Women’s History Month: Grace Hopper

“Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that. That’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counter-clockwise.” – Grace Murray Hopper

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper definitely resisted the idea that if something had always been done one way, then that was that. A pioneer both in the field of computer  science and in the Navy, Hopper was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal, a Naval Reserve Medal, a World War II Victory Medal, and a National Medal of Technology, among many others; has been honored as a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society, a Computer Sciences “Man of the Year,” and with more honorary doctorates (eight in 1984 alone) than I could ever hope to have space to list. But among all of her accomplishments and honors, Grace Hopper may be best known today for coining a phrase that millions of people use: “debugging.”

To understand how that came about, it helps to know about Hopper’s journey from college professor to computer programmer. Born in New York City in 1906, Hopper demonstrated a deep curiosity about the world from an early age. At age 17 she entered Vassar College, majoring in mathematics and physics and graduating Phi Beta Kappa. She received a master’s degree and Ph.D from Yale, and for twelve years taught math at Vassar. In 1943, Hopper joined the U.S. Naval Reserve, and was assigned to the Bureau of Ordinance Computation, at Harvard Univeristy. There, Hopper was the third programmer of the Mark I computer, the first large-scale digital computer; in time, she would also work on the Mark II and Mark III.

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Kagan Kerfuffle Exposes the Subtle Class Bias of Military Recruiting

John McCain’s editorial on the Kagan nomination got me thinking.  At issue, her move as dean of Harvard Law School denying military recruiters access to the campus Career Services Office.  McCain cites one beleaguered recruiter complaining that without this access, they were “relegated to wandering the halls in hopes that someone will stop and talk to us.”

Funny, recruiters have no problem meeting recruiting targets by wandering the halls (or streets, parks, gas stations, malls, and Wal-Marts) in low-income communities cruising for teenagers to sign on the dotted line.  Of course, there is less competition in this arena than in the post-grad job market of a Harvard law student, whose student body emerges equipped with a world-class education, awesome earning potential, and is still majority white, almost 70%.  McCain bristles at the thought of “white-shoe law firms” recruiting students, but not “one of its great institutions, the U.S. military.”

The damage done to military recruiting efforts by Kagan’s decision is a chimera, but the opportunity to resurrect a tired (and frankly a little pathetic) narrative of God & Country was too hard for Senate conservatives to resist.  When the best and the brightest (read: richest and whitest) don’t roll out the red carpet for military recruiters, it is an insult to the pedigree of military-political careerism and chickenhawks everywhere.  And John McCain won’t stand for it.