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net.wars: Sung heroines

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 26 March 2010


There are more of them than you think; there are fewer of them than there should be. We are talking, of course, about geek girls. Er: women in science and technology. No – not me! Ada Lovelace.

Wendy M Grossman

To be sure, there are some benefits to being one of only a few women. Being a woman at a geek conference means never having to stand in a line to use the bathroom.

Not long after I started working as a technology journalist, a friend at MIT commented to me in passing that the early computer programmers were women. By then it was the 1990s and the predominant image of anyone doing anything with computers was male. So women in technology have a long, if hidden history. There may not be an overlooked Rosalind Franklin for every Crick and Watson, but there are definitely enough to write home about.

Wednesday was, by the style and grace of Suw Charman-Anderson (founding director of the Open Rights Group and social media consultant), Ada Lovelace Day, an effort to get everyone to blog about the women they admired in science and technology to highlight the contributions of women to science and technology. (I like Buffy, the Vampire Slayer as much as the next person, but I still don't think the very fictional Buffy Summers and Willow Rosenberg qualify as "women in science and technology". Perspective, folks!)

My favorite among the blog postings I've read is the story of the poster's grandmother, Jean Valentine, one of a group of women assigned to help work on the Bombe, Alan Turing's world war-winning crypto-cracking project at Bletchley Park, where she is now a tour guide (and probably being told more technical detail about the work she did than she was allowed to know at the time!).

There are, of course, many science and technology women I know but didn't see listed. Here are a few.

Rebecca Mercuri published her doctoral dissertation on electronic voting in 2000, about six months before the whole chad debacle the following November.

Susan Landau was for many years a Distinguished Engineer at Sun; she is author of several books on the inner workings and history of wiretapping and other privacy issues, and has a long list of awards and honors. And, years before Ada Lovelace's birthday became a thing, she founded ResearcHers, a mailing list for women computer science researchers and co-created the ACM-W Athena lectures to celebrate women researchers.

 One woman worth mentioning who did make it onto several people's blogs is Hedy Lamarr, who besides her career as a movie star (of which she memorably commented that anyone can look glamorous if she stands still and looks stupid) was co-inventor of frequency hopping, a technique used to encrypt radio signals. It was her contribution to the war effort and is used now by the mobile phone industry. You have to be really smart to know how to look that glamorous. The EFF granted her a Pioneer Award in 1997.

Amy Bruckman works on education through designing online communities. In her Ada Lovelace Day blog post she talks about the expanding range of women in her classes.

For a lawyer Lilian Edwards is pretty geeky.

Ellen Ullman is a former software engineer, essayist, and author whose books ought to be required reading for anyone, male or female, working in technology. In Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents she talks about the way the cold, discrete logic of computer systems changes their owners and specifiers, removing human compromise and understanding. In The Bug she charts the inner life of a programmer who spends a year trying to resolve a single bug in a program. Both are excellent.

Also not on anyone's list, I think, is the math teacher I had in junior high school, Nancy Rosenberg. In the interstices of teaching geometry and trigonometry, she introduced us to the work of Martin Gardner, whose mathematical games she loved (for years, my father and I played Nim on placemats in restaurants while waiting for food).

She had ideas for cartoons that today would be huge hit on YouTube to illustrate geometrical concepts. She was funny, smart, direct, and forthright, and talked about whatever was exercising her most at the time.

She once stopped whatever she was supposed to be teaching us, swore us all to secrecy, and proceeded to read us the first chapter of the book she was reading because she thought it was so screamingly funny. The book was Portnoy's Complaint.

In my entire school career, I had only three teachers who really made a difference in my life; Rosenberg's was probably the most significant, since she got me interested in math and science and directed me to Gardner, who was of key importance in leading me to the skeptics. Not exactly a heroine, because for one thing I think she would have found that ridiculous. But an excellent teacher and the kind of geek girl who makes a lot more geek girls.

Happy belated Ada Lovelace Day.

[What about Commander Grace Hopper?  Inventor of Cobol? - Ed]


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).