Rita Goldberg Minker: Bridging Homemakers to Career Moguls

Julia Miglets

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It is no secret that women have been oppressed in their respective career fields since they first started taking on jobs that didn't involve them being homemakers.

In the 1950s, women were finally being seen crossing the bridge from homemaker to career mogul. The prospect of having a college education was becoming more mainstream for many women. One of those women was Rita Goldberg Minker, one of the first female computer programmers. Her extensive work with computer systems, particularly as a contributor to medical research technology, made her a force to be reckoned with in the computer programming field. Her contributions to medical research technology and missile systems proved quite important to not only her field but to her society.

Rita Goldberg Minker received her education at the New Jersey College of Women, where she achieved a BS with high honors in Mathematics, and at the University of Wisconsin, finishing out her education with a Master's degree in Mathematics. After graduating from UW in 1950, she attained her first job at Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. There she did work on the Bell Relay Machine as a network problem programmer. After her time at Bell Laboratories, she went to work at Cornell Aeronautical Laboratories in Buffalo, New York, where she worked on simulating the performance of missile systems using analog electronic computers. She was the first female programmer hired at RCA and did work on BIZMAC, the company's first computer. Amusingly enough, while employed at RCA, the company received a letter from the U.S. Army inquiring why their engineer hadn't registered for the draft. What made the inquiry even more laughable was that Minker was also pregnant at the time. Although the situation provided a good laugh for Minker and her coworkers, the letter was a blatant example of the ideological way U.S. society viewed women in the 1950's. The hard truth was that it was unexpected for an engineer or a scientist to be anything other than a man.

Even though she took great strides to establish her career, she took time off from 1953 to 1964 to raise her children. When she returned to work, she went to the Division of Computer Research and Technology (DCRT) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as a mathematician and computer programmer. She was there to help medical researchers at NIH with the aspects of their work that involved computers. She headed the Training Unit of DCRT where she instituted courses to teach statistical methods and programming to medical researchers. Her contributions to medical research are perhaps the greatest legacy of her career. She then went on to join the Statistical Software Section, Laboratory of Statistical and Mathematical Methodology of the DCRT. There she was in charge of the consultation and maintenance of SPSS, a major statistical package. She co-authored multiple medical journals on schistosomiasis, and even co-authored a piece with her husband, Jack, on the history of optimization on Boolean expressions. She passed away on 11 October 1988 due to breast cancer. She was 61 years old.

Rita Goldberg Minker was a woman who did not let the societal norms of the time affect the way that she was going to live her life. She received higher education and successfully utilized it after graduation. What she was able to accomplish in the early 1950s would be deemed a success even if accomplished in the 2010s, which speaks volumes on Minker being far beyond her time. Along with Minker, others contributed to the dawn of computer programming. Ada Lovelace started out as one of the first computer programmers, as well. Then there was Grace Murray Hopper, a programmer for the very first computer compiler, which is a program that translates computer instructions from English into Machine Language. It was a group of female computer programmers who worked at Bletchley Park to break that Nazi code, and a group of female programmers who received the Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery, which is the equivalent of a Nobel Prize in the realm of computer programming. Perhaps the most important thing to be taken away from all of this is that it is not only hard work that will grant success, but communication skills, creative ideas, and innovative determination. These women not only attained those assets but learned the value of going the extra mile to be successful in a society that expected very little of them. People like Minker made the idea of female innovators a valid possibility.