Admiral Grace Hopper nee Murray (1906-1992) is a woman of rare accomplishments who inspires us because she pursued her interests without reference to her gender. She is one of the earliest contributors to the field of computer science, male or female, and one of the first women to make a career in the Navy. She is the co-creator of the COBOL computer language, and coiner of the term “debugging.” She is one of the few women to have received the rank of Rear Admiral and even fewer with a Naval ship named after her.
Grace was curious and ambitious from the very start, once dismantling seven alarm clocks in order to figure out how they worked. Grace went to Vassar at 17 (having been rejected at 16) and graduated with honors in Mathematics. In 1930 she earned a Master’s degree at Yale for Mathematics and Physics and in 1934 became the first woman to receive a PhD in Mathematics from Yale University. Grace taught at Vassar until joining the WAVES (see April’s blog about WAVES founder Margaret Chase Smith below) in 1943 (Read more).
Grace’s contributed to the war effort by programming the Mark I to calculate the flight paths of artillery shells as part of Harvard’s Bureau of Ordnance Computation Program. Here she coined the term “debugging” when she solved a hardware malfunction by removing an actual moth from the machine! In 1946 she was released from active duty but retained a position in the Naval Reserves. She continued to work with the new and developing computer and her belief that computer language could and should be closer to English contributed to the creation of the widely used programming code COBOL. Grace returned to active duty with the Navy from 1967 until her retirement in 1986, achieving the rank of Commodore (later called Rear Admiral) in 1983 by special Presidential appointment. Grace spent much of her later Naval career and her retirement speaking about her experiences (Read more).
Grace is said to have regularly repeated that “it is often easier to ask for forgiveness than permission” and I believe that she lived by those words (Read more). She did not feel the need to make apologies for her gender in order to pursue her goals. Reflecting on the recent NY Times article about finding a new spokesperson for the women’s movement, I believe that we need women like Gloria Steinem and Tiffany Dufu who are dedicated to promoting women on every level. However, we also need women like Grace who get up everyday and go to work in predominately male fields. These women are feminists just by acting out their lives and making it possible for more women to follow in their footsteps. Grace’s impact and inspiration are very real to me because my mother, as a young computer programmer in the Navy herself, had the opportunity to see Grace Hopper speak. Every computer we owned while I was growing up was named Gracie in honor of her role model.
My mother in the Navy
Do you have examples of inspiring everyday feminists to share with us?
About Kayla: Kayla will graduate from Columbia University this spring with a degree in Political Science and hopes to work in public policy. She is the Executive Staff Intern at our offices in New York.