Better Life Lab

Rosie the Programmer: The Feminist Tech Pioneers of World War II

WAC and Tech
Members of the Women’s Army Corps work side by side with civilians to prepare traffic intercepts of the Japanese Army for eventual analysis.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by U.S. Army.

When people think of the female workers who helped the U.S. triumph in World War II, they typically think of Rosie the Riveter: the ubiquitous symbol for the millions of female factory workers who helped build the tanks, ships, and bombers that powered the global war effort. But women did white-collar brain work during the war as well: designing armor plates and calculating weapons trajectories, developing encryption methods and running computers, analyzing financial markets and pioneering the very mathematics, technology, and engineering fields that struggle to attract and retain women workers today.

In the wood-paneled archives of Wellesley College, there is a slim but important folder that attests to the extent of these technological contributions. The folder contains a sheaf of handwritten memories—responses to a survey in which members of the Class of 1942 were asked to describe the jobs they took during World War II. The survey was conducted by Betty Paul Dowse ’42, who upon her own graduation went to work for Hercules Powder Co. as one of the first female chemists ever hired in the company’s lab. There she helped develop the chemical DDT, used to protect troops from typhus in Italy and malaria in the Pacific. Some 50-odd years later, Dowse felt curious to know what her classmates had done. In formulating the survey, she asked them to recall not only their wartime jobs and employers, but whether they had replaced men when they took those jobs.

I came upon the folder while researching my new book Code Girls, which tells the story of more than 10,000 women who came to Washington to work as cryptanalysts or code-breakers during the war. At least 20 members of Wellesley’s class of 1942 did code-breaking work for the U.S. Navy, and many more followed in 1943 and 1944, along with women from Radcliffe, Smith, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Vassar, Barnard, and other East Coast colleges. Their work saved thousands of lives and shortened the war by at least a year. So secret was that project—and so good were the women about keeping mum—that Betty Dowse, when she started getting the surveys back, was taken aback by the number of fellow Wellesley women who worked breaking codes.

But equally eye-opening was the breadth, variety, and importance of the other wartime jobs her classmates took at a time in American history when the competition for college-educated women was sudden, furious, and came from all directions. As the military-industrial complex ramped up, and men shipped out to battle, the military and many government agencies wanted to hire these women, but so—and ardently—did the private sector. Before the war, Dowse told me in an interview, the few companies that came to recruit at Wellesley mostly wanted administrative workers, but after Pearl Harbor, “the attitude changed completely.” So vivid were the survey responses that, reading all of them—I had intended to look only at the code-breaking ones—I found myself reflecting, and not for the first time, upon how much we owe the generation of women who came of age in the 1940s not only for their contribution to winning the war, which has been long recognized, but for creating these science and technology fields as we know them.

The women who responded to Dowse’s survey graduated at a time when only about 4 percent of American women completed four years of college, in part because the jobs available to women were so sparse that it was hardly worth the tuition. At the time, gender segregation was so deep and profound that women were barred from many top colleges and universities, and even coed schools often had a cap on the number of women admitted. Graduate schools in fields like law, medicine, architecture, and engineering were worse: Women were admitted in ones or twos or shut out completely, with the idea that they’d be taking a spot from a “breadwinning man.” As a result, women often felt obliged to pursue “Mrs. degrees”—that is, marry right away—and even the best women’s colleges tended to steer undergraduates away from majoring in math and science, knowing they would have a hard time finding jobs. After the war began, educators still worried about creating more female math majors; despite the pleading from employers, they suspected the jobs would be temporary and the women would have the rug yanked from under their feet. The president of Goucher College, a respected women’s college in Baltimore, noted with disgust that one corporate titan asked him for 20 female engineers but added, “Select beautiful ones, for we don’t want them on our hands after the war.”

Despite the unpredictable future of the work, women took the jobs anyway: For many, this was the first and only job opportunity they would receive outside of teaching and secretarial work.

“Employed as a chemist by LaMotte Chemical Co. in Maryland and then at Grumman Aircraft Co. as a ‘specifications man’—using blueprints to check how correctly Grumman fighter plane parts were being assembled,” wrote Constance Barrett Corson, Wellesley ’42, in her survey response.

“Employed by Raytheon as a ‘methods engineer,’ ” wrote Eleanor Fisher Kaplan.

“Read blueprints for Bendix radios for airplanes,” wrote Joan Guiterman Tarter.

Mary Kingsbury Staples trained as an underwriter for an insurance company based in Boston; it was a position, she wrote in her survey response, previously held by men. Helen McCulloch Ellison, an economics major, went to work for Moody’s Investors Service. She was hired as a trainee, then as a full-fledged security analyst. She noted in her response that “previously this was a field completely dominated by men,” but since no men were available, “Wall Street was willing to take a chance on women.” She also noted that when she left, several years after the war, to start a family, as women were encouraged to do: “I was replaced by a young man whose salary was double what I was being paid in my last year.” She was still angry enough to underline the injustice of this pay disparity fifty years later.

Vera Warner Adams worked in the industrial chemistry labs at Armstrong Cork Co., helping develop synthetic resin. “In 1941 the labs hired their first women (2),” she wrote in her survey answer. “In 1942 there were fifteen. We females were assigned to work related to domestic products—floor coverings mostly.” She noted that the male college graduates at the company were paid more than the female ones.

While many were pushed out of the workplace after the war, others dug in their heels and stayed. Some kept jobs on Wall Street and in the computer room; some took advantage of newly created veterans’ benefits and went on to do graduate work. Blanche DePuy, another code-breaker, worked in the field of international telecommunications, and used the GI bill to get a Ph.D. from Stanford.

These women lived through some of the most searing experiences 20th-century America had to offer. They were born in 1920 or thereabouts, which means they were girls of 9 or so when the banks failed and the Great Depression set in for 10 grinding years. Their youth was interrupted again on Dec. 7, 1941, by the shock of a country thrust into total war. Despite or because of the hardships they had been subjected to, they filled demanding jobs and pushed forward new fields, proving what women could achieve.

The women of 1942 were an invisible generation of feminists, their efforts unfairly eclipsed by the more famous cohorts on either side. Immediately before them, the suffragists marched and the flappers flapped, courageous (or sometimes simply exuberant) women who pushed boundaries legislative and cultural. The 1960s brought Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem (not to mention Hillary Clinton), a self-confident, vocal generation who managed to open up universities and workplaces—not to mention minds—in a permanent and much ballyhooed way. But the contributions of this lesser-known generation seem more significant than ever today, as people continue to question whether women have the aptitude to succeed in science and technology jobs, despite the fact that they pioneered many of these jobs 80 years ago. We often look to the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter to remind us women are much physically stronger and capable than our society gives us credit for, but Rosie the Programmer tells us a story at least as important about the contributions women are prepared to make to fields like science, technology, engineering, and security—if we only invite them in to these fields rather than shutting them out.

Read an excerpt from Code Girls on Slate.