Although the Abbess of Quedinburg, shown in this picture lived in medieval times, she had the right to sit and vote at national assemblies in Medieval Germany. Centuries later most European women were still not allowed that basic right. Meanwhile, in North America, Marie Guyart, a French nun wrote in 1645 that women of the Iroquois tribe could serve as chieftains and vote in councils. Why was it that women in countries that today we would call “the developed countries” had to struggle so long to get the vote?
Many of the reasons for opposing suffrage for women were more about money and property than about individual rights. During much of the 19th century married women could not own property, so they would not be eligible to vote in many countries. There were some suggestions that spinsters and windows who did have property might vote, but that would anger all the men who were not allowed to cast a ballot. Even in 2014, male voters are considered more reliable defenders of property rights while women have a deplorable tendency to vote for social programs. Fox news commentators in recent weeks have been quoted as saying that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote—a feeling that is surely held by many enthusiastic Republicans. We usually talk about votes for women as a purely individual, social benefit, but feelings about it are just as often motivated by economic interests as social ones.
For almost 200 years American women, along with women from many other countries, have been fighting for the right to vote. Susan B. Anthony wanted to vote in 1872 and was tried and found guilty of breaking the law. Here are some of her responses to the judge at her trial;
As a matter of outward form the defendant was asked if she had anything to say why the sentence of the court should not be pronounced upon her.
“Yes, your honor,” replied Miss Anthony, “I have many things to say. My every right, constitutional, civil, political and judicial has been tramped upon. I have not only had no jury of my peers, but I have had no jury at all.”
Court—”Sit down Miss Anthony. I cannot allow you to argue the question.”
Miss Anthony—”I shall not sit down. I will not lose my only chance to speak.”
Court—”You have been tried, Miss Anthony, by the forms of law, and my decision has been rendered by law.”
Miss Anthony—”Yes, but laws made by men, under a government of men, interpreted by men and for the benefit of men. The only chance women have for justice in this country is to violate the law, as I have done, and as I shall continue to do,” and she struck her hand heavily on the table in emphasis of what she said. “Does your honor suppose that we obeyed the infamous fugitive slave law which forbade to give a cup of cold water to a slave fleeing from his master? I tell you we did not obey it; we fed him and clothed him, and sent him on his way to Canada. So shall we trample all unjust laws under foot. I do not ask the clemency of the court. I came into it to get justice, having failed in this, I demand the full rigors of the law.”
Court—”The sentence of the court is $100 fine and the costs of the prosecution.”
Miss Anthony—”I have no money to pay with, but am $10,000 in debt.”
Court—”You are not ordered to stand committed till it is paid.”
Matilda Joslyn Gage to Editor, 20 June 1873, Kansas Leavenworth Times, 3 July 1873, SBA scrapbook 6, Rare Books, Library of Congress
Anthony’s arguments may impress us in 2014, but they did not help to change the law. It was more than forty years later that women in the United States were given the right to vote.
You might think that with all the effort that went into gaining the right to vote, women would flock to the polls but that hasn’t always happened. Voter turnout is still a major issue in the United States, where fewer citizens vote than in many other countries. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, in 2012, during an important presidential election, only 63.7% of eligible women and 59.8% of eligible men reported that they had voted. What can we expect in a non-presidential year like 2014?
The Abbess of Quedinburg and the Iroquois chieftains of earlier centuries would look on in wonder if they knew how carelessly we treat voting.
As for poor Susan B. Anthony, she must be weeping for the failures of her example to inspire us today.
October is not only the month of Halloween and Oktoberfest it is also the month when the tech world holds its annual Grace Hopper Celebration, an event worth celebrating. You may not have heard of the Grace Hopper Celebration, you may not even have heard of Grace Hopper, but her legacy probably affects the way you work every day. Perhaps it should be called the Day of the Bug because one of Grace Hopper’s best known achievements was to introduce the word “bug” as the name for a
glitch in computer software. The picture at the right shows the original bug which was foolish enough to wander into one of the early massive computers developed during the 1940s. The bug died, the computer glitch was fixed, but the term lives on.
When Grace Hopper was born in 1906 in New York City, probably no one was thinking about computers. The word “computer”, if it was used at all, meant a person who did a lot of arithmetic. Grace Hopper, or Grace Murray as she was then, was a good student and she liked arithmetic. At Vassar she majored in Mathematics and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. She earned an MA and eventually a PhD in mathematics at Yale, even though math was considered a man’s field and she had very little encouragement. Eventually she became a professor at Vassar (significantly, a women’s college) and married a professor from New York University.
Everything changed for most Americans when the country entered World War II in 1941. Women, as well as men, were encouraged to join in the war effort and Grace Hopper joined the Naval Reserve. She worked on the development of early
computers at Harvard and later moved on to private companies which entered the field during the postwar years. But she always maintained her status with the Navy and eventually became a Rear Admiral. During the last decade of her life, before her death at the age of 83, she served as a public relations spokesperson for the Navy and the tech industry.
The early computer machines developed were meant to make arithmetic easier, faster, and more accurate. Most of the early computer scientists concentrated on the hardware to make computers work faster and to make them less cumbersome. In the early days a computer was about the size of a room, and the room had to be air conditioned to keep the machine from overheating.
Grace Hopper recognized that software was as important as hardware and that programmers were as essential as engineers in computer development. She realized that computers could be widely used in business if they were made more user-friendly and could be programmed in a language more understandable to human beings. She developed the first compiler program and worked on COBOL, which used language closer to English than to machine language. COBOL was hugely popular and was the basis for much of the growth of computer use in business as well as education and government institutions.
Despite Grace Hopper’s importance in early computer work, her legacy did not lead to an influx of women into the tech industry. During the Grace Hopper Celebration of 2014, many people commented on the shortage of women in the largest tech companies. Google, Apple, Facebook all of the best-known companies, suffer from a lack of women on their staff. This is odd when we consider that women are heavy users of computers especially for online shopping, gaming, and social media. Now that computers are fully integrated into all facets of our lives including art, music, and social life it’s hard to see why more women don’t enter the field.
Perhaps we could be more inspired to go into work with computers if we learned more about leaders like Grace Hopper. There is a good biography of her by Kurt W. Beyer called Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age (2012) that you may be able to find in your local library. A new book by Walter Isaacson, The Innovators, covers many of the early leaders including Hopper. I haven’t seen that one yet, but it’s likely to become a best seller like his biography of Steve Jobs and may be a great introduction to Grace Hopper’s world.