Each year for National Women’s History Month in March, the National Women’s History Project selects a theme that highlights achievements by distinguished women in specific fields, from medicine and the environment, to art and politics.
The 2019 theme, “Visionary Women: Champions of Peace & Nonviolence,” recognizes women who have led efforts to end war, violence, and injustice and pioneered the use of nonviolence to change society.
For generations, women have resolved conflicts in their homes, schools, and communities. They have rejected violence as counterproductive and stressed the need to restore respect, establish justice, and reduce the causes of conflict as the surest way to peace. From legal defense and public education to direct action and civil disobedience, women have expanded the American tradition of using inclusive, democratic and active means to reduce violence, achieve peace, and promote the common good.
The story of women carries over to the uniformed services. Women led the charge on service in the U.S. Navy as nurses dating back as early as the 1800s. During the Civil War, Sisters of the Holy Cross served aboard USS Red Rover, the Navy’s first hospital ship. In 1948, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act was passed, granting permanent status in U.S. Navy. YNC Loretta Perfectus Walsh became the first female Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, March 1917, setting the course for trailblazing women serving as leaders in the U.S. Navy.
Today’s Navy is comprised of female Sailors and civilians who serve in every rank from Seaman to Admiral. Women hold nearly every job from yeoman to aviator to deep-sea diver. Some have even reached to the stars as NASA astronauts.
As the father of twin girls, I am excited for their futures because of all the opportunities that will be available for them as young women. One woman in particular, who has paved the way for all our daughters, is Admiral Grace Hopper. She didn’t settle for the conventional or accepted way of doing things, but instead blazed her own trail.
Grace Hopper was born in New York City in 1906 and joined the U.S. Navy during World War II. Prior to joining the Navy, she studied physics and math at Vassar College before proceeding to Yale where she received a master’s degree in mathematics. She began teaching at Vassar College while continuing her studies in mathematics before earning a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale in 1934.
At the onset of World War II, she was compelled to join the U.S. Navy Reserve and was assigned to the Bureau of Ordnance Computation Project at Harvard University where she learned to program the Mark I computer. Hopper continued working in the computing field after the war, remaining with the Navy as a reserve officer. She and her team created the first computer language compiler that ultimately led to the popular COBOL language and additional programming of the Mark II and Mark III computers.
In 1966, Hopper retired from the Naval Reserve at age 60. However, her pioneering computer work meant that she was recalled to active duty to tackle standardizing communication between different computer languages. She remained with the Navy for 19 more years, eventually retiring in 1986 at the age of 79 as a Rear Admiral, as well as being the oldest serving officer in the service.
Grace Hopper is a hero for women because she demonstrated a spirit and passion for her work that drove her research and fueled her hunger for learning. She rose to the top of a field that was predominately male at a time the nation needed her knowledge most. She was a leader. She was a role model and she made her own path, just like so many successful women have done today. To quote Admiral Hopper, “If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it. It’s much easier to apologize than it is to get permission.”
Admiral Hopper has inspired a younger generation of women as well as a Nation. She is one of an elite group of women who have written profoundly important chapters in contemporary American history. Moreover, their heroic efforts have placed today’s young women in a historically exceptional position, where they are better empowered to influence laws and policies, and further ensure the equal treatment of not only women, but all individuals.