- Historic Sites
In a top-secret program, talented, young female mathematicians calculated the artillery and bomb trajectories that American GIs used to win World War II
Fall 2011 | Volume 61, Issue 2
Nowhere is this discounting of the women's contributions more evident than in the photographs that were used to publicize ENIAC. The first public photo appearing in the New York Times was a wide shot, showing both men and women working on the machine at various panels throughout the enormous computing room. Yet when the photograph was reprinted elsewhere, the women were usually cropped out. This was most obvious in an Army recruiting ad that appeared in various magazines later in 1946. Calling for "men with aptitude for scientific work" and extolling ENIAC as a prime example of "many amazing Army devices," the ad featured a heavily cropped version of the original Times photo, with only a single man shown working at a control panel. The message was clear: women need not apply; computers are for men.
Ensmenger and other historians cite "old-school sexism" for this prejudice. The disregard for women also signaled the beginning of the evolution of computer programming from a relatively unskilled clerical, "feminized" activity to a more technically skilled, supposedly more "masculine" pursuit. "Early computer programmers were women and were imagined to be fairly low skilled," Ensmenger observed. "But today, if you were to think about a computer programmer, at least that kind of stereotype would be almost exclusively male, a male of a very particular type"—the classic nerd with pocket protector and thick glasses. That stereotype developed slowly over the 1950s and 1960s. "I do think that, although people like Eckert and Mauchly probably recognized the women to a certain degree, at this point they still saw what they did as primarily clerical." To those with this perception, inviting the women to a celebratory dinner or anniversary celebration for ENIAC would be "like inviting the janitorial staff." And even the nature of early computing technology itself helped to perpetuate such unique in that it was programmed like a switchboard," Ensmenger continued. "It looked like a switchboard. [The programmers] looked like telephone operators, which by that period is completely feminized. So in a funny way, if it had looked different, it might have been thought of differently."
Because their story has lurked in the shadows until now, historians and others are still debating the ultimate influence of the Rosies on younger generations. But their contributions in World War II and to postwar computer science are clear. "I think they certainly showed that women were capable of doing science and making contributions to technology, which was, in terms of the 20th century, a real question for women," said historian Kathy Peiss of the University of Pennsylvania.
The Rosie the Riveters in the factories and war plants may have built the planes, tanks, and guns, but it was the math-savvy, top-secret, white-collar Rosies of the PCS who helped make it possible for those weapons to win the war.