We’re all familiar with the photo to our left. “Rosie the Riveter” was one of the weapons of World War II. While our men were off fighting, women back home left their kitchens and worked traditionally male jobs in factories. But there were “Secret Rosies,” too. And the more I read about them, the more I’ve come to respect their unheralded contribution to the war effort.
In 1942, a secret US military program was launched to recruit women to the war effort—female mathematicians who would become human “computers” for the army. The Rosies in the factories made the weapons; the female computers, the Secret Rosies, made them accurate.
These women worked in top-secret areas, which made it difficult for their actions to be publicized. One of the most significant areas of contribution was in mathematics. Large numbers of women trained in mathematics were recruited to do highly classified work in computing gunnery tables.
They did what we now would call number crunching and were largely unheralded, but their work was perhaps even more groundbreaking than those that used their muscles and were immortalized as Rosies, for it demonstrated that women were the intellectual equals of men, capable of being logical and precise.
Don’t ya love it?
In today's world we think of a computer as a thing, but back in World War II a computer was a person, and in many cases it was a woman.
My journey into awareness of these computers started with Ben, a World War II pilot, who sometimes comes to me at night, whispering to me about his girlfriend, Pearl, and would I tell her story. (No, I am not nuts, this is how my mind works. Or as Calvin would say, “I’m wired differently.”) When I asked Ben what made his Pearl so special, he just smiled and told me it was a secret.
One night Calvin downstreamed a video from Netflix about female computers. We were only 5 minutes into watching this PBS documentary made by Professor LeAnn Erickson when the gears clicked in my mind. Possibilities meshed. My heart rate kicked up. Ben’s Pearl was one of those computers! Not really, but don’t we often take a historical fact and run with it to create our stories? Thus, my research of those fascinating women began.
When the war ended, a small group of those women went on to be the first programmers of the original ENIAC computer, as well as the next generation of computers.
Unfortunately, once they did their initial work, they were ignored, not even receiving invitations to attend the party celebrating the initial success of the machine. So, what else is new? Their story is told in great detail in this video, which consists of images, newsreel video, narration and interviews with the women that did the job. The women clearly loved their work, deriving satisfaction from having made a significant contribution to the war effort as well as helping make technical breakthroughs.
Wouldn’t this story be of enormous value in courses in women’s studies, the history of computing and technology, the history of World War II, and the history of mathematics?
It is hard to overstate the significance of the contribution of these women to the Allied victory in World War II, a fact that few people are aware of. Lipstick wearing computers who left home and traveled to strange cities to use their brain power to help win the war. Female pioneers we can all take pride in. Thank you, “Secret Rosies.”