The second world war ushered in a whole new dynamic for the working woman. We’ve all seen the posters of Rosie the Riveter. It is quite commonly known that after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, in 1941, women began to take over the jobs that had previously been only available to male workers. The many new manufacturing plants that opened to accommodate the enormous need for war-related materials were largely worked by women. Since then, I think a high percentage of the general population–myself included–have created a stereotype for the working woman of the era based on that factory breakthrough. Why is that? One would think, that while we’re so wrapped up in the way women helped run the factories, and “oh my gosh, just think of the doorways this opened for female workers” we wouldn’t be quite so astonished that they also took over a healthy portion of the complex engineering and mathematical work field, previously dominated by men.
I don’t think we’re quite so advanced and open-minded as we might like to believe. In reality, all jobs factory related or otherwise, were affected by the shortage of men at home. Women took up the engineering and mathematical jobs just like they took up factory jobs.
In 1942, shortly after the American entry to the war, a need arose for human “computers” to do very complex ballistic calculations. The electronic calculators of the era were bulky and unreliable, and needed to be backed up by actual human brains. According to the documentary I am soooo fascinated by, the U. S. military launched a quiet, semi-secretive program to recruit women to the war effort. These women would work non-stop to create ballistics tables for the troops abroad. Towards the end of 2nd World War, a few of the women were chosen to help program one of the very first actual computers.
The sad thing is that until recently, most of their work was forgotten. These women did ground-breaking work with electronics. The things they accomplished with ENIAC (Electronic Numeric Integrator And Computer) had never been done before. They really were pioneers in the field, and it’s a shame that they aren’t particularly remembered for it.
I’m not sure why this fascinates me so much. Besides the fact that it’s history… and about the second world war… and has great potential for the background of a historical novel… and is just an awesome story to research in general. I guess it’s these quirky, little-known facts that make me love history so much. Every time we form stereotypes about how things were, there’s another little story that makes a little chink in it.
***If you get a chance I highly recommend watching the documentary
Top Secret Rosies: Female Computers in WWII ***