So we’ve had International Women’s Day and other celebrations of the normally uncelebrated major part of humankind, the brouhaha is over, it’s non-alcoholic hangover time, and I find myself haunted by the unlovely word “misogyny”, meaning hatred of women. That sounds too harsh; to me it can mean a wide range of milder negative feelings and possible put-downs, for instance appreciating a new achievement but minimizing the role of the woman behind it.
A perfect example of this comes from the obituary of a Russian-American woman, Evelyn Berezin, who died recently at the age of 93. The obituary credits her with having changed office life forever by inventing and launching the first word processor in 1971, freeing millions of secretaries and copy typists from retyping whole documents because of a few small errors. Eventually it also swept away most of their jobs, as an unexpected side effect that Berezin deeply regretted.
Her photograph shows a plain, slightly overweight smiling woman at her keyboard, friendly but forgettable. Her achievements are all the more memorable: in the 1950s she became the only woman in the team of engineers working for the US Defence Department, and later produced a series of new sophisticated computerised systems. In 1960 she began work on the word processor and created a machine that she called the Data Secretary. From there on her career moved from one dazzling result to the next, and her company grew from having nine employees to 500. No need to spell out her other achievements –
Or is there? Not that it would do much for her. The obituary ends with these words:
“While her role in the digital revolution has not been much recognised, her machine, the Data Secretary is on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.,”
It’s idle to wonder whether her role in the digital revolution would have been more recognised if she had been a man; at least, unlike her memory, her machine has a safe future in a museum.
“It’s difficult not to write a satire”, wrote Horace in Rome in the first century BCE.