Today marks the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. The events of December 7, 1941 not only triggered US involvement in World War II, but also created opportunity for women to join a workforce that was previously dominated by men. In Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age, Kurt Beyer tells about the life of computer pioneer Grace Murray Hopper (1906–1992), who joined the Navy after Pearl Harbor, made herself "one of the boys" in Howard Aiken's wartime Computation Laboratory, and created the tools that would allow humans to communicate with computers in terms other than ones and zeroes. Grace's advance influenced all future programming and software design and laid the foundation for the development of user-friendly personal computers. Here's an excerpt from the book to commemorate both Pearl Harbor and Grace Hopper:
Anecdotes abound of the late Admiral Hopper, the majority highlighting her most lauded trait: irreverence bordering on insubordination. Nonetheless, the first 36 years of her life were marked by a certain amount of conventionality. In the 1920s it was not uncommon for privileged women from the Northeast to seek higher education. In fact, the percentage of women receiving doctorates in mathematics during the 1920s and the early 1930s was not achieved again until the 1980s. This reminds us that the history of women's emancipation in America has not been linear. Rather than steady progress, there have been waves of opportunity and retrenchment--for example, increasing opportunity in the 10 years after World War I, then retrenchment during the Depression. Hopper came of age during the 1920s, and both her public choices and her private ones coincided rather than conflicted with the desires of her family and her community.
The attack on Pearl Harbor and the ensuing mobilization created unprecedented career opportunities for women. The large-scale reorganization of labor opened a wide variety of occupations that before 7 December 1941 were reserved for men. The most iconic cultural image of this period, Rosie the Riveter, represented the millions of women who replaced men in the workforce as they deployed to Europe and the Pacific. Like millions of other women of her generation, Hopper benefited from this labor shift. And Pearl Harbor was a watershed in Grace Hopper's personal life as well as in her career. In the months following that fateful day, she divorced her husband, left a secure tenure-track position at Vassar College, and joined the Navy. She then became an officer in one of the most gendered organizations of its day. Her military rank endowed her with the external trappings of authority: uniform, title, privilege. Military rank, protocol, and tradition helped to neutralize societal prejudices agains women in positions of public responsibility.
The benefits of military rank were evident as newly minted Lieutenant (j.g.) Hopper was assigned to Commander Howard Aiken's Harvard Computation Laboratory during the war. Aiken, a difficult man who would be classified as a "male chauvinist" by today's standards, found a kinship with Hopper not because she was a rebel but because of her ability to ingratiate herself to Aiken and her fellow workers. Of course she was a talented mathematician and computer programmer, but more importantly she was loyal to her boss and helped to organize and control his laboratory. She actively erased gender differences through her clothing, her language, her drinking habits, and her humor, gaining the trust and respect of Aiken and her peers to the point that she became the most prominent person in the Harvard Computation Laboratory apart from the fiery Aiken.