Honoring Women in STEM History

March 12, 2013

March is Women’s History Month, and the theme for this year is Women Inspiring Innovation through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). AAUW is excited that this year’s theme highlights STEM because it provides a great chance to recognize the women who have broken barriers to succeed in STEM throughout history.

Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper with the UNIVAC computer

Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper with the UNIVAC computer

Furthermore, AAUW is proud to say that two of the amazing women who are being honored by the National Women’s History Project this month are AAUW Achievement Award winners: Rear Adm. Grace Murray Hopper, who was a prolific computer scientist, and Katharine Burr Blodgett, who was a physicist and inventor.

Hopper received the AAUW Achievement Award in 1983 in recognition of her important contributions to computer science. Hopper was the co-inventor of the computer language COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language) and popularized the term “debugging” for fixing computer glitches. Nicknamed the “grand old lady of software” and known as “amazing Grace” by her subordinates, Hopper had a distinguished career in higher education, private industry, and the U.S. Navy and made significant efforts in educating younger generations about advanced information systems technology.

Hopper became a computer science pioneer after earning her doctorate in mathematics from Yale University in 1934. Following graduation, she taught at her undergraduate alma mater, Vassar College. In 1943, she joined the Navy and used the forerunner of modern computers to do ordnance calculations. Hopper also helped develop UNIVAC, the first commercial computer. She retired in 1966 but was called back to active duty the next year, at age 60, to help standardize the Navy’s computer languages. She retired again in 1986, at age 80, as the nation’s oldest active-duty officer at that time. An outspoken woman, she once declared, “Being a woman won’t hold you back if you have the desire, the courage, and the skill.”

Blodgett, 1945 AAUW Achievement Award recipient, is best known for her work in developing a nonreflective coating for glass that is used on virtually all lenses in cameras and other optical equipment. This “invisible glass,” which reduced glare, grew out of Blodgett’s work in the General Electric laboratories on the thickness of a single molecule. She was also the inventor of the step gage, a device that could measure the thickness of “films of transparent material” to within one-millionth of an inch.

A native of Schenectady, New York,  Blodgett earned her bachelor’s degree in 1917 from Bryn Mawr College. The following year she earned a master’s of science at the University of Chicago, after which she returned to Schenectady and became a staff member at the GE Research Laboratory. She was the first woman to be awarded a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Cambridge in 1926.

In addition to Blodgett and Hopper, several National Women’s History Project nominees also have AAUW connections: chemist Helen M. Berman (1993–94 Community Action Grantee), marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson (1956 Achievement Awardee), technology pioneer Erna Schneider Hoover (1950–51 American Fellow), geneticist and Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock (1947 American Fellow), biochemist Florence B. Seibert (1943 American Fellow), and geneticist Nettie Stevens (1908 American Fellow).

This month, we celebrate the achievement of the women who made STEM history. Is there a historical STEM woman who inspired you? Tell us in the comments!

This post was written by AAUW STEM Programs Intern Latosha Adams.

By:   |   March 12, 2013