Women in Computing History, Short Essay

Week 5: February 22-26

This week’s unit is calledComputer Love: Gender, Sex, and Computing Before the Internet

You read Drucker, “Keying Desire: Alfred Kinsey’s Use of Punched-Card Machines for Sex Research,”

and Hicks, “Computer Love: Sex, Social Order, and Technological Matchmaking at the Dawn of the Electronic Age, 1950-1979

Optional: Hicks, “The Mother of All Swipes

Short Paper Assignment: In the Drucker article, we see a very clear example of how computers construct the categories that go on to define sexuality over the course of the 20th century and through to the present day. How is this similar to the point made in the Hicks article about heteronormativity? Think back to the other things we’ve read so far during this semester: how has heteronormativity defined the shape of computing in important ways in other instances? Given this, what can you say about the relative importance of sexuality on the history of computing? What role does it play alongside gender, race, nationality, and class? How does this change our understanding or lead us to new insights? Make sure your paper has a clear, original argument. Length: 800-1500 words, due on March 8th, uploaded as a comment to this post (not the message boards).

Note: Please LEAVE AN EXTRA LINE of space (hit ‘return’ or ‘enter’ twice) after every paragraph, because this system strips out indents and your paragraphs will run together in one solid block of text if you don’t leave an extra line. Also, your paper will not be visible as a comment immediately after you post it because I have to read and approve them. Because this website, unlike our class discussion board, can be viewed by anyone on the web, I will only make your post visible if you give me permission to do so–please let me know in your post if you do or don’t want me to make your post visible online. And, you can choose any pseudonym for your screen name–you do not have to use your real name. Just make sure to enter your IIT email address (it won’t be publicly visible) so I can tell who you are.


  1. If someone were to ask me to think of the history of computing, the last thing to cross my mind would be the concept of sexuality. Though, as this world has been built upon a patriarchal system for thousands of years, it makes it quite difficult to say sexuality did not have an influence. Maybe it is so engrained into me that it’s hard to pinpoint since sexuality resonates in everything. It’s just a part of life. However, that is the very problem. The heterosexual agenda was extended to everyone, regardless of a person’s background. It is not far off to believe the scrutiny of one’s sexuality greatly dictated the rise of the computing field.

    The computing population was uniform in the worst way possible. It was an area densely populated with middle/upper-class, white, straight men. Simply put: the field lacked diversity by choice. That is, until men within the computing field decided they did not want that. We have all heard the famous saying “sex sells” because well… it does. It has to be noted that during the same time technology began to thrive, so did sexuality. This newfound “sexual awakening” was often toxic. Men in the computing field shamelessly objectified their women counterparts in the career because it was so normalized. They even went as far as supposing a computer would have male intentions (as provided by the 1970 cartoons) towards a woman, such as proposing. The very act of trying to personify an inanimate object to fit into society’s mold was damaging. Unfortunately, incorporating women in computing was not all it was made out to be.

    Having women in the computing field served as an advertisement. The women plastered among flyers and magazines gave two different connotations to the viewers. It served as encouragement for young, aspiring women, but entertainment and eye-candy for men. Judging by how the media represented women in the field (which was somewhat risqué), it is clear to see the motive – the pleasure of a man. It shows in how women were made to wear skirts over trousers and getting ‘young girls’ to train alongside men. The male gaze was used as an advantage in a variety of settings to attract an audience. It is nothing new. Even as of 2021, the male gaze is still very much real and prevalent in our time. It seems as if we are still promoting this message that a woman’s actions should satisfy a man.

    As mentioned, the 1960s was an era of immense growth. With politics, societal shifts and industrial advancements, a storm had emerged. People were beginning to find themselves and their place in this world. A plethora of races were coexisting. Kids of all backgrounds were getting an education. Women were becoming more comfortable in their bodies. The queer population were gaining a platform. The conservative societal norms were being tested in a way that was hard for those who grew up sheltered to express themselves or be accepted. Combining this with the battles of race, classism, gender, etc., it made it even more problematic to be accepted in a changing country.

    Sexuality, like race and gender, became a determining factor as to how we define ourselves as people. As many (if not all) of us have grown up in a heteronormative environment, it is no surprise that sexuality was not as expressive as it is today. It feels like only recently have we been seeing ambiguity in a sexual light being accepted. Several people now, as Kinsey discovered, perceive themselves on a scale or spectrum in terms of sexuality. Back then, this discovery would’ve been groundbreaking had more people known of it. A repetitive problem that seems to appear time and time again is representation. The lack of diversion within the media can be part of the blame as to why there is no change. The findings of Kinsey stray away from the societal norm that we must identify ourselves as 100% gay or 100% straight. It is a possible assumption that if this research’s discoveries were stressed, it would have greatly changed who and what came from computing.

    The issue of sexuality during the rise of technology without a doubt inhibited numerous innovations. Back then, you had to make a definitive choice. The in-between did not exist. Are you gay or straight; white or black; male or female? Sometimes, a question cannot be answered in an “either-or, yes-no” fashion. By placing limits on how we define ourselves, we only limit what we can create. Sexuality, among race, nationality, gender, and class, drove the future of technology. By building the computing infrastructure on heteronormative environment, we missed out on opportunities that would’ve added inclusion. Though it seems like we have come very far, there is still a long way to go for the computing field.

  2. Innovation Versus Freedom

    Social norms have defined the history of computing by enforcing barriers and hierarchies that persist even within innovation that seems to break the rules. Heteronormative gender roles created a social structure that expanded roles of men and women within marriage to the workforce. Innovation itself was limited by the restrictions of what behaviors and ideas were considered acceptable, so that even when computing aided social progress, it never overstepped the bounds of what was deemed normal.

    Women were the backbone of early computing, yet we still see them slotted into roles reflective of the heterosexual marriages of the time. Operating was women’s work in the same way homemaking and raising children was. You can distinguish the content of the work done, but ultimately, they were expected to support men, allowing them to do the work that was deemed important. Women worked mentally and physically exhausting jobs and received little to no recognition because of the notion that anybody could do it, yet they formed the foundation for progress and performed essential tasks. They performed a service that nobody else wanted to do but needed to be done, because that was just what women, or wives, were always expected to do. It is thus unsurprising to see women forced to retire from their careers upon marriage – you can’t be a wife to your employer (or their machines) when you have an actual husband.

    Looking at the structure of Britain’s workforce at computing’s rise, this expansion of heterosexual marriage into the norms of the workforce justified keeping them from being able to make progress in their careers. Climbing the ladder high enough to become managers to men, assuming a woman wasn’t married by then, would have been deemed inappropriate. Seeing a woman telling a man what to do would have been a threat to the norms that kept women in their place, which was always, in the end, the home. If women, as individuals rather than a collective, became indispensable in the workplace, it would be harder to keep them out of it and reserve those spots for men who, it was assumed, had families to singlehandedly provide for. In this way, these heteronormative assumptions not only bled into the structure of computing but motivated, whether consciously or subconsciously, who had access to higher positions and who had the power to influence the history of computing.

    Steve Shirley was barred from career advancement for this very reason. After leaving and starting her own business, when Shirley gave women the opportunity to work from home with flexible hours, they could finally be both wives and employees. Their work didn’t just substitute their home life and responsibilities, and it provided opportunities for real career advancement. It was upon shedding her associations to femininity by using a masculine nickname that she was able to create a space for women to work while allowing them to maintain their responsibilities within their marriages. Had women had these opportunities from the start, innovation in computing may have been much more substantial from the very beginning. As it was, those who truly had experience with the machines, the ones who learned them inside and out just dealing with all of their problems as they occurred, were, for the most part, barred from positions of management and invention where their experience may have meant great progress.

    Although computing at times pushed the limits, it wasn’t given the freedom to actually break norms. The emergence of computer dating was seen as particularly scandalous, yet it adhered completely to the norms of the time, and not exclusively on the basis of sexuality. They acted as matchmaking services, yet many of them catered specifically to men, still putting women in a position to serve and support the desires of men. Joan Ball’s service, Com-Pat, may have been run by women and marketed itself on its respectability, yet that made it no more accommodating. It focused solely on pairings for marriage and avoided matching people of differing races or social classes. It not only upheld and encouraged existing structures, but it actively relied on them as a key to their operation. Joan Ball herself saw the service as a solution to divorce rates rising. Women needed marriage when they didn’t have the economic means to provide for themselves. Computers didn’t give them higher wages or bank accounts, they found them more men to marry. As risqué as computer dating was, it did nothing to disrupt the social hierarchy it was built upon.

    When Kinsey began publishing his sex research, the backlash for such scandalous material did not fall on him alone. Critics of his work often focused on its computing methodology, blaming the computer and its quantitative analysis of Kinsey’s data as not being human enough. Kinsey found such a substantial proportion of people interviewed engaging in homosexual behavior that it became the machine’s fault for making it reportable. The problem was that the information was available, and that this could normalize behavior that was normal. Critics made it out to be a fault with computing, that machinery should not be used to conduct research in the realm of human sexuality, which was seen as a moral issue. Although Kinsey’s work was revolutionary for its use of computers and his publications opened doors for those fighting for rights on the basis of sexuality, this criticism exemplifies that challenging heteronormativity was a threat to the use of computing to analyze human behavior, especially when it was tied to morality. When Kinsey’s work infringed upon social norms, those who heavily subscribed to these norms wanted the computers out of the field. If Kinsey’s work had been even more revolutionary, I’m inclined to wonder if it, and the application of computing to the field, may have been rejected entirely. Although it is hard to discredit a machine’s math, it’s much easier to say that analysis of human behavior is not the place for a machine.

    Heteronormativity defined a rigid social structure in which marriage was inescapable for women. Even outside of their marriages, they were treated as wives, and the work they did could never infringe upon the societal structure that made them a service to men. Women were essential in the history of computing, and thus the heteronormativity that determined their lives became built into computing as well. Even when machines were used in scandalous ways, they never truly broke free of the societal structure that designed them. As powerful as computers were, disrupting the social narrative was beyond their scope.

  3. The Role of Heteronomativity in Computing

    It is no surprise to anyone that Western society is dominated by heteronormativity, and therefore the technologies it creates will be the same. However, specifically evaluating the role of heteronormativity in computing poses a unique challenge.

    The most obvious place to start is the Hicks article in Logic Magazine. In it they state “Technology is only ever as good as the social context that creates it—and sometimes it is much worse”. This was stated with regards to the winding and complicated history of computer dating. This is an interesting spot to also bring in the factor of gender and class with the influence of heteronormativity. On the surface, it seems that there would not be a significant influence or importance of sexuality in the history of computing, but further investigation proves otherwise.

    Operation Match was started by straight, white, male undergraduates at Harvard College in the 1960s. This association glamorizes the concept in a way that it would not at most any other institution or with any other people (re: Joan Ball). As Hicks states: “This narrative gives the impression that it was young men like these, and their randy, envelope-pushing genius, that caused us to think seriously about the up-till-then preposterous idea of having sex with the help of cold, impersonal machines for the first time”.

    Because of their connections (read: nepotism), the founders of Operation Match were able to have it advertised on national television. Although it did not work out as a long term business venture for the men, and their lives continued in different directions, but the lessons learned remain. The idea that is being proposed matters almost as much as who is proposing it—when straight, relatively wealthy white men propose an idea, it is going to be taken more seriously than if any other person would propose the exact same idea.

    More recent examples of how much who proposes an idea or concept matters to the trajectory of that idea include the cults of personality surrounding tech entrepreneurs, including, but definitely not limited to, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and Steve Wozniak.

    Much of this can be contributed to the biased history written about these men, and the borderline canonization of these figures from books, movies, television shows, and any other type of media. In short, there are no young men on twitter defending and supporting every single thing Susan Kare does, the way there are thousands of men doing the same for Elon Musk. Where is the love for her groundbreaking typography design work that is still visible in every corner of computing and some of the GUIs we still use today?

    To further address the concept of heteronormativity, the way tech limits women from being in leadership or management roles is both a direct consequence of heteronormativity, and a way in which it is further enforced.

    Modern tech companies love to hide behind the fact they have female employees: however, the lack of women in management and decision making roles combined with the refusal of many large tech firms to handle rampant sexism shows that they are not here to support women, they are here to use women as a nice PR tool. Even when women and people of color do make it to higher profile roles, they are still belittled and not taken as seriously as white male counterparts.

    This can be witnessed extremely clearly in the current controversy surrounding Google. Women and people of color have reported that upper management at Google decided to offer mental health services to people reporting incidents to HR about the workplace, that was, and still is, openly hostile to women and people of color (https://twitter.com/ekp/status/1368636842233323520?s=20). With these actions Google is saying that it is not their fault, and there is nothing they can do. If a woman or person of color has a problem with their workplace, that individual is having struggles with their mental health, not suffering in a pernicious workplace.

    Shifting the blame to the victim is a textbook way to enforce and retain abusive power structures. To quote Dr. Timnit Gebru “No amount of support system is going to get rid of Google’s hostile work environment”. This directly corroborates the quote from Hicks that “Technology is only ever as good as the social context that creates it—and sometimes it is much worse”. Why would we expect a company that exists in a society that systematically mistreats and devalues women of color to do the right thing? Shifting the blame to women in this case upholds a pillar of heteronormativity: that women are dramatic, emotional, and are to blame for their own problems

    When we live and work within systems that uphold heteronormativity, sexism, and racism, people speaking out on these issues will always be questioned and ostracized before people begin to accept their thoughts. It also unfortunately means that things outside of this system are seen as bad, and given a label of “otherness”. Examples include the way queerness is discussed as such an exceptionally different, often strange concept, but straight cis couples openly discuss all aspects of their relationships and post pictures or other media online about themselves and their relationships without backlash. Because they do not fit in to the heteronormative social structure, queer people do not have that luxury.

    People that benefit from these systems are going to feel more comfortable staying within them. We cannot expect change in the tech industry to come from within or from the top. We live and operate with technology that was created within a toxic heteronormative environment, and only change from the bottom up would be able to create a large enough shift in culture where this is no longer tolerated.

  4. Intersectionality in the History of Computing

    The history of computing is a perfect demonstration of the nature of intersectionality. Through the lenses of non-white and non-male individuals and the histories of their strife throughout the 1940’s, 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s in solely the industry and sector of computing, we can see the orchestration and perpetuation of an obvious hierarchy without even the mention of stereotypes about slums or kitchens. People at work, faithfully executing their work, all the while their own superiors act in bad faith to appropriate their success as their own and grind them out of their jobs so that others “more suited” for the role can take their place, as if merit were derivative of shared appearance, culture, gender, or sexuality. At this same moment, however, these systems built by minorities would eventually come around to bring the light onto the truths of minorities.

    In the article Computer Love: Replicating Social Order Through Early Computer Dating Systems, we can see prime examples of the ways in which computing technology was stripped away from the hands of those who built it as soon as it was discovered as a profitable enterprise & a wise future investment. This is obvious through the Hicks article explicitly mentioning three corporations: One run by a woman, and two run by young, bachelor men. Not only did the woman’s organization find significantly more trouble in trying to succeed by finding advertising compared to a competitor Dateline, but many of these advertisements were targeted at men explicitly using “exotic” women as a sexual temptation. This is all despite the fact that despite these advertisements being targetted at heterosexual men that women were the most interested in the service. This is an essential and obvious intersection of feminist issues, in one case targeting women attempting to work, and in the other case objectifying women in the name of heterosexuality for men. The final piece which pulls this all together is when complaints to the press council about obvious racism in its computing-related comics being not “intentionally” racist. Together here in just one of our articles, we have in one article an intersection of racism, sexism, and exclusive heteronormativity.

    On the other end, however, instead of the computing industry pushing women out and perpetuating racist, sexist, and heteronormative issues, we find Alfred Kinsey attempting to use fairly early computers as a method conducting research for a progressive cause. With the sexual histories of 18,000 people represented on 234,000 cards, he could certainly be considered as one of the early adopters of a more general usage of computers for academia. Through his research, Kinsey used evidence collected from these 18,000 histories to draft information which showed the realities of people’s sexualities behind closed doors. The reality, unsurprisingly, did not reflect conservative ideations of “appropriate” sexuality. His results showed that far more people were experimenting with homosexuality & bisexuality than anyone estimated, including 10% of men being nearly or completey homosexual through a 5 or 6 on his revolutionary sliding scale of sexuality, called a Kinsey scale.

    On top of showing the realities of (and thereby normalizing) bisexuality and homosexuality, he showed that while most men like to talk about being on top and in charge during sex, the most common sexual positions between all ages was side by side or the woman being on top. Naturally, with his progressive ideals, he was targeted by both the general public and his administration alike, between threats to his job, stripping him from being able to teach students about sexuality in class, and what may be considered ad hominem attacks to his research that simply question whether using computers was too depersonalized, and if discussion of sexuality is promotion of sexuality, which is to some sinful. Of course, despite all this rhetoric against him and his work, his work was largely successful and popular, and helped normalize non-conservative ideas of sexuality, marking him as a “savior” and “liberator” to many LGBT people. However, despite all his success, his sexuality research on people of non-white backgrounds was too far from the norm, and he never published a book about such. Black people do have sexualities, of course, but considering them in the discussion was just not worth it in some manner which I do not fully understand myself. Being able to normalize non-heterosexual sexual relationships to some extent & dismissing some previous notions of masculine domination in sex with the help of computers shows an intersection in the struggles of feminists & LGBT people. On top of this, the disregard for publishing research on non-white sexuality was still not acceptable, showing an intersection between accepting the sexuality of a person and their race.

    The combination of these facets of discrimination in a conservative, white, heteronormative, and male-centric world makes the reality of the situation all the more clear. Discussions about which group has it worse are, as per usual, typically useless. Telling an impoverished American to stop complaining “because a starving child in Africa would love to eat that” does not solve anything. It simply is belittling. Similarly, arguments about whether non-male, non-straight, or non-white people had it worse in the 1900’s will not fix anything when it is obvious these groups had (and continue to have to this day) genuine grievances with the systems they find themselves in. The truth of the matter is not that they have grievances with distinct malicious systems, but rather that they are simply hitting against different surfaces of the same system. The system of power they struggled to live with (or in the bravest of cases, fight against and succeed in spite of) was run by the same general set of people, with generally the same set of negative predispositions. Variation naturally exists between individuals in a system, in that their reasoning for racism and sexism and their capacity for each may differ (in that one may be racist but not sexist or vice versa). This will give the appearance to those dealing with those same individuals in their own lives that one thing is an issue but the other is trivial. The reality of the situation shows, however, that the system simply hates change and relinquishing power, and that those in power are predominantly white, male and heterosexual.

    Diversity of thought will always be a threat to the status quo, and diversity as a whole, whether of thought, race, sexuality, gender, or culture, will always threaten existing small, closely-knit groups. Intersectionality is then the harmonious conclusion that all facets of the malicious system should be addressed as a collective effort, rather than individually. That it is all generally one system of oppression with many faces. The effort to uplift the oppressed through recognition of their work to build the future of technology and the recognition of their mere existence, sexualities, and desires through the use of this same technology is, similarly, a facet of the efforts of intersectionality itself. It is, however, the most obvious facet I can demonstrate, given the selected works.

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