Far from being “hidden figures,” women have been working in computing since the earliest days of the new field. Unlike their male counterparts, however, they’ve often faced gender bias and discrimination in their own families, schools, and the workplace when pursuing their interest in mathematics, science, engineering, and technology. But they’ve always been there, in plain sight, for those who look for them.
Meet some amazing women from across the decades who share moments of their lives in computing and technology—from childhood to college, from their first job with computers through the ups and downs of their careers, and to the wisdom that comes with success, failure, and time.
An early interest in math, science, solving problems, and sports—particularly baseball—are recurring themes in the oral histories of tech-minded women. But American culture in the 1930s, ’40s, 50’s and beyond did not often portray women as mathematicians and scientists. Early computers were the domain of the government, large corporations . . . and men.
Girls were steered toward careers as teachers or nurses, but sometimes family members or a special mentor encouraged them to pursue their interest in math or science.
“We were all good in math in my family. So the fact that I was good in math wasn’t particularly noted,” says Jean. What was noted was her youthful talent as a pitcher. She remembers:
“I was quite a star. So there used to be stories about me in the newspaper. And when I would go to town with my mother, people would stop me on the street, particularly men, and tell me what I’d done wrong in the last game and how I should do things.”
Born Elizabeth (Betty) Jean Jennings in 1924, Jean was one of the original six programmers for the ENIAC computer and thus one of the first computer programmers in the world. She’s on the left in this photo.
Born in 1925, Evelyn became interested in physics when she started reading her older brother’s Astounding Science magazines and science fiction books from the library. She says:
“I remember going to my science teacher in junior high and asking him about something I had read. It was the idea that when something goes very fast, close to the speed of light, it gets smaller in the direction of the movement (the Lorentz contraction). So I asked him about this, and he said, ‘Oh no, that’s not science. They’re making it up.'”
But after graduating from high school at 15, Evelyn went to college and learned her teacher had been wrong. She later earned an additional degree in physics and became a renowned computer designer.
Margaret was born in 1936, and math was her favorite subject. She says, “What I did not like was Home Ec, because girls were supposed to take it.”
Margaret became a computer programmer and led the software team that put men on the moon. In this iconic photo, she’s standing beside a tower of printouts of Apollo Guidance Computer source code.
Women interested in math, science, and engineering often faced the bias of male professors or constricting college rules when they sought out higher education in the fields they cared about. Some of their fellow female students seemed to be more focused on finding a husband than on getting a degree, according to computer scientist Phyllis Fox, who attended Wellesley in the 1940s.
Lois Britton, cofounder of the iconic Whole Earth Catalog, loved to take things apart to see how they worked, but she decided not to pursue a career in engineering in the 1960s.
Lois earned a degree in math. Other women got creative about overcoming barriers.
Ann’s college advisor in the 1950s was the chair of the chemistry department, but he wouldn’t let her major in it. He said, “Women in advanced chemistry labs are too distracting.” She came up with an ingenious way to get the education she wanted.
Ann went on to develop pioneering time-sharing software that made it easier for students (and professionals) to use computers for their work.
Growing up in Soviet Armenia, Joanna decided to be a physicist at the age of five when she read a biography of Enrico Fermi. After emigrating to the US, she switched high schools so she could study physics, and she went to MIT in the 1970s. She says:
“At MIT, I just felt free to be whatever and however I wanted to be. And I was like a kid in a candy store. I wanted to take every class.”
Joanna became friends with the students who hung around Marvin Minsky’s storied artificial intelligence lab, learning from them “by osmosis.” She went on to become a key member of the Macintosh team at Apple.
As they entered the workforce, young women who had earned degrees in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—gravitated toward jobs that would allow them to use their knowledge. And, they fell in love . . . with computers. But even when that sector was new, they faced sexism and bias.
Sometimes, however, new technology provided new opportunities for women—to learn skills, to start businesses, and to imagine different ways to communicate.
Ann passed IBM’s Programmer Aptitude Test in 1956 and was hired as a System Service Girl, today’s System Engineer. Located on a busy corner in Manhattan, the company had set up a new 705 computer in the window so people could see what a computer looked like. Ann remembers:
“Now, the good news about being a woman—[for] once, there was good news—is that they wanted to make it look easy to use a computer. And so, the women got to do all their debugging and testing on the 705 downstairs. And since there were almost no women in the class, we really had great access. For being on display in the window.”
Check out items from the collection to see an IBM brochure for the 705, Ann’s full oral history, CHM’s extensive collection of 705 materials, and a 1968 NCR programmer’s test. Could you have passed?
Known as “St. Jude,” Jude was born in 1939 and became a self-taught programmer and advocate for civil rights and women in computing. In 1973, she and other hackers created Community Memory in Berkeley, California, a computerized bulletin board that was one of the first public computer network systems. Anyone could post messages on the terminal, which was connected to a mainframe timeshared computer.
The counterculture saw computers as tools in service to corporate and government power. Providing everyday people with access to the machines was a radical act.
Explore Community Memory in the CHM collection below.
The Center posted hours when it was open to the public. See a group of snapshots of people using and involved with the Community Memory project from cofounder Lee Felsenstein in the collection.
Connected to a mainframe the collective owned in San Francisco, the Community Memory service offered bulletin boards, messages, classified ads, and more. Some were online extensions of the physical bulletin boards that were an institution at the hip record store in Berkeley where the terminal was located. Musicians quickly adapted to the machine to post information about concerts, sell instruments, and connect, and others soon followed.
See more images of the terminal.
Inside this plastic bottle are dozens of folded sheets of paper with messages written on them about the future or predictions of the future, suggesting it may have been set up as a time capsule. On the side is a paper label with the “brain” diagram and logo of the Community Memory Project of Berkeley.
The sign lays out the goals of the Community Memory project, which included adding and reading messages, exchanging information and making connections through the computer in an age before social media.
Jude was committed to using her technical and writing skills to encourage women to join the male-dominated world of computing. “Girls need modems!” was the catchphrase for her ongoing campaign to get women involved in technology.
Learn more about the decal.
In the early 1980s, Mary combined two of her own interests to show people how to use their personal computers, like the Apple II, for managing their gardens. Her Landscaper software selected all the right plants, and for people who didn’t have a green thumb it promised to save time and eliminate costly mistakes.
By 1986, Mary’s software was called CompGarden and she was producing a newsletter, The Online Gardener, to field questions about gardening programs and covering topics like “Tracking Insect Activity Using a Home Computer.”
As they explored their roles as engineers and computer scientists, women in tech experienced the highs and lows of daily work life. They forged their paths in a sexist culture that often devalued women even as they joined the workforce in greater numbers.
Sometimes women found that the best way to meet their potential was to start an entirely new company.
By 1960, Evelyn had extensive experience with computers. Working at Teleregister, she had designed an airline reservation system, one of the largest computer systems at the time, as well as the first computerized banking system. When she applied for a job at the New York Stock Exchange, she was hired immediately. But she never worked there. Evelyn recalls:
“The Stock Exchange Manager called me a few weeks later, and said, ‘I need to talk to you.’ . . . And he said that the Board said that they could not hire me. Why? At the time, I was probably one of the very few people in the world who could do this job. And he said to me, ‘They said that you’re a woman, you’d have to be on the stock market floor from time to time. And the language of the floor is not for a woman’s ears.’”
At the age of 45, knowing she wouldn’t go anywhere at Teleregister, Evelyn founded Redactron in 1969 and made herself president.
Hired by IBM in 1959, Fran became an expert in optimizing compilers. She was assigned to work on Harvest, a code-breaking project for the National Security Administration (NSA) on the Stretch computer. Fran worked with a program called Alpha, and her assignment was to write the acceptance test for it. She says:
“I knew that I couldn’t leave Fort Meade until that was done and I dreaded it for the whole year I was there.”
Fran was at Fort Meade during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. She remembers all the computer printers draped with black cloth so people couldn’t see what was going on and there were Marines everywhere.
After finding out her salary was less than half that of the men she was training, Ann left IBM in 1966 and took a job at a new company called Tymshare. Although she wrote the code for their time-sharing computer, her boss believed her husband was behind her success and hired him as a manager. They also gave her fewer stock options than male employees because “it would be immoral to tempt a woman to continue to work instead of stay home and have children.” Ironically, when she had just given birth to her daughter, Ann recalls:
“And by three o’clock the next afternoon, I’m still lying in the hospital. Dave calls. Dave Schmidt calls. He said, ‘Our best customer has one more feature they want in the operating system. Could I bring a terminal over?'”
Ann eventually became the first woman vice president of Tymshare. When it was bought in 1984, she left to found KeyLogic and then Agorics.
See the above image of a young woman working on a Tymshare terminal in the collection.
Margaret started working at MIT in 1959. From there, she went on to key positions in important government research projects. She was one of the few women who worked with the machines that were largely a mystery to the general public. Her career vividly illustrates the uses to which computers were put during the Cold War.
Margaret wrote weather-prediction software on the LGP-30 for MIT meteorology professor Edward Lorenz, who used her work in the development of chaos theory and the “butterfly effect.” She remembers:
“I hadn’t really been near a computer before. He had an LGP-30 in his office. And he had at least two PhD’s if not three. Neither—none of them I should say—was in the field of computers and programming and software, but he loved that computer. And he taught me everything he knew about the LGP-30.”
Margaret also used a DEC PDP-1 in Marvin Minsky’s Project MAC lab at MIT. She’d work there at night among the hackers. Once, her program was not working, and she was convinced the computer and not her software was the problem. She says:
“So anyway, it turned out it was the hardware and the hackers had done something to the hardware in the middle of the night and they changed it . . . They now credit me with catching them in the act and they they weren’t allowed to do whatever it was they did anymore.”
CHM has a rich collection of materials on the PDP-1.
Margaret needed to make more money, so she applied for a job at Lincoln Labs. She remembers her interview:
“This person, he said to me, ‘We’re really interested in having an interview,’ he said, ‘But please forgive me.’ He said, ‘But I’ve only interviewed men and I do interviews in my hotel room and I can’t do that with you because you’re a girl.’ He said, ‘Would it be okay if we had an interview at the bar in the hotel?’ I said, ‘Sure, that’s fine.’ So we had a drink while I had this interview and I was hired.
At Lincoln Labs, Margaret worked on the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) Project, writing software for the prototype AN/FSQ-7 computer (the XD-1), which was used by the US Air Force to search for enemy aircraft.
The image shows SAGE operation codes.
By 1965, Margaret was in charge of all Apollo command module software for navigation and lunar landing guidance for the space missions. One of her fixes averted disaster for Apollo 8. Margaret relates how it came about:
“But this is the one where we were running simulations, they were hardware simulations, and I used to bring my daughter in to work nights and weekends, and she would see me pretending I was the astronaut and running a mission. I would pretend I was doing what they did, so she wanted to do it, too, and that’s when she actually started doing keys, watching her mother, and she started doing it and the whole thing came crashing down. The mission crashed.”
Margaret and Apollo colleague Saydean Zeldin cofounded Higher Order Software to develop USE-IT, a tool that allowed software developers to create logically consistent and complete specifications. Margaret served as CEO until she left to start Hamilton Technologies. She describes that moment:
“I decided I would just go to this part of Italy and become a waitress and forget about this entire world. But then some people came to see me that were friends of mine from DOD [Department of Defense], and they said, ‘Margaret, you’re not gonna go over there. You’re gonna keep going with your work and we’re gonna give you some funding.’”
Many talented women in tech fields achieved significant technical and career milestones, despite the ongoing dominance of men in the field.
Among many other honors, Fran Allen was the first woman to receive the coveted Turing Award in 2006, the most prestigious award in computing. Margaret Hamilton received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the US, in 2016. Evelyn Berezin was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2020. All are CHM Fellows.
For a woman entrepreneur, leading her company to an IPO (initial public offering) sent the message that she’d made it in a man’s world. Hardware pioneer Lore Harp McGovern and software pioneer Sandra Kurtzig were the first women founders on the NASDAQ, and both companies went public in October 1981. Below are their stories.
When her husband, a tinkerer, didn’t get around to developing the memory board for an early computer he brought home, Lore had an idea and called her friend. She remembers the conversation:
“‘Carol, how would you like to start a computer company with a memory board?’ And she said, ‘What’s a memory board?’ I said, ‘Well, you know a little bit less than I do, but it’s for the Altair, the MITS Altair. And right now they have 1K memory, and it’s a board that fits into the motherboard, it’s an S-100 BUS.’ I had already learned all the sort of the lingo.'”
Founded in 1976 in Lore’s bedroom, Vector Graphic produced some of the first minicomputers. Pictured above is Vector Graphic’s first product, the memory board for the MIPS Altair 8800. See Lore’s oral history.
Sandra “Sandy” Kurtzig studied aeronautical engineering at Stanford and then sold GE time-sharing computer systems, often coding solutions for her customers. When she wanted to have kids, she decided to start her own programming business so she could be at home.
Sandy founded ASK in 1972, and changed the name of her software program from MAMA (for manufacturing management) to MANMAN when it didn’t go over well with male executives.
See the full ASK brochure.
Lore remembers what it was like to seek funding from venture capitalists for the new company.
The Vector 1 computer came out in 1977 and the Vector 3 in 1979 (pictured above).
Sandy ran ASK from her kitchen, and because she didn’t have a computer of her own made a deal to use Hewlett Packard’s demo computer at night (the HP 3000 in the photo). The computer sometimes crashed, losing work. She remembers:
“I would sometimes go and—they had showers—go wash my hair in the morning to get ready for work. And I’d bring in a hair dryer. And so, one day, the service guy came in with a hair dryer. And I was saying, ‘What are you doing with a hair dryer?’ . . . He says, ‘Let me try something.’ And he plugged the hair dryer into the plug. And of course, the computer went down. . . . there was a surge.”
See Sandy’s oral history.
Vector Graphic grew quickly, providing solutions to small businesses, and Lore was on the covers of Business Week and Inc. When she and her cofounder decided to take the company public in 1981, she traveled to meet investors. In London, a man asked Lore to get him coffee, assuming she was support staff. Lore remembers:
“I did the presentation, applause. Everything was fine. Then we get up, and the same guy comes back to me. And he says, ‘Ms. Harp, how does it feel to have so many men working for you?’ I mean I was just so dumbfounded.”
When a group of investors approached Sandy about taking ASK public, she went to the library and copied the only book they had on an IPO. The head of marketing for one of the investment bankers reviewed Sandy’s roadshow presentation . . . and her.
“But I remember they were just really very, very precise about what they wanted to see. And my nails at that point—I used to have my nails long. And they used to be red. And he says, ‘Your nails can’t be long and red. Cut them down and make them a very unobtrusive color.’ And he—they were very sensitive to the fact that this was the first time a woman had ever taken the company public.”
See the ASK IPO paperweight.
Lore remembers what it meant to her to go public:
“Suddenly, my god, there’s millions of dollars that belong to the company. And all the employees got some stock. And then you suddenly realize, oh my god, you made your first million. And it was just—it’s just this weird feeling. It was just a strange feeling. And it was exhilarating and satisfying. And you felt there was an award for something you had done.”
See the Vector Graphic IPO paperweight.
Women who forged careers in tech in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s knew that they were unusual, and they hoped to serve as role models for future generations.
What would the world look like if women had roles equal to men? Anita Borg, founder of the Institute for Women in Technology, had this to say in 1997, and her vision is still fresh today.
Watch the full video.
Patricia’s Perfect Pull (blog)
Women’s Work (story)
This story was supported by a generous grant from the Kapor Center, along with five related events and a series of ten oral histories with BIPOC computing pioneers.