52 Weeks of Women – October
52 Weeks of women is a weekly series of posts allowing us to rediscover the important role that women have played in history. To find out a little more about what we are doing or why visit Introducing 52 Weeks of Women.
To continue our series, this month we bring you Grace Hopper, Lois Jenson, Alexandra Kollontai and The Women of Catalhöyük. We hope that each post will prompt you to read more, and if you do we’d love you to share what you find out! Likewise, if you know of any women who you think should be included in our series, let us know.
Grace Hopper, nee Murray was born in New York City in 1906. Raised by parents who – uncharacteristically for the era – encouraged their daughter to gain as broad an education as their son, Grace grew up with a passion for mathematics. She graduate from Vassar with a mathematics degree and then went on to attain her masters, then a PhD in maths and physics at Yale. During her time studying, she was also taught mathematics at Vassar.
After 2 years of trying to get into the military (she was always denied because she was too short), she in listed at the mature age of 37 in the Women Accepted to Volunteer Emergency Services (WAVES) during the height of World War II. Here she graduated first in her class and was assigned rank of Junior Lieutenant.
On graduation, Grace, was assigned to work on Harvard’s Mach I computer, which was 15.5m long, built by IBM, and consisted of electrical machines and punchcards. It was used for calculating military ‘query tables’ for gun angles, which helped gunmen know how a firearm would fire in battle, allowing for weight, wind speed and air density. There’s a famous story which tells how one time the male technicians couldn’t work out why the computer wasn’t working, until Grace got up to examine the machine and pulled a moth from between some wires. They joked about how she “debugged” the computer.
In those early days of computers, they were exclusively used for the conduction of calculations. Grace, however, could see that there was a difference between hardware and software, and believed that there should be a way for people to communicate with the technology more easily than punchcards. She designed a computer to translate human instructions to code or programming, which was called FLOW-Matic. Then in 1959, as a government and industry computer scientist technical consultant, Grace was a helped design COBOL, which is still the dominant language used for business computer language.
During her like a lifetime Grace won many awards, including a Legion of Merit, National Medal of Technology, and she was awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal of Honour by Barak Obama. She’s even had a guided missile destroyer ship named after her!
Without Grace’s belief and systems in developing computer communications, there’s a good chance that we wouldn’t have anywhere near as many of the apps and communication technology that we have today.
Named as probably the most influential woman in the new Soviet Union, Alexandra Kollontai was a significant figure in the Bolshevik party during the Russian Revolution, and a cornerstone activist for women’s rights.
Born into an aristocratic family in the Ukraine, Alexandra grew up wanting for nothing except for for a formal education. Her parents didn’t want her going to school, because they believed she would there fall prey to “undesireable elements”, in particular, falling in with political crowds. At the time, a woman’s place was firmly believed to be in the home, rearing children and living in deep domesticity.
In 1893, at the age of 21, Alexandra married her cousin partially, she stated, as a “protest against her parents’ will”. She and her husband had one son, however after only three years, they grew apart due to Alexandra’s increasing interest in revolutionary thoughts about marriage and socialism. She studied Marxism and worked for several educational charities. Through this, she was exposed to the extreme poverty suffered by those in the lower classes. She was particularly struck by the awful working conditions of women in the textile industry, and she played an integral part in the famous strike of 1896 in St Petersburg.
She studied at university in Zurich and later traveled to London where she learnt more about Marxist theories. On her return then to Russia at the age of 27, she became heavily involved in the Social Democratic Labour Party. She was particularly interested in in the Trade Union Movement, and in 1905 she witnessed the march of striking workers on the Winter Palace. This day became known as Bloody Sunday as soldiers of Tsar Nicholas II launched upon the strikers and killed and injured over 400 men, women and children. Many believe that this event signified the beginning of the Russian Revolution, as it was here that The People understood that their ruler was disinterested in their struggles.
Alexandra was arrested and deported because of her anti-war writings after the beginning of the world First World War. She spent time in Denmark and Sweden, then returned to Russia in 1915 where she took part in the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Revolution. Lennon appointed her as Commissar in Social Welfare, and during her appointment she was instrumental in the writing of policies around women’s working rights, prostitution, child support, and divorce. It’s worth noting that this was a time where women could not seek a divorce without the permission of either their father or husband, as they were seen as ‘property’ belonging to those men.
Some of her most controversial viewpoints at the time circled around the concept of Free Love, however this was not in the sense that we think of in relation to the 1960’s free love movement. Rather, Alexandra firmly believed that for equality between the sexes to exist, so to must there be equality amongst the classes. She believed that freedom to vote was not where equality should end, for this would do little to improve the lives of working class women. Her idea was that if all classes were equal, then the sexes could be equal too, as the women would not have to restrict their lives to the family home while the men went out to work, but that they could themselves seek education and work for equal pay while men and women shared the role of raising families.
Later in life, Alexandra was the only Bolshevik party member not killed in Stalin’s Purges, and this is most likely because she publically pulled back on her political views. Even though the end of her life saw less involvement in women’s rights, without her early activism has paved the way for feminists around the world.
If you’d like to hear more about her, this is a great podcast to get you started:
List of works
Former miner in the Iron County of USA, Lois Jensen was the first woman to win a sexual discrimination case in the United States. After a 14 year battle, she has changed the landscape of how American women live and work.
Originally from a family steeped in mining heritage, Lois moved to Minneapolis as a young woman. After two unplanned pregnancies (one due to date-rape, and the other to a partner who left her), she moved home again with her two children to work a minimum-wage secretarial job. It was in this job that she saw women coming in from mines to cash their paychecks and she couldn’t believe how much they were earning. Encouraged by the potential income, she applied to Evelish Mine in 1975, and was one of the first women to be hired by them.
Once in the mine however, she experienced atrocious working conditions. To the 600 men employed, there were only 4 women, all of whom where verbally, emotionally, physically and sexually abused. Lois states that she was belittled, intimidated, bullied, harassed, threatened and stalked. It was after her supervisor attacked and sexually harassed her that she lodged a complaint to the Minnesota human rights commission. They turned a blind eye, even when her car tyres were subsequently slashed in retaliation. When she pushed the claim further, Evelish was ordered to pay $11,000 which they refused to do. So she filed a civil suit for sexual discrimination. She won this in 1991.
Lois led a class action against Evelish on behalf of the women in the mines, which was initially met with a nominal sum being offered to 15 women. The declined the offer, and the class action dragged on for 14 years, destroying Lois’ work life and deteriorating her health in the meantime. In 1998, after many years, the other women decided to settle for $3.5 million, which disappointed Lois.
Although Jensen felt let down by the settlement of her class action, it is indisputable but the expansion of women workers into water traditionally seen as male industries is in large part thanks to the protection they reported because of her tenacity and strength in principle.
If you like to see more of this story, you can watch Charlize Theron in her Oscar-nominated role of the 2006 movie ‘North County’, which Lois was invited to oversee the production of.
In Turkey 9000 years ago – the late Stone Age – Neolithic hunter-gatherers settled in scrublands and grassy plane on the banks of the river bed. They were known as the Catalhöyük people, and they have given us some of the clearest understandings of how social structures in those times were almost certainly gender-balanced.
The archealogical record shows evidence that the Catalhöyük people practiced rudimentary agriculture, kept livestock, used specific dedicated tools, and produced art and religious iconography. They lived in adjoining houses made of mud and plaster, arranged in layers that could only be accessed by holes in the roofs. When more rooms were required, new layers were built on top of the old ones. Interestingly, they originally buried their dead in between the layers.
It was from these graves that professor James Mellaart in the 1960s was able to posit that the Catalhöyük people enjoyed true gender equality. Men and women’s remains showed that when they were alive, both sexes ate the same, lived outside the same amount of time (showing that women weren’t confined to the rearing of family indoors), and completed the same amount of physical tasks. They were also afforded the same ceremony in death. Later in the settlement’s existence, it appears that figurines of the dead replaced the actual bodies in between house layers.
Professor Mellart discovered a clay figurine of a large woman seated on a throne, flanked by leopards, giving birth. She was named The Seated Woman of Catalhöyük. He also found a treasury of images and partial figurines of women, all of whom had wide hips, big breasts and large bellies. This led many to believe that the Catalhoyuk people lived in a matriarchy, with the Earth Mother being revered as a goddess.
However, a later finding in 2016 – another carved female figurine with large features – indicates that there were women in the community who achieved high status, and that these carvings were depictions of them. Fatness has often signified status throughout history, as people of importance are exempt from work and apportioned the best food rations, and this is what historians believe was occurring in this ancient settlement.
The Women of Catalhöyük are significant in women’s history because they show that gender inequality is not an age-old patern. Rather, it is something that’s arisen as modern society itself has grown. To quote Amanda Foreman in the Ascent of Woman, “Sex is genetic, but gender is cultural.”