Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Wrangling the 8-ton UNIVAC


I was reading Ariel Levy’s New Yorker profile of Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the recent Supreme Court case challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (and, by extension, of bans on same-sex marriage). I was struck by this passage:

She applied for a job as a research assistant, programming an eight-ton UNIVAC computer for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

Why “eight-ton”? She wasn’t carrying the UNIVAC around with her. If she’d been a maintenance engineer at the Empire State Building I doubt Levy would would have bothered to mention the weight of the building. If the story had happened today I doubt she would have said “she applied for a job programming Google’s 8-ton server cluster.” The complexity of programming the UNIVAC — if that is what is supposed to be brought out — would be brought out by mentioning the number of switches and vacuum tubes, for example, something that is only indirectly related to its weighing 8 tons.

Maybe it’s just a bit of meaningless historical colour, but I couldn’t help thinking that this fit in with the general tone of the article, which portrays Windsor as the classic type of the crusty old lesbian. (She is quoted complaining about the women she danced with at gay bars in the 1950s: “Lesbians can’t lead.”) The image of her doing data entry at a modern computer workstation would have seemed too dainty. There might be a huge server farm and the whole Internet at the other end of your Ethernet cable, but that doesn’t change the fact that sitting at a keyboard and typing still seems prissily similar to the stereotypical 1950s secretarial pool. Wrangling an 8-ton electronic behemoth, on the other hand, that’s work for a kick-ass lesbian.

This provokes me to wonder about whether there are two fundamentally different modes of stereotypes excluding girls by from male-dominated fields: Type 1, perhaps best typified by philosophy, but earlier by medicine (before women took over), and perhaps by computing, girls and young women are warned off — and women in the field may be undermined — by a supposition that women couldn’t be very good at this. But if they do it, it doesn’t call their identity as women into question. In other professions — the military and professional sports most prominently, but perhaps also engineering, construction, plumbing, finance, etc. — there might be even more dissuasion by the dual message, not only are you probably not going to be very good at it because of your lack of masculine endowments, but if you are good at it, it will prove that you’re not really a woman.

Just speculating here, because I’m too lazy to read the research by people who think for real about these things.

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