"She features significantly in computing historian George Dyson's book, Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, ISBN 978-0375422775."From the Wikipedia article for Klara Dan von Neumann
Unfortunately, she features significantly mainly as von Neumann's wife, even though she also was "a pioneer computer programmer," as per the Wikipedia article. In fact, of the 35 women whose names are in the book's index, 24 are in the book as wives, including Klara. Klara is the only one who gets a full bio and a fair amount of ink. Much of the ink comes from her unfinished memoirs about her life as von Neumann's wife. She was also one of the primary programmers working on the ENIAC, and Dyson's book names her as one of the first three programmers, along with her husband, programming ENIAC. (p. 104). Her work, however, is described as "help," one of the ways that women's activities are diminished in importance (men "do", women "help"):
"'With the help of Klari von Neumann,' says Metropolis, 'plans were revised and completed and we undertook to implement them on the ENIAC...'" p. 194Yet she obviously provided more than "help." In fact, she invented:
"'Your code was described and was impressive,' von Neumann wrote to Klari from Los Alamos, discussing whether a routine she had developed should be coded as software or hardwired into the machine. 'They claim now, however, that making one more, 'fixed,' function table is so little work, that they want to do it. It was decided that they will build one, with the order soldered in." (p. 195)Of the other women mentioned, one is a secretary, the other the manager of the cafeteria. The saddest story is that of Bernetta Miller, the fifth licensed woman pilot in the US who was a demonstration pilot for an airplane company, volunteered for duty in WWI and was wounded, then became secretary to the directory of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In the Dyson book, she is mainly remembered for her memoranda about dining room accounting, and for being fired by Oppenheimer. (p. 91-92)
There are eight women, other than Klara, who are in the book in their professional positions. Three of them are mentioned in a single sentence as "computers," that is people (mainly women) who did the hard math by hand before the machine computers were up to the job. (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_computer, and I highly recommend the books by Grier in the bibliography if you wish to learn of the sophistication of methods that were developed by the "girls.")
One woman, Mina Rees, is named twice as someone who was written to:
"... Goldstine had written to Mina Rees of the Office of Naval Research." p. 147
"... 'The best change for a real undersatnding of protein chemistry lies in the x-ray diffraction field,' he wrote to Mina Rees at the Office of Naval Research." p.229Later there is a quote from a report that states,
"... was informed by Dr. Mina Rees and Colonel Oscar Maier, representing the Office of Naval Research, and the Air Material Command, respectively..." p. 321In themselves these quotes are not important, but this is one of the few professional women who gets mentioned in the book, and this is all that is said about her. Dr. Mina Rees was an amazing character: "She earned her doctorate in 1931 with a thesis on "Division algebras associated with an equation whose group has four generators," published in the American Journal of Mathematics, Vol 54 (Jan. 1932), 51-65. Her advisor was Leonard Dickson." (Wikipedia article) At the time of these references she was head of the Mathematics Department at the Office of Naval Research.
There are some other minor mentions, like one of Meg Ryan in a parenthetical sentence about a named location that was later used in a movie, and one woman mathematician who was named with two male mathematicians in a single sentence. These obviously are not major characters in the book, and the book is wide-ranging with everything from Aldus Huxley to George Washington, also not major characters.
The real mystery woman is Hedvig Selberg.
"'... says Atle Selberg, whose wife, Hedi was hired by von Neumann on September 29, 1950, and remained with the computer project until its termination in 1958.'" p. 152Later we get a short bio of her: born in 1919 in Transylvania, graduated with a master's degree in mathematics at the head of her class, and was the only family member to survive Auschwitz. She came to the U.S. and was hired to work on the first computer project. She seems to have worked closely with a Martin Schwarzschild on a complex model of stellar evolution that related to the radiation effects of the bomb that was being designed. Schwarzschild went on to fame, as did Selberg's husband, a mathematician. Hedvig didn't even rate an obituary in the big newspapers (nor a Wikipedia article), although she is mentioned in her husband's obit where he first marries her, then she dies (in 1995) and he remarries.
"His first wife, Hedvig Liebermann, a researcher at the institute and Princeton's Plasma Physics Laboratory, died in 1995." (NYT Aug 17, 2007)(Note: Mina Rees did get a NY Times obit. )
Among the other striking aspects of this treatment of women (and this book isn't by any means unusual in this respect) is that women tend not to exist until they marry a man of interest, and then suddenly they appear on the scene. Men, on the other hand, have parents and educations and often interesting stories that are told in the book, both as character building but also as bone fides. It is therefore a bit of a shock to learn in some aside that the wife has a PhD in "trans-sonic aerodynamics" as in the case with Kathleen Booth. (p. 133)
Admittedly the opportunities for women in science were very limited in the period being discussed in this book, the 1950's. However, the role of a historian is to go beyond the period's view of itself and tease out a deeper meaning from the privileged position of hind-sight. I have read other histories of computing that also failed to notice that there were women involved in the invention of this field, but this one has come out in 2012. Really, we didn't need another book on the topic written with male blinders. What a shame.
Noble, David F. The Religion of Technology : the Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. 1st ed. New York: A.A. Knopf :, 1997.
Mozans, H. J. Woman in Science; with an Introductory Chapter on Woman’s Long Struggle for Things of the Mind,. New York,: D. Appleton and company, 1913.
Toole, Betty A., and Ada King Lovelace. Ada, the Enchantress of Numbers : a Selection from the Letters of Lord Byron’s Daughter and Her Description of the First Computer. 1st ed. Mill Valley, Calif.: Strawberry Press ;, 1992.
Grier, David Alan. When Computers Were Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. Print.