Professor uncovers story of women programmers in WWII


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World War II saw the United States create one of the strongest military efforts in its history. Today, scholars are familiar with the soldiers in combat, people at home planting victory gardens, and women working in factories. Yet one group was missing from history books: the women mathematicians in charge of programming war weapons.

In LeAnn Erickson's latest documentary, Top Secret 'Rosies': The Female 'Computers' of WWII, the University of Iowa alumna aims to tell the untold story of the women behind the ballistics tables for the U.S. weapons. Today, a reception will be held at 6:30 p.m. followed by a screening at 7 p.m. in 1505 Seamans Center. The screening is free and open to the public.

"This was a great opportunity, so we grabbed it," said Women in Science and Engineering Director Christine Brus. "I'm hopeful that we will get some community members and K-to-12 students to attend."

Erickson learned the secret of women mathematicians by accident while working on a documentary about neighborhood blockbusting, the practice of neighborhood segregation in the 1960s. As she scanned photos one day, she overheard a conversation between two of her film subjects. She learned that at age 18, the two women had worked as "human computers" for the U.S. Army.

"People think of programming as a very male thing," Erikson said. "Most people don't know that it was mostly women."

Hundreds of women with math training were employed across the country. The government found them particularly beneficial because they had training comparable with men, but they could receive lower salaries. Women were left in charge with calculating temperature and air density that allowed soldiers to properly aim artillery. Factory workers made the weapons, but those tools were accurate because of the hidden female programmers.

Erickson was surprised not by the sexism during the era but by the lengths officials went to segregate women from men.

"They would desperately recruit women to do math but wouldn't allow them to be in the men's classes," Erickson said. "To [women], it was business as usual, which to me was shocking."

Intrigued by the hidden story, Erickson began researching through libraries in Pennsylvania and national archives in Washington, D.C. In order to pursue the film, she needed to find funding for the more expensive high-definition film.

"It's a real challenge as an independent person to raise money," she said. "I had to get creative."

By speaking at paid lectures and creating donation drives, she was able to continue interviewing and filming the project. After seven years, she completed Top Secret Rosies.

Like the new documentary, Erickson's previous films discuss women's rights.

In 1996, she created From One Place to Another: Emma Goldman Clinic Stories, a story about Iowa City women who offered self-help and access to abortion. In Neighbor Ladies, Erickson focused in on women in the late-1950s and '60s who integrated neighborhoods, creating a more diverse community.

Women's rights interest Erickson. She feels it is important to create pieces that give the public a woman's perspective.

"I worked on this film for seven years, so I had to be interested in it," she said. "I was bringing these women out into the spotlight they deserved."

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