In deference to Emily’s excellent essay, and the exciting project she’s shared with us, I have only a short report from the pop culture front lines. Recently, I came across a few posts on Reddit about Margaret Hamilton, who worked on the Apollo project as a programmer and software engineer at MIT’s Instrumentation Laboratory. In her capacity as Director of Apollo On-Board Software, Hamilton is credited with innovations in software that ultimately prevented the famous Program Alarm abort that could have prevented the first lunar landing. This accomplishment is the subject of a post about Hamilton in the subreddit r/TodayILearned. In the r/feminism subreddit, a picture of a young Hamilton with a stack of computer printouts is captioned “Margaret hamilton, recognized by NASA as one of the Founders of American Computer Science". It was also posted to the large subreddit r/pics, and enjoyed a good deal of discussion in both threads. By contrast, the only comment when it was posted to r/feminism was a clarification and additional information posted by the OP. This is typical for reddit. r/TodayILearned and r/pics both have more than 7 million subscribers, while r/feminism has about 40,000.
It strikes me that what we’re seeing when this type of thing is posted to a forum and discussed (and debated) is a little snapshot of the creation of historical myth. Redditors are not exactly known for reading up on things before commenting on them, so the general tenor of discussion is a mix of reaction, emotion, and bad puns. But this is where it’s happening, where the ‘facts’ are shaved down or discarded, and opinions are made and molded. For the vast majority of people, who are still fun at parties, this is where and how history is discussed and historical memory is cemented. Margaret Hamilton and her accomplishments at NASA are added to one’s historical memory of the space program and the history of computer science. And this is the cloud of memory and hearsay and Wikipedia fragments that we confront when we present historical scholarship to a popular audience. If we as historians want to change the way people think about the past, we should pay attention to the way they are thinking about it now.
A picture of Hamilton was posted in r/oldschoolcool, which is just what it sounds like and is a warm and fuzzy sub for nostalgia and romanticism. In order for Hamilton to become an icon, or someone’s hero, she must be thought of as such, something that the context of r/oldschoolcool encourages. We also have to think of her career as something cool. As Emily has noted, engineering and computer science were not easy careers for women to access in the 1960’s, at least not as program directors or lead software architects. Hamilton is definitely unusual in that her career at NASA was high-profile, and her life is well-documented. This is not the case for most of the women who worked on Apollo, especially those who weren’t involved in the individual authorship of certain accomplishments. In order to be Old School Cool, women in history had to be involved with something that was respected by the male establishment, in this case science and engineering. They also had to be the ‘first’, or the ‘only’ in order to distinguish themselves, something that male engineers at NASA don’t necessarily have to be in order for us to find them cool or interesting.
In r/pics, the top comment reads “Wish women like this were role models, not that tw*t kardashian..” This one makes me particularly angry, because it’s part of a trend that blames women for not being interested in female role models that meet some standard of interesting or cool that is usually set by men. If only women would get on board with the things that matter to men! They’d be so much better off! This becomes especially important for those of us interested in science and technology as those fields accumulate more and more cultural clout. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t edit a newsletter called Lady Science if it wasn’t important to me to recover and document the stories of women involved with science and technology, but I also know that part of that process is explaining why women have been excluded from these fields, and why women today might feel alienated from science and technology. The systemic exclusion of women from science and technology is a completely explainable historical phenomenon that has little or nothing to do with women just not being interested, and much more to do with them not being allowed to participate. We should also be wary of the underlying mood of scientism that pervades these discussions. Not being interested or involved with science and technology doesn’t make someone an unsuitable role model, and not being a role model at all doesn’t make someone less of an individual, or less worthy of respect or historical consideration. Think of all the men who have long, lavish historiographies that are definitely not role models or scientists.
Finally, (and I understand that this is low-hanging fruit) buried at the bottom of a Margaret Hamilton thread on the women’s subreddit r/twoxchromasome is a frustrating string of comments (that are probably just from a troll, but I can’t not mention it) about the unfairness of lauding Margaret Hamilton over the hundreds of other, unnamed men who worked alongside her. After picking my face up off my desk, I can only really say that this kind of thinking is why work like Emily’s is so important. In seeking to understand the larger context of civil rights and how it plays out in highly gendered workplaces like NASA, we can better explain why someone like Hamilton was unusual, and how the social structures of the 1960s operated, something that certainly affected her and her male coworkers.
Read about the experiences of women computer scientists who did a Q&A on Reddit. Extreme bummer warning.