Vassar Quarterly - Spring/Summer 2017 - 41
Hopper, Vassar Archives and Special Collections / John Abbott
"I don't think I know anybody who's a woman in
tech who doesn't know about Grace Hopper," says
Sarah Zinger '10, a web engineer who volunteered as
mentor at the Grace Hopper Program. "She's definitely
one of the role models that people look toward."
Born in 1906, Hopper grew up in New York City and
enrolled at Vassar at 17. She studied math and physics,
but her interests were diverse. She graduated Phi
Beta Kappa and Vassar granted her a fellowship to
In 1931, while studying at Yale, she returned to
Vassar to teach math. Her first courses were Elementary
Structural Drawing, Integral Calculus, and Shades,
Shadows, and Perspective. She later became an assistant
professor. In notes to the Quarterly, she was described as
both a "great teacher," and a "sharp wit at the luncheon
table or in faculty meetings."
After the U.S. entered WWII, Hopper convinced
Vassar to grant her leave so that she could enlist in the
U.S. Navy Reserve. After training, she went to Harvard
to work on one of the world's first computers, running
calculations to help in the war effort. The machine was
8 feet tall, 51 feet long, and contained 750,000 parts.
After the war, she left active service and resigned
from Vassar. (She would return to campus at least 9
or 10 times to speak.) But she continued working in
computing. In 1952, she invented a compiler that
translated English into computer code, paving the way
for the creation of programming languages Fortran
(Formula Translator) and COBOL (Common BusinessOriented Language), and making it possible for
generations of non-experts to do their own programming. For a 1966 Vassar "Class Report," she wrote,
"I will do almost anything to stay with the computers.
The field is still critically shorthanded. Of course,
I hope the price will come down some day so I can have
a computer of my own!" She continued working on
projects for the Navy, and in 1983, President Ronald
Reagan promoted her to commodore, a rank later
renamed rear admiral. She retired in 1986.
"Waiting for You to Wake Up"
One vestige of Hopper's years at Vassar is the two-story
colonial house she built near Kenyon Hall. Computer
science professor Jenny Walter lives across the street.
Walter channels the computer pioneer when she takes
students each year to the Anita Borg Institute's Grace
Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.
"It was overwhelming, the amount of women that
were there, the amount of incredibly brilliant and
Professor Jennifer Walter, center, considers Hopper an inspiration. Each year, she takes
students to the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing.
talented women," says Laura Barreto '17, who has attended three times. The
conference inspired her to apply for a career development workshop for minority
students, which helped her land a job after graduation-at Microsoft.
Vassar's computer science program might not have existed without Hopper.
"She's sort of like the grandmother of the department," says professor Nancy Ide,
who established the department in the early 1990s. That's because one of Hopper's
students, Winifred Asprey '38, went on to teach at Vassar and decided that the
school needed a computer. In 1956, Asprey ran the idea by Hopper: "What do you
think about Vassar getting into computers?" Her former professor responded:
"I've been waiting for you to wake up." Around a decade later, Vassar opened its
computer center, and Hopper spoke at the ceremony. She told attendees that the
world was only starting to know what to do with computers, and that if the power
of the machines scared anyone, people could "always pull the plug."
Those advancing Hopper's legacy say it's important to recognize her accomplishments, given that, as of 2015, women comprised just 25 percent of the country's
professional computing workforce, according to the National Center for Women and
Information Technology. In 2014, women earned just 15 percent of computer science
bachelor's degrees. The figures for certain groups of women of color were also
Fortunately at Vassar, there are now nearly six times as many computer science
majors as there were a decade ago-117 this past school year. Ide says her classes are
growing more diverse. All of those students likely know about Hopper, since the
department has installed two displays about her in Sanders Physics. One of them, a
banner hanging in the stairwell, depicts Hopper alongside one of her famous sayings:
"The most dangerous phrase in the language is, 'We've always done it this way.' "
-Max Kutner '11
Max Kutner '11 is a senior writer at Newsweek, where he covers higher education, politics, and
other topics. Visit stories.vassar.edu to read Lynn Gilbert's chapter about Hopper in Women of
Wisdom: Talks with Women Who Shaped Our Times.
VA S S A R Q u A R T E R LY