Mostly whimsical reflections on life
We are still arguing over equal pay for equal work, which reflects an underlying, hard-to-push-aside view that women just aren’t quite as capable as men. There is embarrassing evidence to the contrary.
A significant factor in the Allied victory over the Nazis in World War II was breaking Hitler’s enigma code. Alan Turing gets credit for developing a code-breaking machine, but the majority of code breakers who used the machine were women. The ratio was 4 women to one man at Bletchley Park. Until recently, we never knew.
Many of the female code-breakers came from British military services, but almost all of them after the war resumed more pedestrian lives, usually caring for home and husband. None of them violated their oath of secrecy and breathed a word of what they had done during the war.
Word of their achievements finally has leaked out. One woman, 19-year-old Mavis Batey, was perhaps the Bletchley Park superstar as she broke the Italian Naval code in 1941 on the eve of a critical battle, which the Allies won.
Then there is Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, who was shunted away from her father’s flamboyant, erratic and scandalous ways into more cultivated fields, including mathematics. Byron called her his “princess of parallelograms.”
However, Lovelace was more than a princess. At 18 years of age, she met Charles Babbage, an inventor and mechanical engineer. Babbage invented something called the Analytical Engine, which could swallow a lot of numbers and burp out answers to complex mathematical questions. Think of it as a precursor to the calculator.
While Babbage never quite grasped the full potential of his invention, Lovelace did. Her insight into what the device could do has led modern-day observers to credit her as the mother of the computer – about 100 years ago.
Because views of women’s capabilities back then rivaled some of those in our own age, Lovelace was forced to share her thoughts about symbolic logic in footnotes to a 1842 Babbage lecture. The footnotes and their author remained as obscure as the lecture until more recent historians peeled the onion.
Accomplishments by code breakers and Lovelace don’t prove or disprove anything. Yet, they should cause current-day chauvinists to squirm on their self-anointed thrones.
Human potential among individuals varies widely. But there is no question, potential is not the special province of one gender, one race or one religion. Stereotypes are really nothing more than caricatures that we elevate into collective opinion. At worst, they become “truths” used to justify brutality against women and girls and to deny them access to education and opportunity.
Stereotypes are dangerous because they deny communities and countries outlets of talent that could solve a serious problem, produce a cure for a disease or invent something with broad economic value. What would Britain be today if a few of those female code breakers had continued in technical careers?
We will never know the answer, but we can roughly calculate the loss. In economics, foregone opportunities can be assigned a value – and that’s the value our societies have surrendered and continue to surrender by denying the obvious. Women, minorities and children from low socioeconomic backgrounds can possess great gifts. Preventing them from honing and using those gifts harms them and all of civilization.
And we aren’t just talking here about science and technology. We may be short-circuiting writers, social workers, teachers and artists, too. Their contributions can uplift us and define who we are as people, which can be as valuable as a new vaccine or electronic device.
After all, there is a credible case that the plays of enduring interest written by William Shakespeare were really written by a travelled, talented woman. Shakespeare may have been her beard, not the bard we celebrate today.