When I was ten years old, I decided I wanted to grow up and be the first woman president of the United States. My teachers encouraged girls with all the stories about how women, having finally achieved the vote, and having served in so
many capacities in World War II, were destined to be leaders just as men were. And we had great role models in Rosalind Russell and Katherine Hepburn who portrayed strong, capable women in the movies. Somehow my life didn’t turn out that way and neither did the life of any other woman of my generation. Now, more than half a century later, we are still waiting to see the first female president.
I remembered those optimistic feelings when I read Gail Collins’s thought-provoking column in today’s New York Times about “Hillary in History”. Collins goes through the list of women who have come close to the presidency or attempted to reach it, starting with Victoria Woodhull in 1872. who I have written about in this blog. There have been other contenders over the years, including Shirley Chisholm and
Margaret Chase Smith, but none was ever taken as seriously as Hillary Clinton. Millions of women will be cheered by her victory if she wins—cheered perhaps even if they don’t agree with all of her positions and policies. It’s wonderful to think that at last a woman is being taken very seriously as a potential threat to the old-boy network that has run the country, and the world, for so long.
An yet, nothing is perfect. When President Obama was elected in 2008, the media and many of us ordinary citizens engaged in an orgy of celebration. With an African American in the White House, we must surely have seen the end of racism in the country. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, has it? We still have to struggle with the everyday racism that affects so many Americans despite the great achievements of individuals members of minority groups.
No doubt it will be the same with women. If Hillary takes over the White House, we can expect she will have the successes and failures that all presidents have encountered. There will not be a sudden rise of women to executive positions in the top corporations; Silicon Valley firms will still hire more men than women; and media commentators will still believe it’s appropriate to critique a woman’s fashion choices instead of her policy statements when she gives a speech.
Golda Meir was one of the most powerful leaders of Israel and Margaret Thatcher one of the notable British leaders of recent years, but as we look at the pictures of powerful leaders in Israel and England today, the women are notably absent (except for Scotland, of course, which carries on its independent ways). The election of Hillary Clinton will not change the entire fabric of women’s position in society, but if it happens, it will be an important step toward the eventual goal of having every individual given a fair and equal place in the world.
Meanwhile be sure to read Gail Collins’s column!
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.
Two of the best-known women in history are the Egyptian Cleopatra and Catherine the Great of Russia. Both have been portrayed frequently in popular culture and are known to many non-historians as well as scholars although both lived centuries ago. And even though both of them spent most of their time and efforts on ruling large and tumultuous countries, they are both remembered primarily for the men they had sex with. Their two recent biographers have had to point out that neither of them was as promiscuous as the male rulers of their times and later.
Cleopatra is one of the few rulers of ancient Egypt whose name is still widely known. She has been celebrated in stories and art for century, yet she is almost always remembered as part of a couple. Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” gave way to George Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra” and a series of other efforts. Even the movie “Cleopatra” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, which finally let her dominate the title, treated the monarch as a lovestruck woman. Furthermore, that movie had a lasting impact on American culture by making the glamorous Taylor the permanent face of the less-beautiful but more powerful real Cleopatra.
Now Cleopatra has become for many people a glamorous figure suitable to be impersonated in Halloween costumes and dramatized in plays for children, but never really taken seriously. The transformation of this powerful ruler into just another femme fatale began soon after her death. As her biographer Stacy Schiff writes: “It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life.”
For anyone who would like to get a reasonable idea of what Cleopatra was like and the story behind her misrepresented life, read Stacy Schiff’s great biography, Cleopatra, available in every public library I’m sure, and also from most bookstores.
Another woman I’ve been reading about recently who suffers from the same problem is Catherine the Great of Russia. Although she was born a German girl named Sophia and became the wife of the heir to the Russian throne almost by accident, she dedicated her life to improving her adopted country. Starting with changing her name to Catherine and her religion to the Russian Orthodox Church, Catherine studied the Russian language and history. Although she was saddled with a mean-spirited and somewhat stupid husband, she seized control of her life and of the country she had adopted.
Her husband, Peter III, had none of her love of Russia and instead tried to follow the model of Prussian military rule. He enraged his own subjects so much that no one complained much when Catherine helped to overthrow him and take the throne for herself. It was a wise move. Catherine was an intellectual who read and corresponded with some of the leading thinkers of Europe. She introduced modern enlightenment into the rigid Russian society, although even she could not completely change the pattern of serfdom and the stubborn resistance of provincial landowners.
Catherine reigned for more than thirty years and changed the country dramatically. Besides introducing Western ideas and developing closer ties with other European countries, she also extended the country to the East. It was during her reign that Russia began to explore Alaska and to establish a presence there. Yet, what is she remembered for in popular culture? It’s mostly for her lovers who helped her politically and made her personal life endurable. They were certainly close colleague and some of them were important political allies, but Catherine’s achievements didn’t depend on them.
Male monarchs are seldom defined by their lovers, but female rulers are. Anyone who reads Robert Massie’s recent biography Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman will come to understand how much more there is to know about her.
Perhaps as we enter this Mother’s Day weekend we ought to think about not only loving the mothers in our lives but looking at them as the individuals they are. Partners and children are an important part of most women’s lives, but they are not the only thing. If we love and respect our mothers, our spouses, and our daughters, we should look at them as individuals and not define them only in their relationships with the men in their lives. Cleopatra and Catherine the Great are not typical women, but they are emblematic of the problem of viewing women solely through the lens of their emotions. We certainly owe all women more than that.