Erasing Women from History

This U.S. presidential election has been historic in a number of ways, not least for the focus on the dimension of gender in this society.  It’s seen as “revolutionary,” but that’s only because women’s contributions have been systematically erased from the history we tell ourselves.

As this post on the Wikipedia editing process at The Historic Present makes clear, leaving an uninformed consensus on history to shape thinking would not be tolerated in other fields:

It’s funny that you would not be allowed to get away with error in football stats, identifying the designer each star is wearing at the Oscars, or summarizing TV show plots online, but misrepresenting the actions of U.S. presidents, founders of major religions, or civil rights leaders is given a pass.

Why is it acceptable to learn fictions about the important people and events that have created the world we live in today? Each error in those narratives is worse than just a mistake; it is a misrepresentation of the actions, decisions, and factors that have impacted millions of lives and created the social and political problems or solutions we experience today.

And that consensus doesn’t only exist on Wikipedia.  Several examples make this point very clearly.

Geologist and oceanographic cartographer Marie Tharp discovered the 10,000-mile-long Mid-Atlantic Ridge in 1953, the presence of which verified the then-controversial theory of plate tectonics.  She used data collected by sonar readings done by geologist Bruce Heezen, crunching the measurements and plotting them manually in the era before computers.  But almost immediately, her achievement was erased:

“When I showed what I found to Bruce,” she recalled, “he groaned and said ‘It cannot be. It looks too much like continental drift.’ … Bruce initially dismissed my interpretation of the profiles as ‘girl talk’.” It took almost a year for Heezen to believe her, despite a growing amount of evidence and her meticulous checking and re-checking of her work. He only changed his mind when evidence of earthquakes beneath the rift valley she had found was discovered—and when it became clear that the rift extended up and down the entire Atlantic. Today, it is considered Earth’s largest physical feature.

When Heezen—who published the work and took credit for it—announced his findings in 1956, it was no less than a seismic event in geology. But Tharp, like many other women scientists of her day, was shunted to the background.

Tharp never got the professional recognition, or the academic pay and perks that go with such recognition, and her name wasn’t honored in the textbooks until the 21st century.

Women used to dominate software, starting with Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace, the world’s first programmer.  Years later, ENIAC, the first programmable general-purpose electronic digital computer, built during World War II by the United States, was also programmed by women.   However, their names — Jean Jennings (later Bartik), Marlyn Wescoff (later Meltzer), Ruth Lichterman (later Teitelbaum), Betty Snyder (later Holberton), Frances Bilas (later Spence), and Kay McNulty (who later married John Mauchly) — are not so well-known.  Walter Isaacson tells their story in The Innovators:

“Somebody gave us a whole stack of blueprints, and these were the wiring diagrams for all the panels, and they said, ‘Here, figure out how the machine works and then figure out how to program it,’” explained McNulty. That required analyzing the differential equations and then determining how to patch the cables to connect to the correct electronic circuits. “The biggest advantage of learning the ENIAC from the diagrams was that we began to understand what it could and could not do,” said Jennings.

They didn’t invent or build ENIAC.  But they were the ones who actually made it work.  After the war, a big demonstration was scheduled for the press, a demonstration which required weeks of round-the-clock work by Jean Jennings and Betty Snyder.  It was front page news around the country, but …

“Betty and I were ignored and forgotten following the demonstration. We felt as if we had been playing parts in a fascinating movie that suddenly took a bad turn, in which we had worked like dogs for two weeks to produce something really spectacular and then were written out of the script.” That night there was a candlelit dinner at Penn’s venerable Houston Hall. It was filled with scientific luminaries, military brass, and most of the men who had worked on ENIAC. But Jean Jennings and Betty Snyder were not there, nor were any of the other women programmers. “Betty and I weren’t invited,” Jennings said, “so we were sort of horrified.” While the men and various dignitaries celebrated, Jennings and Snyder made their way home alone through a very cold February night.

Real-time Consequences of Erasing Women

This erasure leads people to assume that women haven’t been, aren’t now, and never will be “natural” programmers.  The gendered expectations affect earnings, as explained in this article by Rhaina Cohen at The Atlantic:

In the early years of computing, the area that garnered respect was hardware development, which was thought of as manly work. Meanwhile, the work most women performed, programming, lacked prestige. The gender makeup of programmers and the status of the job were mutually reinforcing.

She sums it up in this devastating sentence: “It seems that the gender composition of an occupation helps determine pay and prestige.”

That the U.S. has a gender pay gap is known, but its gender gaps in other areas are a bit startling: according to the World Economic Forum, its gap in access to resources in health, education, economics, and politics are larger than those in Rwanda, the Philippines, and Bolivia.  Progress here is not only slow — it is going backward:

image shows bars of different lengthsrepresenting number of years until parity is achieved.
North America is moving in the wrong direction.

At WorldView Software, we continue to make a conscious effort to confront our own biases, and to review and rewrite materials that paint history in too-broad brushstrokes, erasing the achievements of people that have been marginalized. For example, in the oldest version of our American History I program, a prominent revolutionary — Mercy Otis Warren — wasn’t even mentioned:

Image shows biography listings, with a circle around where Warren's name would be.
A screen capture of a previous version of WorldView Software’s American History I.

This has been rectified in the most current version of our program:

Mercy Otis Warren's biography as it now appears in American History I.
Mercy Otis Warren’s biography as it now appears in American History I.

However, undoing erasure with twelve programs covering social studies is a large and never-ending task, so if you see something that needs revision, please don’t hesitate to bring it to our attention!

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Dr. Annelies Kamran is Senior Editor at WorldView Software, Inc.

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