Today is Ada Lovelace Day. Ada Lovelace is often referred to as the first computer programmer, based on her 1842 treatise on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine; Ada Lovelace Day began in 2009 as a way of increasing the profile of women in Science, Engineering, Technology, and Math (commonly referred to as STEM fields).
I’m not in a STEM field (though I’m the almuna of a college that prides itself on turning out huge numbers of women who are). But you know who we could see as being early STEM pioneers? Printers. Early modern printers were using a new technology that had a radical impact on their world. 1 And you know who we find in printing in early modern London? Women.
Here’s a fun thing to try: search the ESTC‘s publisher field for “widow.” There’s 352 results! Now trying searching for “Elizabeth”: 405 results! Jane? 112!
I do an exercise with my students on using the Stationers’ Register and during the course of tracing one book’s passage through the Register, we come across three different women who printed or published the book. It’s sort of an accident that that’s the book we work with it, but it’s a really effective exercise. My students are always shocked that there are women working as printers in this period. But why is it so shocking?
I suspect that it is, in part, because we have become so used to thinking about the early modern period as being repressive for women. Chaste, silent, and obedient. But that’s an assumption that blinds us to the lives of actual women in early modern England. Women might have been supposed to pass from father’s household to husband’s without ever being subjects in their own right. But if you look at the records, you find women owning property and conducting business. Not just one or two, but handfuls of women. I’m not going to claim that the opposite of “chaste, silent, obedient” is true—women were not by any means empowered or enfranchised—but our blind spots shouldn’t mean that we don’t reconsider our assumptions when we start to see what we’ve been missing. How many of the unnamed printers in imprints are women?
I don’t know very much about the history of women printers in this period, or about female labor, but there’s a book coming out next year that should help me get a better sense of the range of activities: Helen Smith’s “Grossly Material Things”: Women and Book Production in Early Modern England. If you can’t wait that long, you can check out her article in TEXT on the subject. 2 And there are a couple of sites out there to start filling in some gaps: a blog post about the early American printer Dinah Nuthead and an exhibition from the University of Illinois library. The more traces of this history I find, the more I want to learn!
And it matters that we learn these things. It matters that we understand the past as a variegated and nuanced time in part because it enables us to see our own time that way. It matters that we remember Ada Lovelace and Rosalind
Crick Franklin and Elizabeth Allde because it matters that they contributed to our knowledge of the world and that we can contribute too.
UPDATE: What a horrible thing to mistype Rosalind Franklin’s name in a post about women pioneers in STEM fields and to give her Francis Crick’s last name instead! I’ve fixed it now. Go read about her and then go read Kate Beaton’s comic in Hark, a vagrant.notes
- Please don’t send me comments about how the printing press didn’t cause any revolutions. No one thing changes the world in isolation. But moveable type was fucking huge.
- “‘Print[ing] your royal father off’: early modern female stationers and the gendering of the British book trades”, TEXT: An Interdisciplinary Annual of Textual Studies, 15 (2003), 163-86.