Queens of Code

By Joy Rankin

The television series Silicon Valley has been reaping critical and comic acclaim but it gets the portrayal – and history – of women in computing all wrong.  In the series pilot, nearly all the women we see are beautiful women-as-accessories clustered together as a party celebrating a successful start-up. One of the software programmer stars even comments on this segregation of men and women, underscoring the idea that in Silicon Valley, men do things: create companies, write software, secure venture capital, and deliver speeches. In this Silicon Valley, women carefully tend to their appearances and gossip. One of the few women with a speaking role in the first season, Monica, appears mainly to encourage and nurture one of the man programmers. She’s a lovely helpmate. Silicon Valley (and The Social Network and many popular books on the history of Silicon Valley) would have us believe that women and computing generally do not – and have not mixed. Let’s set the record straight.
 
Some of our most pervasive cultural stereotypes about computing and gender emerged during the rise of personal computing followed by the meteoric growth of the Internet. In 1992, Robert Cringely spun the story of Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can't Get a Date. Cringely gleefully documented the oddball personalities of the men – always men – of Silicon Valley: Steve JobsSteve WozniakBill Gates, and others he deemed visionary. Cringely reached an even wider audience when he partnered with PBS to create the series Triumph of the Nerds, profiling these men. The journalist Steve Levy also celebrated his male subjects as nerdy eccentrics in his popular 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Cringely and Levy delineated a Silicon Valley, and by extension, a history of postwar American computing, in which all the brainiacs were men, precisely at the time when computing became mainstream.
 
Yet, during the 1980s, women’s participation in computing professions and computer science degrees reached around 40%. In other words, nearly half of the people working in computing or studying computer science during the 1980s were women, a number that had been steadily climbing since World War II. The historian Jennifer Light called attention to this longer history of women in computing in her oft-cited 1999 article “When Computers Were Women.” Light documented the critical role that women had played in creating the ENIAC, America’s first electronic computer.
 
To understand how women worked in computing during World War II, we need to investigate the era to which Light refers in her title: when computers were, in fact, women. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as industrialization, immigration, and urbanization transformed the United States and Europe, the need for large-scale mathematical computation exploded.  Governments, businesses, and burgeoning fields of scientific research all required many, many iterations of basic arithmetic computations in their work.  People were organized, often according to the principles of division of labor and mass production, in order to accomplish all of this computation.  And those people were most often women. Women computers vitally contributed to American society from the Progressive Era through World War II.
 
The war effort fostered the development of the modern electronic computer – in an obscure laboratory at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. By early 1942, the Moore School engaged hundreds of women computers to produce “firing tables” for the multifarious types of artillery being used in the war. Thinking back to high school physics and thought experiments, recall that if you are firing a weapon and aiming for a distant target, you do not fire directly at the target. Rather, you aim slightly above the target so the bullet moves in a parabolic trajectory. In the case of a WWII weapon, with a range of a mile or so, using guesswork or rule of thumb to aim would have been nearly impossible. Instead, the gunner had a firing table in the form of a pocket-sized booklet. A typical firing table contained data for around 3000 trajectories – the computation for which occupied a hundred-strong calculating team of women for a month.
 
The Moore School professor John Mauchly proposed to speed up these calculations by building an electronic digital computer to perform them. Mauchly’s wife, Mary, instructed the women computers working on the ballistics tables, so John was keenly aware of the sea of numbers in which the organization was beginning to drown. In 1943, Mauchly and his colleague John Presper Eckert received a contract from the Army to build the ENIAC: the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer.  And the Army recruited a team of six women to program the ENIAC.
 
As the historian Janet Abbate argues in Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing, the women programmers of the ENIAC performed complex and creative computing work. And, just as importantly, women continued to work in computing from the war era through the 1980s, but “these women’s experiences and contributions were forgotten all too quickly” (p1).
 
Light’s 1999 article appeared as computing gained widespread cultural significance and the history of computing expanded as a discipline, and it stimulated additional scholarship on the women of computing.  For example, the historian Kurt Beyer produced a biography of computer programmer Grace Hopper.  Hopper, a US Navy rear admiral, contributed to computing during a rich career that encompassed programming the Harvard Mark I computer and fostering programming languages like COBOL. Ada Lovelace, who collaborated with Charles Babbage on his work on calculating engines during the nineteenth century, has been another popular figure for such scholarship.
 
Yet by spotlighting a few women as “pioneers,” these histories have conveyed the notion that the presence of women in science and technology has always been unusual, which is inaccurate – of course. In response to such scholarship, Abbate invoked Charlotte Bunch and Mary Hunt’s notion that it is not enough to merely “add women and stir” to the history of computing (p5).  Indeed, the writers of the television show Silicon Valley can be criticized for their “add women and stir” approach to the series. After the lamentable lack of women during the first season, the pilot of the second season introduced a handful of other women in key roles, but they largely fell away after that episode.
 
Now, scholars have begun to consider the ways in which computing has been gendered, such as the scholars who contributed essays to the book Gender Codes.  For example, Thomas Haigh documents the different jobs associated with data processing from the 1950s through the 1980s, observing that women occupied the low-status positions of keypunch operator and computer operator, in the typical form of pink-collar clerical work. In his monograph The Computer Boys Take Over, Nathan Ensmenger argues that the professionalization of computer science also entailed making the profession masculine, while Marie Hicks makes a similar argument about programming in 1960s Great Britain.
 
Women have been computing for over a century, and they have been integral to the field. Moreover, the intersection of gender and computing has been complex. Our scholarship has begun addressing this. It’s time popular culture did, too.
 
Further reading:
David Alan Grier, When Computers Were Human

Thomas J. Misa, ed., Gender Codes: Why Women Are Leaving Computing


Joy Rankin is a historian of computing, community, and gender. She studies the textures of digitization in daily life since World War II. Rankin earned her PhD in History from Yale University in 2015. She will soon be an assistant professor at Michigan State University, jointly appointed at Lyman Briggs College and James Madison College. Rankin's book project, Authoring the Digital Age, examines education and the origins of America's digital culture. Her dissertation, “Personal Computing before Personal Computers,” earned recognition and support with the IEEE Life Members’ Fellowship in Electrical History, the Adelle and Erwin Tomash Fellowship in the History of Information Technology, and the Yale University Dissertation Fellowship. Rankin's other projects include a digital exhibit of the biographies and geographies of American computing, a history of democracy and technology during the intertwined rights and protest movements of the long 1960s, and a novel about Denmark's Golden Age. Joy can be contacted at joyrankin.com or on Twitter at @JoyMLRankin.