2000 contributed to the aesthetic that would eventually find popular expression in Wired magazine, which debuted in 1993 and featured some of the same writers.

St. Jude’s contributions to Mondo 2000 were significant. She was a regular interviewer of high-tech personalities and theorists, gathering opinions about what seemed new and interesting in high-tech counterculture.

Her byline acknowledged her formative influence on the hacker communities of the 1970s and 1980s. It also mentioned that she had worked as a physician’s assistant in the Bay Area, part of her interest in health care that stretched back to the early 70s.

She soon became Managing Editor and began a regular column entitled “Irresponsible Journalism,” which became her most recognizable platform. The segment presented her evolving ideas on cyberpunk culture, sexuality, health care, and technology.

In 1995, St. Jude co-authored a book with longtime magazine collaborators Ken Goffman and Bart Nagel entitled The Cyberpunk Handbook. This compendium was a kind of visual almanac for cyberpunk culture, an aesthetic that included science fiction, goth fashion, leftist politics, drug culture, and other anti-establishment norms.

Unlike early hacker treatises, The Cyberpunk Handbook contained few insights about cracking corporate portals or telecommunication hubs. Instead, the book described the language and visual imagery of the new subculture, including chapters about new terminology, cyberpunk fashion, establishing an online persona, and essential books, films, and video games.

Through photographs and illustrations, the authors presented model forms of cyberpunk dress as a “semiosis of black leather, chrome, mirrorshades, and modems.” [188] Ramen noodles and Jolt Cola were recommended as “the haqr [sic] staffs of life.” [66] The first commercial browsers of the Internet era were also downgraded as disappointing “four-star hotels that will likely kill true hacking.”

Instead, the authors recommend Unix (St. Jude’s preferred operating system), where true cyberpunks were welcomed into hacker culture via “a dark endless maze of catwalks and mantraps, an eternal hard-hat area that kills the foolish and shelters the brave.” [72]

Gender appears as a fluid category in The Cyberpunk Handbook, where the authors portray a range of styles and behaviors that might — or might not — differentiate male and female cyberpunks. Occasionally these schemes worked to undermine or intermingle established stereotypes.

For example, women and girls were prominently featured in photographs, often wearing gothic clothing with visible piercings, jewelry, lit cigarettes, and an assortment of high-tech gear. The 90s tech displayed included flip phones, modems, headsets, iconic “laser pointers”, and lots of programming books.

Although sexuality is discussed overtly, the authors hinted that they were self-censoring true cyberpunk culture because Random House would not permit more revealing content.

Sometimes the recommended outfits were gender inclusive. For example, “all sexes should wear a Victorian shirt-blouse — white or black only — that gapes to show flesh. You must practice looking tormented, tall and thin.” [30] Girls and women were described with pliable language, such as alternative capitalizations and eclectic spellings for common words.

For example, the term “Riot Grrrls,” is used to describe “fierce girls who like tech.” The authors also conceded, “This is a sexist category, but there we are: girls only. A grrl can be called ‘d00d’ and ‘guy’ at all times, but a non-female guy is not a grrrl. This is just the way things are.” [31]

Female empowerment was one clear goal. However, promiscuity and open sexuality was also a part of the culture, which cultivated a fusion between 1960s counterculture values and the punk rock norms of a new generation. The mashup of attitudes is expressed in the following statement:

“If you’re a grrrl, you can wear anything you want to, because you’re there to defend it… NOTHING is more attractive than a fierce, blazing, ninja-type grrrl right now, and if she knows UNIX or phone-freeking, the world is hers. Hrrrs.”

To the Margins and Back

Judith Milhon died in 2003 from complications relating to cancer. She was a gifted software developer, writer, editor, and tinkerer, fusing together diverse interests in technology, publishing, media, and social activism. During long stretches of her career, “St. Jude” referred to herself using pseudonyms and the terms hacker, cyberpunk, and cypherpunk.

Although the activities of Milhon are unique to her time and interests, we can learn a lot about the structure of America’s technical communities by studying the lives of hackers like St. Jude. The 1980s is a fruitful period for this work, as computing grew from a niche engineering practice into a ubiquitous technology that influenced many aspects of life.

Hackers mirror the anxieties of mainstream computer users, pointing out who holds status and who is being pushed to the margins. Hackers that were women became especially problematic for polite society, because men held most of the computing jobs, academic posts, and university degrees in computing. A hacker like St. Jude presented a unique threat to conservative, masculine values. But hackers and cyberpunks were not just threatening outsiders. Mainstream society also found them interesting and alluring. Even those holding down the “center” read articles in Mondo 2000 and Wired, and they found the content fascinating.

Judith Milhon’s liminal role as an editor is especially important in this context. She offered glimpses of a forbidden space where programming, sex, drugs, and a range of identities could coexist— a vision not accepted by the general public. Hackers are indispensable for polite society. The center and periphery exist in relationship as two sides of the same coin.

Michael J. Halvorson, Ph.D., is Benson Family Chair of Business and Economic History at Pacific Lutheran University. He lives in Seattle and is the author of Code Nation: Personal Computing and the Learn to Program Movement in America (2020).

Michael J. Halvorson, Ph.D. is Benson Family Chair of Business and Economic History at Pacific Lutheran University. He lives in Seattle.