THE LABOR FORCE
A true history of the first women in personal computing
by Bonita Taylor
Bonita Taylor is editor of The Buyers Guide series far Ziff-Davis. She is one of the few home users of the Xerox 820 personal computer.
The tales of those inspired pioneers who brought forth the personal computer industry have always centered only on heroes: a few dozen obsessed males working brilliantly against terrific odds, in the humble surroundings of kitchens, basements and garages, nudging their ideas into a multibillion-dollar reality. Now it's time to credit the heroines.
While no one disputes that men had the primary role in the conception of the industry, women were the ones who went into labor. "The women may not have always been the creative driving force," says Betsy Staples, editor of Creative Computing. "But they made it possible to get the men's ideas in the public eye." The women who worked behind the scenes (and in the basements and garages) helped many of the newly formed computer companies grow and survive. These female pioneers provided skills and hours beyond the call of duty and certainly far beyond what the neonatal companies could have afforded to pay.
The range of chores to which women were assigned during this period was extensive. No task was unthinkable. Some of these pioneers talk about encouraging (bribing?) their children to help after school. Some remember spending nights in the kitchen with a Seal a Meal machine, packaging diskettes with one hand and lunchbox sandwiches with the other. One woman (who wishes to remain anonymous) recalls the time an extra diskette turned up: some customer, she was sure, would find a gooey peanut butter sandwich in his package where a disk should have been.
Off to Market
It's not simply a case of good women behind good men. Unsung women have also distinguished themselves by demonstrating their business and marketing acumen. There's Dorothy McEwan, who in 1975 worked as a customer support representative for the phone company while she studied computer programming and fulfilled her responsibilities as a homemaker. The mother of two, she was married to Gary Kildall, a Naval Postgraduate School professor who at that time was writing the CP/M program. "He needed things done, so I did them," Dorothy recalls. "I never thought about what it would lead to."
CP/M became the first commercial operating system software distributed by a non-computer manufacturer as Dorothy, using her business skills, helped mold and build Digital Research Inc. Today she is a vice-president of the company, with responsibility for marketing, communications, customer support, and educational and legal services. But when the computer press needs a computer pioneer to interview, the call goes out to Gary, not Dorothy.
Mary Eubanks is another woman whose contributions have been overlooked. After raising four children, Mary was ready to sit back, relax and possibly start her own travel business, when suddenly she was called upon to once again assume the role of supportive parent. Her son Gordon had written CBASIC, the first microcomputer language to offer reasonably good structure and commercial mathematics capability, and had started a business to sell it. But Gordon was also a serving officer on a strategic nuclear submarine, and it's difficult to run a software company while sitting on the floor of the Pacific Ocean.
Mary volunteered to manage the company. "I knew nothing about computers," she says. "But I was his mother, and I was determined to hold the business together one way or another." She dedicated the next few years of her life to Compiler Systems, and Gordon came out of the Navy to an extremely prosperous company whose CBASIC was one of the most commonly used languages.
Then there's Judy Goodman, who in the early 1970s was working as a substitute elementary school teacher, part-time helper in her husband's TV and stereo shop, and full-time homemaker with three children. During this time her husband became interested in computers, which he saw as "the wave of the future." He educated himself and in 1977 wrote a file management program called Selector, but it was Judy who handled the orders and the marketing (including product distribution and trade shows) and who was responsible for staying on top of finances. Today she is vice-president of Micro Ap, with responsibility for marketing.
Cynthia Posehn, who formed Organic Software, Inc., recalls that "somebody had to answer the letters and the phone calls, ship the software and manage the money." In 1977, when her husband Michael needed a software customization proposal typed up, she was assigned the task. "I'm a terrible typist," she says, "and it took forever to get it out." Michael got impatient and decided that a word processing program was needed. Textwriter was written shortly thereafter. "His intelligence and drive got the company going," Cynthia admits. "He placed the ads and made the contacts." But Cynthia did all the packaging and saw to the printing, as well as anything else that needed to be done. Today she is the firm's secretary-treasurer, responsible for the financial, legal and marketing side of the business.
A Man's World
The women in these cameos arrived in the personal computer industry by accident, but they share similar characteristics. They are tolerant, determined, competent, hard-working and willing to take on something new. And they are dependable. They were expected to work on behalf of the men they knew and to tend all phases of the business. And they did.
Nonetheless, despite the significant contributions of these and numerous other women during personal computing's formative years, publicity and credit for the accomplishments of their respective companies have continued to go to men. "As journalists, we wanted interesting personalities as well as `names,' " says Maggie Canon, the editor of A + magazine. "The more famous someone became, the more interesting that person was to write about. The companies themselves promoted the men."
According to the National Science Foundation, women represent 26 percent of the computer labor force. We don't know how many in this group have made critical contributions to their companies. What we do know is that the success of the early entrepreneurial companies shaped the computer industry as it is today. To survive the early period, each needed not only the ideas contributed by their heralded entrepreneurs (men), but also the skills of the various unheralded women.
Would the personal computer industry exist as we know it without them? "Probably not," says Nancy Lehman, another pioneer. "This society is not taught to acknowledge what women do and what would happen if we stopped."
It may be that if women are to be recognized for their achievements, they will have to write the chapters themselves. This is only the first.
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