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  • When Computers Were Women
  • Jennifer S. Light (bio)

J. Presper Eckert and John W. Mauchly, household names in the history of computing, developed America’s first electronic computer, ENIAC, to automate ballistics computations during World War II. These two talented engineers dominate the story as it is usually told, but they hardly worked alone. Nearly two hundred young women, both civilian and military, worked on the project as human “computers,” performing ballistics computations during the war. Six of them were selected to program a machine that, ironically, would take their name and replace them, a machine whose technical expertise would become vastly more celebrated than their own. 1

The omission of women from the history of computer science perpetuates misconceptions of women as uninterested or incapable in the field. This article retells the history of ENIAC’s “invention” with special focus on the female technicians whom existing computer histories have rendered invisible. In particular, it examines how the job of programmer, perceived in recent years as masculine work, originated as feminized clerical labor. The story presents an apparent paradox. It suggests that women were somehow hidden during this stage of computer history while the wartime popular press trumpeted just the opposite—that women were breaking into traditionally male occupations within science, technology, and engineering. [End Page 455] A closer look at this literature explicates the paradox by revealing widespread ambivalence about women’s work. While celebrating women’s presence, wartime writing minimized the complexities of their actual work. While describing the difficulty of their tasks, it classified their occupations as subprofessional. While showcasing them in formerly male occupations, it celebrated their work for its femininity. Despite the complexities—and often pathbreaking aspects—of the work women performed, they rarely received credit for innovation or invention.

The story of ENIAC’s female computers supports Ruth Milkman’s thesis of an “idiom of sex-typing” during World War II—that the rationale explaining why women performed certain jobs contradicted the actual sexual division of labor. 2 Following her lead, I will compare the actual contributions of these women with their media image. Prewar labor patterns in scientific and clerical occupations significantly influenced the way women with mathematical training were assigned to jobs, what kinds of work they did, and how contemporary media regarded (or failed to regard) this work. This article suggests why previous accounts of computer history did not portray women as significant and argues for a reappraisal of their contributions. 3

Women in Wartime

Wartime literature characterized World War II as a momentous event in the history of women’s employment. In 1943 Wartime Opportunities for Women proclaimed, “It’s a Woman’s World!” 4 Such accounts hailed unprecedented employment opportunities as men were recruited for combat positions. New military and civilian women’s organizations such as the Army’s Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC, converted to full military status in 1943 and renamed the Women’s Army Corps [WAC]), the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), and the American Women’s Voluntary Services (AWVS) channeled women into a variety of jobs. The press emphasized the role of machines in war and urged [End Page 456] women with mechanical knowledge to “make use of it to the best possible purpose.” 5 Wartime Opportunities for Women urged: “In this most technical of all wars, science in action is a prime necessity. Engineering is science in action. It takes what the creative mind behind pure science has to offer and builds toward a new engine, product or process.” 6 According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau: “The need for women engineers and scientists is growing both in industry and government. . . . Women are being offered scientific and engineering jobs where formerly men were preferred. Now is the time to consider your job in science and engineering. There are no limitations on your opportunities. . . . In looking at the war job opportunities in science and engineering, you will find that the slogan there as elsewhere is ‘WOMEN WANTED!’” 7

A multiplicity of books and pamphlets published by the U.S. War Department and the Department of Labor, with such titles as Women in War, American Women...