Pioneers – Nerd Women Who Led the Way

In honor of Women’s History Month, I wanted to do an article about the nerdy women in history who paved the way for our current crop of glamorous geeks! I discovered (to my joy) that there are a TON of ladies to choose from. Though they may not have ever received the recognition their male counterparts did, they are proof that women nerds have been here the entire time.

So check out these ladies who were nerds before it was “in.”


Ada Lovelace

Patron nerd of hacker heroes and math mavens

Ada Lovelace

Augusta Ada King (bordn Augusta Ada Byron), Countess of Lovelace, was born in 1815 and died in 1852. She was not only the single legitimate child of Lord Byron, but also a mathematician and a writer. She has the distinction of writing the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine, from notes she wrote for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. This algorithm is why she is hailed as the world’s first computer programmer. She was also one of the first to realize the potential of computers to do more than just crunch numbers.

Octavia Estelle Butler

Patron nerd of sci-fi/fantasy fiends

Octavia Butler

Octavia Estelle Butler was born in 1947 and died in 2006. During her lifetime, she received Hugo and Nebula awards for her science-fiction novels and, in 1995, she became the first science-fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. In addition to being a prominent woman in the sci-fi field, she also has the distinction of being one of the best-known African-American women in the field.

And guess what? She was apparently super shy and awkward, just like the rest of us nerds!

Ban Zhao

Patron nerd of quintessential librarians


Bān Zhāo was born in 45 CE and died in 116 CE. She was the first known (and most famous) female Chinese historian, completing the family legacy, Book of Han. She also delved into astronomy and mathematics, as well as wrote poems, commemorative writings, argumentations, commentaries, essays, and more.

One of her works is rather infamous. Lessons for Women was an influential work advising women to be submissive. Now I know that sounds bad, but it is possible that she wrote this as a sneaky guide to help intelligent women, as it also recommends that women be well-educated so they can be even more helpful to their husbands. In the very male-dominated society of historic China, the advice to be submissive could have been a literal life-saver. Considering she taught the empress and other ladies of the court in the palace library, she couldn’t have been a woman hater!

Cecilia Payne

Patron nerd of space mistresses

Cecilia Payne was born in 1900 and died in 1979. She was an astronomer and astrophysicist. She was the first woman promoted to full professor from within the faculty at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Later, with her appointment to the Chair of the Department of Astronomy, she became the first woman to head a department at Harvard. Her 1925 Ph.D thesis proposed an explanation for the composition of stars in terms of the relative abundances of hydrogen and helium. Her observations and analysis of variable stars laid the basis for all future work on them.

Her discoveries were arguably as important as Newton’s and Einstein’s, but most of us don’t even know her name!

Grace Murray Hopper

Patron nerd of tech queens and military minds


Grace Murray Hopper was born in 1906 and died in 1992. She was a computer scientist and United States Navy Rear Admiral. She was also one of the first programmers on the Harvard Mark 1 computer and developed the first compiler for computer programming language. This eventually led to the development of COBOL, one of the first modern programming languages. Oh, and she created the term “debugging.”

Let’s sing a few more of her praises: at a celebration held in Boston to celebrate her retirement, Hopper was awarded the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the highest non-combat award possible by the Department of Defense. At the time of this retirement, she was the oldest commissioned officer in the United States Navy (79 years, eight months, and five days), and aboard the oldest commissioned ship in the United States Navy (188 years, nine months, and 23 days.)

Talk about old school!

Honorable Mentions

There were so many awesome women that it was hard to choose! Here’s some further reading for those interested:

Mae Jemison – First black female astronaut and all around braniac

Anita Borg – Advocate for women in computing, founded the first e-mail network for women in technology

Emilie du Chatelet – Mathematician, physicist, and author who translated Netwon’s Principia Mathematica

Marie Curie – Radioactivity pioneer

Maria Mitchell – First American woman to work as a professional astronomer

Hypatia – Philosopher and first well-documented woman in mathematics

Radia Perlman – Mother of the Internet! She hates that title, by the way

Need some modern day nerd heroes? Check this infographic out.

“The most important thing I’ve accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, “Do you think we can do this?” I say, “Try it.” And I back ‘em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir ‘em up at intervals so they don’t forget to take chances.” – Grace Hopper


4 thoughts on “Pioneers – Nerd Women Who Led the Way

  1. Reblogged this on No Dice At All and commented:
    Great piece on the best women, Nerd Women. These are the ladies that contributed to history and society that may have fallen by the wayside in your studies of them. Take a look!

Tell us what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.