Ada Lovelace Day: the women of keypunch

Once upon a time, it was the year 1980.  Computers were regarded, vaguely, as something one should know more about, kind of like biotech at the present:  a guarantee of stable, well-paid employment to the person who was skilled with them.  What we considered computers seemed much more various than now—the devices included the Pong gaming console my dad bought at Sears, the mainframes down at the community college, the Commodore PETs in my junior high’s computer lab, and whatever it was that my friend Wendy’s mom had worked on using punched cards.

Back then, there was this joke about being “folded, spindled, or mutilated;” it was usually a metaphor for being mistreated by dour, inflexible bureaucrats. Most of us got the joke, both because we were all subject to bureaucracy, and because all of us had seen punched cards, pieces of tagboard also vulnerable to maiming by unfeeling entities.  Think of most large- or medium-scale processes, like assembling all the grades of the freshman class, or billing the customers of the gigantic Bell System: punched cards, and keypunch operators, were behind them.

Keypunch machine. Photo by inky

The keypunch operators were typically women.  The work was considered clerical, and paid less than technical work assumed by men.  The keypunch operators were nevertheless proud of their occupations, which held more status than being a secretary or nurse.  A smaller number of women were accepted as programmers, the ones who submitted the punched cards to the all-mighty computer.  Both roles required a greater degree of double-checking and focus than I think our jobs demand of us now:  there was no Command-Z to reverse a mistake.  They also seemed to pose a lot more physical discomfort:  noisier machines, nearly Arctic temperatures, and no Aeron chairs.

Yet the women I’ve met who were employed as operators or programmers during this era of computing still have positive memories of the experience.  They enjoyed having such esoteric skills.  They liked going to the customers’ sites and solving the customers’ problems.  They never considered their work incompatible with being feminine, or having lives outside work.  They don’t know why most of their own daughters and granddaughters didn’t jump into careers or degrees in computing.

I know why, at least in my case.  In 1980 my friend Wendy’s mom was explaining how to use a punched card program to one of my eighth-grade classmates—a boy.  And my junior high computer lab was filled with students from the Gifted program huddled around the keyboards and monitors—all of the students, boys.  The program director encouraged us girls to while away the hour in the band practice room instead.  We acquiesced; computers had acquired the stigma of being uncool, despite how diverting Pong could be.  Computers didn’t seem to do anything we found interesting, but we really didn’t get the time to investigate them too thoroughly: the boys in the lab made us feel too unwelcome.

What a tantalizing alternative history this would be, had we persisted.  Had the legacy of the keypunch operators become that of subsequent eras in technology —a tradition of female participation sustained, even considered commonplace.  Had computers become what they are today—ordinary appliances for use by all—but twenty or thirty years sooner.  What we be doing now?