High school girls learn the art of automobile mechanics. Left to right: Grace Hurd, Evelyn Harrison, and Corinna DiJiulian, with Grace Wagner (under car), at Central High, Wash. D.C. [1927, Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/94508166/]

I am an unabashed motorhead. I love tearing old cars apart, the smell of diesel and gasoline mixed with stale cigarette smoke, and doing “Italian tune-ups” up and down the stretch of freeway by my house. In fact, one of my favorite jobs was at a salvage yard running parts and building cars. The gender roles in this job were stereotypical: female secretary, male mechanics, and a male owner who referenced our wives as the “War Department.” I honestly do not remember interacting with one female customer in the two years I spent at this job. While I love cars, the level of gender-bias, not to mention explicit misogyny, has always been troubling. What is it with dudes and their cars?

Throughout automotive history, women made contributions and actively engaged in mechanical work and auto sports. Yet, the names we remember are all men: Ferdinand Porsche, Karl Benz, Henry Ford. No one seems to remember Karl’s wife who made the first long-distance trip in an automobile and invented the first brake pads and gearing system. Or that Queen Elizabeth was a mechanic in World War 2 [except when Trump claimed it in a speech and was bizarrely correct]. When women are mentioned in the motoring world, the “first woman to” novelty tends to be emphasized over their actual contributions. Or, even worse when it comes to auto racing, results of a Google search of “female racecar drivers” brings up the “hottest” or “most gorgeous” at the top of the list. While Digital Humanities don’t relegate women to cheesecake photos with computers, Sharon M. Leon points out a glaring male-bias perpetuated in the historical narrative of digital history.1

The history of digital history is dominated by the names of men. Why? Leon blames a gender-biased academic structure, an emphasis on project directors, and a lack of inclusion of public history. Indeed, history departments have long histories of underrepresenting women. Furthermore, salary inequalities make grant funding more difficult for women to be principal investigators. What struck me about Leon’s argument the most was the lack of female citations in academic work. I never noticed this, but it does not take a quantitative assessment to realize it. What was also interesting was how men tended to be the founders of early programs (because of the reasons above) and are the ones remembered for the work, while women did much of the heavy lifting. This is not new in the world of archival technology but there are some bright spots.

My niece, Lindsey Smith Zrull, is the Curator at the Astronomical Photographic Plate Collection, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics which is producing the Digital Access to the Sky Project (DASCH). This project digitizes a century’s-worth of glass slides produced by the Harvard Observatory. These slides were originally taken and categorized by a team of female “computers” working for paltry wages and without much credit [like T.C. Mendenhall’s “ladies”2]. A quick perusal of current scholarship using the DASCH slides shows that Lindsey and others are many times acknowledged for their work. Such acknowledgement of digital history is encouraging and reflects Leon’s call for more transparency of work for women’s contributions to emerge in the field. Another possible reason for men to have dominated the early digital history history could come from the state of computer science in the early 90s.

Recent work by historian of technology Thomas J. Misa claims, “The problem of gender bias in computing today is not to be located in the 1960s sexism but the more recent cultural and social dynamics of the mid-1980s.”3 His research shows the peak for women in the computer sciences happened in the 1980s, and declined since. This work disrupts the narrative that women dominated early software writing and were pushed out in the 1960s by men who were traditionally hardware developers. Misa’s work is interesting because the rise of Digital Humanities seems to coincide with a decrease in female computer scientists. Maybe Misa’s research begs the question: what is up with dudes and their computers?

Granted, digital humanities and computer science are not synonymous. Still, they are connected and early digital history relied heavily on people familiar with the coding side of things. This brings up a criticism I had when reading Susan Hockey’s The History of Humanities Computing . I would argue that much of the acceleration of digital humanities over the last decade or so can be attributed to user accessibility. For example, I did not have to write any code to create this webpage. As more software moved toward plug-and-play, the democracy of the internet opened (for better or for worse.)

  1. Leon, Sharon M. (2018). “Complicating a “Great Man” Narrative of Digital History in the United States” In Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities. Eds. Elizabeth Losh and Jacqueline Wernimont.
  2. Hockey, Susan. “The History of Humanities Computing.” In A Companion to Digital Humanities, edited by Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth. Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Professional, 2004. http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/.
  3. Misa T.J. (2019) Gender Bias in Computing. In: Aspray W. (eds) Historical Studies in Computing, Information, and Society. History of Computing. Springer, Cham. https://doi-org.proxy2.cl.msu.edu/10.1007/978-3-030-18955-6_6
Annie Jump Cannon was an astronomer and “computer” for the Harvard Observatory. She was featured in DC Comic book ‘Wonder Woman #33, The Four Dooms’, 1949

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Melena

    Hi again. I’m a big fan of the writing style of these blog. Very easy and engaging to read. Good job.

  2. Piper

    Great article! Very interesting.

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