At the close of Women’s History Month, I have been thinking of some lesser known women who led interesting and influential lives. They may only be lesser known to me—I have holes in my grade school education, which as far as women’s history didn’t go much further than Amelia Earhart and Helen Keller and Rosa Parks. So, here are a few women I was glad to learn about:
Laura Bridgman. I was hooked when I read She Touched the World, Sally Alexander’s affectionate biography of the first deafblind American woman to receive an education. Bridgman, in fact, indirectly started a seed of possibility for Helen Keller; she taught Annie Sullivan to fingerspell. Bridgman not only lost her sight and hearing to illness, but also most of her taste and smell, except for acidic flavors. Fortunately, Samuel Howe was experimenting with ways to teach language to deaf people, and took Bridgman as a pupil. Despite having one-on-one attention for only a few hours a day, unlike Keller, Bridgman excelled. Bridgman’s eagerness for words is palpable, and I love this exchange between Bridgman and her teacher: “‘Four senses. Think, and nose, mouth, and fingers. I have four senses.’ Miss Drew must have smiled. Laura certainly did have think!”
Ada Lovelace understood the difficulties of being a woman in the tech field, way back in the 1800s. The expectation for women to raise children created demands on her time, which made it difficult to pursue her education in mathematics. When she did, working on an explanation of the pre-calculator Analytical Engine, she was not allowed to attend Royal Society meetings. Eventually, however, she envisioned uses for a machine she never saw personally, some of which, like punch cards, were used in early computers.
Grace Hopper, aka Amazing Grace, was the only woman in her class at Yale to obtain a Ph.D. in math. Her mathematical talent served her well in the Navy, where she programmed computers with punch cards. This led to improvements in coding, such as compilers and the use of English in code instructions. Eventually, she helped to promote COBOL, a then-universal business computer language.
More women are sure to be mentioned in April–National Poetry Month!