“Man of the Year”
Mary V. Judge
Isn’t it ironic that the first award in computer science was titled “Man of the Year” and it went to a woman? I’d say not only ironic, but sad. Ironic in the obvious assumption, that only a man would possess the intelligence and capabilities to contribute to computer science and sad, that in 1969 this biased assumption was woven tightly into our cultural, historic and personal fabric.
When asked if“Man of the Year” offended her, Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper responded in her hell-no fashion and said she took it to mean “mankind”. Her feathers were rarely ruffled when faced with adversity, in fact it often invigorated her.
In 1941, Hopper, unsatisfied with her life as a professor at Vassar, responded to the national call-to-action ignited by the attack on Pearl Harbor. Being too old and underweight, by naval standards, she was persistent and found a way in.
She joined WAVES - Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service and began a career resulting in major contributions, not just for the Navy, but for all “mankind”.
WWII was a war of science and women in mathematics were hired to hand calculate ballistic trajectory tables. Their titles in the Navy were “Computers” and the time it took them to calculate were quantified as “Girl Hours”. You might say that Hopper got in the computer science industry on the ground floor, but having worked on the first computer, there were no other floors. There were no manuals. There were no standards. She was second in command. Although her commanding officer and others met her with shock and dismay (that she was female), Hoppers competence, unique skills, dedication, and military rank leveled the gender bias.
There is a freeing quality about the military; you don’t have to think about what to wear, what to eat or keeping a house, you do your job. This was a perfect environment for Hopper to flourish.
She was assigned a secret project at Harvard on the Mark I – the automatic calculator. “Gee, that’s the prettiest gadget I’ve ever seen,” said Hopper in an interview. This was not an exaggeration . Standing 51’ long, 8’ wide and 8’ tall the piece of machinery was massive and the day she showed up to work the large cover was off and the inner workings of thousands switches, relays and knobs were exposed. She could walk inside of it.
As a girl she loved dismantling alarm clocks to figure out how they worked. Fortunately, for her, innovation and exploration were encouraged in her home. She grew up in a loving, upper-middle class household in New York City. Her mother, having grown up in a similar privileged and intellectual environment herself, was very intelligent, mathematically trained, articulate and outspoken especially on world politics. She told her children that in her day it was unthought of for a girl to go onto college, but she was determined to have her 2 daughters do just that.
Grace’s father was also educated and ran a thriving insurance business. Due to a heart illness, both of his legs were amputated. It was through his physical struggles and the realization that his life expectancy was shortened (from poor circulation), he was insistent that his daughters went to college to instill the tools needed to become independent and self-sufficient.
Grace would be the exception to the rule for women of her era. But WWII did create many exceptions and unique opportunities, especially for women. The U.S. kicked into full on military mode and nearly everyone played their part. As millions of men joined the armed services, enormous opportunities opened up to women in fields that previously were billed as men’s work. Women became scientists, engineers, and held jobs in manufacturing despite the previous popular conception that they were too weak to build things. Women built aircraft, warships and tanks, they excelled in scientific and technical fields and were paid well.
Grace Murray Hopper and a handful of other women found their unique niche in the military with their mathematical training, as most females in the armed forces took rank in clerical or medical roles as nurses.
But what happened to millions of women when millions of men returned home ? They were fired or asked to leave. Most of the jobs for women that remained were considered“Pink Collar”; waitresses, secretaries and other clerical jobs that paid much less. Or they could get married, become a homemaker, and have babies.
Having consciously traded marriage and family for her career, the prospect of not doing what she loved sent Hopper into a deep depression after the war. She drank excessively. Family and friends stepped in and dissuaded her from suicide and helped her to stop drinking. And until she reenlisted in the Navy did she see purpose in her life. As the civilian tech world was quickly harboring a men’s fraternity type culture, the military once again shielded Hopper from the sexism growing stronger as Madison Avenue, Hollywood and TV were promoting women to stay at home.
Along with the civilian men such as; mechanics, scientists and workers in various fields of production focused on fending off our future enemies, Hopper became a Cold War “Warrior” within the Navy.
Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was a rare and unique example of women of her time. To get more insight into the cultural atmosphere of the era I turn to my family.
I asked my mother who was about 20 years old when the war ended, what she remembers of women leaving their jobs after the war, she said, “ Yes, they left because they had to AND there was a great sense of guilt amongst woman that they had the veteran’s jobs. And don’t forget, men also had opportunities to go to college after the war, most of whom wouldn’t have been able to before. That furthered their advancement in society.” After hearing this, it becomes clearer to me how this sort of national pride or duty set us up for decades of sexist propaganda and the mindset of “keeping women in their place”.
In my eyes, my parents were exemplary byproducts of WWII. During the war in the Navy, my father became a obstetrician and gynecologist. He said, “I wanted a field that dealt with the beginning of life rather than the end.” and he did just that. In fact, I often think that my father’s 55 year career was a contributing factor to the post-war baby boom having delivered over 10,000 babies.
When I asked my mother what she had hoped to become as she entered adulthood, her response to me spoke volumes, “I wanted to marry a lawyer and Mary Kelly (her best friend) wanted to marry a doctor. We aspired to marry the man with the job we wished for. There were very few examples of women in those jobs. The closest we could get was through our husband…sad.”
For college, my mother attended the Garland School of Homemaking in Boston. The aim of the school was to equip young women to become efficient homemakers. Along with meal preparation, sewing and household management, they also offered classes in the arts. Like military standards of dress and decorum, each student of Garland must always present themselves in a “lady-like” manner. She recounts, “during a music appreciation class, the teacher, a strict Yankee type, spotted my girdle-free back through the slats of my chair and reprimanded me for not wearing one.” My mother probably weighed 110 pounds, so girdles weren’t just to pull a figure in, it was expected bondage, the rules of a proper woman.
I was happy to hear that she did have one “free-spirited” art teacher who took her under her wing. “I forget her name, but I assume she was married. She was the first person I had met with a hyphenated last name. She’d accompany me to the soldiers home in Chelsea (Massachusetts), where we’d teach soldiers to paint on silk. I loved it. I also did an internship at the Gilchrist department store. I’d deliver things to the advertising department where women were drawing the ads for the clothes. I still think things looks so much better drawn than photographed, gorgeous… They offered me a job, but I hadn’t graduated yet, so I had to decline.” She graduated from Garland in 1946 and received a gold pin in the shape of, ready for this… a broom!
Fortunately, after her 6th child entered school, my mother went back to college and on to receive a masters degree. She became a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker and enjoyed her career for decades.
I feel lucky to have been born into a time when women were fighting their way back to freedom, but unfortunately we’re not there yet. You’d think that since the first computer science award went to a woman, that women would have established a foothold in the industry. Like my mother not having female doctors or lawyers as role models, it seems that leaders in tech world are mostly men and more women are sorely needed.
In 2014, 8,000 women attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computer Science. This is a positive turnout, but the reality is that the gender bias against women in computer related fields is taking away opportunities. The percentage of women in technology is shrinking and the establishment of more laws and legislation for gender equality in the workplace is needed and they need to be enforced.
More and more articles are appearing on the misogynistic culture in Silicon Valley. In February 2015, a Stanford computer science major, Lea Coligado wrote on Fortune.com, “As I progressed further in my track, taking upper-level courses, I watched the number of girls in my CS classes slowly dwindle to the point that I could count 20 girls in a 100-person class on a good day (and two of them would just turn out to be men with long hair). And I began noticing all the inklings of sexism, something I’d previously thought of as media folklore.” She recounts an example: a male classmate’s jawed dropped when another guy told him he spent his summer internship at Facebook and exclaimed that he must be really smart to have nabbed that one. But when Coligado responded that she too had an internship at Facebook , this is what he said, “Oh… well then, I should have applied for that internship.”
“I was floored.” said Coligado, “What did he mean by that? Why would he react so differently? I didn’t even know (him) well, so what about me could possibly make my internship at Facebook suddenly seem like a giveaway, a charity case?” Since that moment she became aware of the presence of sexism in the field. She has been told “girls don’t code because they’re, you know, artsier”. She became self-conscious that wearing dresses in a sea of tees and jeans worn by male counterparts and her high-pitch timbered voice lead to not being heard or taken seriously in meetings. With perseverance and help from mentors, she has risen above the crippling effects of discrimination and has launched a blog, Women of Silicon Valley, which features female role models in tech.
The fight for gender equality continues and the irony of Hopper’s 1969 Man of the Year award is a troubling reminder that not much has changed.
About my piece:
In 1969, the Man of the Year award in computer science, the very first of its’ kind, was awarded to the intelligent, witty and charming woman, Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper.
Upon this ship-shaped piece of reclaimed antique hickory flooring, I place her image to debug the metaphorical moths caught in the relays of the male oriented cultural machine.
I play off of the Arturo Vega’s Ramones’ logo design and the No Girls Allowed clubhouse sign. To me, Hopper was a punk who rocked our world forever. Like a song reduced to three basic chords, she hacked what was once only understood by mathematicians and simplified code into a universal language allowing access to the masses.
Key punched holes, decode her military achievements that began when she joined the U.S. Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. As a mathematical wiz she joined WAVES - Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service and set sail on a what would be a revolutionary voyage, not just for her, the Navy, women, but for all.
When she didn’t have what she needed to get the job done, she took it. She placed a pirate flag on her desk while working at the Pentagon and her motto was “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission”.
As teacher and salesperson, leader and mentor, she knew how to use visuals and props to represent difficult concepts. She often doled out 11.8 inches of telephone wire to audiences or a questioning General, to demonstrate the distance light/electricity travels in a billionth of a second — a nanosecond — the speed of computer performance at the time.
Yes, Grace Hopper was a triumphant female figure and is recognized as such. An annual conference for women in computer science is held in her namesake, a Navy guided missile destroyer is named after her and billions of lines of code come into our lives daily due to Hopper’s contribution to technology.
It’s no exaggeration that our life would look, feel and be so very different if it weren’t for the passion, persistence and brilliance of our fearless Amazing Grace. Hopper was not the norm of her time, but her tenacity and freak-of-nature career are examples to us all that not only can the barriers of sexism be broken down, but we all benefit when they are.
My image is a reminder that women have pirated their way to the front lines of success, that the fight for gender equality continues and as a society we can not keep half of our greatest resource girdled. “Take what we need and ask permission later”, should not be our motto. Opportunity and attaining what we need to succeed should not be based on gender. It’s not a feminist issue, it’s an issue for all “mankind”.
In July of 2015, my art and essay were published in "Who's Afraid of Feminism?", a catalogue by the Women's Caucus for Art. It has a vast and amazing collection of works by women centered around this question. The catalogue can be purchased on Amazon by clicking here Women's Caucus for Art or viewed on ISSUU.com published by Karen Gutfreund by following this link http://issuu.com/karengutfreund/docs/whos_afraid_of_feminism_for_issuu