“Mama? Did You Know…”

Well, there’s only an hour left in Women In History month and here I have yet to write about it.

Luckily, Vivi started a conversation at dinner tonight that showed me a perfect example of why it’s important for us to know more about the role women have played in the past so we can point our daughters towards examples for the future.

“Mama? Did you know that when computers were first invented they were as big as like THREE of our house? Or even three of my school?”

G opened his mouth to correct her estimation math then decided to let the hyperbole ride.

“I did know that! They had names like ENIAC and UNIVAC and it took whole teams of people to run them.”

“Mama? Did you know that those big computers could get bugs in them? Not real bugs but….glitches…but one time?…IT WAS A REAL BUG!”

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper

“Yes! Did you know that a woman named Grace Hopper came up with the word ‘bug’ for a computer problem? One time she was fixing a computer and discovered that a moth had flown inside it!”

“What was her name? Harper?”

“Grace Hopper. Actually, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. That was her title in the Navy. She wrote a program called COBOL that made computers work a whole lot more easily.”

G joined in. “Vivi? Did you know that those giant computers that were as big as our house weren’t even as powerful as your computer in your room or even my phone?”

Vivi nodded while she chewed on some pork chop. They cover so much in second grade these days.

“And they still managed to get us to the moon!” G said.


I jumped in. “AND did you know there was a whole group of women who were so good at the math that NASA had them check what the computers were doing? And it was a woman mathematician who wrote the program that told the computers how to fly the Apollo missions to the moon? I can’t remember her name off the top of my head but I remember a wonderful picture of her standing next to the books and books of code and the program that she wrote was taller than she was!” (Her name is Margaret Hamilton.)

Margaret Hamilton

Margaret Hamilton

“That’s what I loved about ‘Apollo 13’…when the astronauts were trapped up there and having to do MATH to get back home! Having to do math to survive. Man, the pressure was on.” I took a breath and chased the last grains of rice around my plate.

“Why did they have to do math to get home?” Vivi asked. Um…I looked at G but he was chewing. Crap. He’s supposed to handle the sciences and I do humanities. “Well. Um, they had to uh figure out angles and how fast they were going and such so they wouldn’t burn up when they came back into the atmosphere.” She accepted that answer, thank heavens, because it’s about the extent of my ability to explain break-neck geometry.

Now, don’t get the idea that we talk like this at the table all the time. There were also a couple of fart jokes and a little bit of off-key singing. But when I was preparing that talk for Missouri State a few weeks ago, one of the points I made was that we have to get familiar with the stories of women that have been minimized or omitted from history so that they can become common knowledge again.

Here’s a current example…from Disney Junior (because that’s the real noise in this house):

watson and crick

On the new show “Miles From Tomorrowland,” these characters are the Admirals Watson and Crick. They’re a pair of conjoined, three-eyed green men who send Miles and his family on missions to explore space. Anywho…Vivi and Carlos will grow up hearing the names Watson and Crick because of this show.

Who are these green guys named after? That would be James Watson and Francis Crick, the pair of English scientists who won the Nobel Prize for decoding the double helix structure of the DNA molecule. Good for them! Scientists had been working for years on figuring out how the components of this molecule could be arranged as a chain but also compactly. So yeah, that’s a pretty big deal and you get famous and you win prize money and eventually you become part of pop culture in the form of a Disney cartoon. And little kids grow up to be big people who remember your name and you become part of history and dinner table conversations.


Rosalind Elsie Franklin, 1920-1957.

Rosalind Elsie Franklin, 1920-1957.

My kids won’t hear about Rosalind Franklin on Disney Junior. Who was Rosalind Franklin, you ask? She was a young British chemist who became an expert in the field of X-ray crystallography–capturing images of the structure of crystals. Franklin had captured images that proved the double helix structure of DNA molecules. These images were shared–without her permission–with Watson and Crick by a fellow researcher named Wilkins, with whom Franklin had a disagreement. Their paper got published first and Rosalind Franklin died at the age of 37 from ovarian cancer.  Watson, Crick, and Wilkins won the Nobel Prize in 1962.

She did the work, but no prize. Her story is being restored to history, but it’s too late now to get a cartoon character.

Because that’s the thing–if our names aren’t included in the history books, they’ll never make it into pop culture. Little girls will think of Paul Revere because they’ve never heard of Sybil Ludington.

Never heard of Sybil Ludington? Oh, here‘s her story…


3 thoughts on ““Mama? Did You Know…”

  1. Michele

    Thank you Ashley. I know what I will be writing for my newspaper column this week. Who cares if it’s April; women’s history should not be relegated to one month. Can’t wait to research and write about Sybil Ludington.


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