“IF YOU’RE GOING THROUGH HELL, KEEP GOING” Winston Churchill
My mother was a pioneer, but not in a wagon train. My mother was part of a revolution, but she never carried a sign or marched in protest. I am embarrassed to admit that it has taken me 50 years to realize the full impact of my mother’s work with computers from 1950-1988. When people get all misty-eyed in their description of stay-at-home moms in the 1950’s, I get angry. When they talk about how women first really entered the workforce in the 1960’s, I get angrier. Women have always worked—at home and away from home. Especially my mom…
Melitta Lexl Trytek’s entire life was a combination of skill, luck and being in the right place at the right time. She was an 11 year old Austrian girl when Hitler annexed the country in 1938. She was an 18 year old, training to be a nurse in Dresden, Germany, when it was fire-bombed in 1945. She survived and met my father, a U.S. Army OSS member stationed in Austria. And she immigrated to the U.S. in 1948 to marry my dad when she was 21.
Then things really started getting interesting!
Melitta worked in Chicago, first for Montgomery Ward, and starting in 1953 for Time, Inc. (Time magazine, Life, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, Money, and People). She was a clerical worker and eventually operated tabulating equipment.
These machines were invented for the 1890 census, and they were an essential part of computing for almost 100 years. Tabulating equipment could count or add from punched cards, or keep track of alphanumeric data—like subscription records for a lot of magazines!
At the end of 1943, IBM was renting 10,000 tabulators to various businesses across the country. The standard IBM punch card was used in data processing from 1928 through the 1980’s. Punched cards were still in use in voting machines in the 2000 election, when “hanging chads” became part of everyone’s vocabulary.
Men were more likely to be tabulator operators and women were more likely to be keypunch operators, based on typing skills. But keypunch operators were rarely promoted to tabulator operators.
Melitta was lucky to run tabulators for Time, Inc. The working conditions weren’t easy. The boxes of punched cards were heavy and had to be loaded just so, in order to avoid a card jam, which was difficult and time-consuming to clear. There was a lot of noise and paper dust generated, and once the punched cards were read by the tabulator, they had to be carefully replaced in their boxes and marked with an X to indicate that they had been processed.
In the 1950’s women working in data processing were expected to dress professionally, much like secretaries. This meant a skirt and blouse or shirtwaist dress, stockings held up by garters (pantyhose had not yet been invented) and closed-toed high heels. You had to stand in those high heels for 8-hour shifts. Melitta always dressed fashionably and she had a wicked sense of humor, which included rubber band fights and pranks with her co-workers, while their male supervisor was not around.
Melitta survived various “purges” of employees as more and more automated equipment replaced clerical workers. If you are a fan of “Mad Men,” think back to the episode when the computers and their massive air conditioners arrive. Everyone at the ad agency is worried, wondering if they will be replaced. Melitta survived and thrived in this work environment because she was smart, tough, conscientious and lucky. Over and over she proved herself to be “as good as a man.” She also was paid less.
The magazine “Business Automation” published a survey in 1960 stating that “the computer department is still a man’s world…only 2 firms out of 500 reported a female manager and only one reported a woman supervisor. Less than 15% of programmers were women.” (1)
Between 1965-1978 the IBM 360 mainframe computer system was the first designed to cover a complete range of applications, small and large, commercial and scientific. It had an enormous impact on the way the world works. It is ranked as one of the all-time top three business accomplishments, along with Ford’s Model T and Boeing’s first jetliner, the 707. The 360 enabled IBM to dominate the computer industry for the next 20 years. It pioneered the 8-bit byte which is still in use in computers today. The 360 also enabled other companies to provide compatible equipment like the Telex tape drive (1967) and Memorex disk storage (1968).(2)
When Time Inc. switched over to IBM 360 equipment, Melitta was trained in how to run these new, massive systems, each of which would fill up a space equal to the size of my living room. The air conditioners and electrical wiring required to cool and power these machines took up about 2 feet of space below the floor of the computer room. No one ever went to work without a sweater again. It was freezing in the computer room!
Melitta was adept at learning the operations and complicated commands to make these computers run. She was so good that she quickly became lead operator and trained many young men on these systems. While tabulators had increasingly been run by women, IBM 360’s were primarily operated by men. Women like Melitta proved in every hour of each 40 hour work week that they were equal to, or better than men at these technical tasks.
Each 360 typically had two operators. Some men refused to work with Melitta, just because she was female. Work assignments would then be shuffled. The level of lewd comments, innuendo, hazing and harassment was extreme by today’s standards. Melitta shrugged it off, joked with and pranked her male co-workers, and demonstrated her ability to be a “good sport” throughout these years.
Melitta wound up training the men who became her boss, her boss’s boss, and her boss’s boss’s boss over the years. Her life lesson was, “It always pays to be nice to whoever you are working with, you never know who you will end up working for.” Although initially on an hourly basis, Melitta earned less than her male computer operator counterparts, by 1983 female computer operators earned the same as their male counterparts. This does not reflect how much more Melitta could have earned in management, which was still predominantly male.
Melitta had refused promotions to management several times, saying, “It would be too much of a headache.” But finally, at age 55, she agreed to become Data Processing Manager of the 4 pm – midnight shift at Time, Inc. She had to learn a lot of Human Resource policies and procedures because she now had hiring and firing responsibilities. By all accounts, her employees and other managers adored and respected her for her competence, fairness, and sense of humor. She excelled in this position until her retirement in 1988 at age 61.
How do I know all this? Well, I worked with my mother at Time Inc. from 1970-1973. There was a policy then that immediate family members could not work directly together. But one Saturday night we were short-handed and Melitta and I were assigned to the same IBM 360. Boy, was she tough! She expected and got a high level of work effort out of me. She wore me out, corrected my mistakes and there was none of her characteristic humor. But I learned then why people respected her. She really knew her stuff!
Thanks to her example I became a systems programmer analyst after college while earning an MBA at night. Five years later, thanks to a superb mentor named Ed
Goldberg, I became a Hospital Administrator at age 34. I was one of only 5% of administrators who were female in my company in 1986.
That mentor was so wonderful, I married him, and he remains the love of a million lifetimes. But I wouldn’t be the person I am today without Melitta Lexl Trytek, who was one of thousands of women across America pioneering and revolutionizing the use of computers in business and creating better lives for themselves and their families in the process.
(1) Misa, Thomas J., Gender in the History of Data Processing, p. 54, 2011
(2) IBM website
Linda Trytek has worked as a computer operator, programmer/analyst, psychiatric social worker, hospital administrator and early childhood educator. She is currently retired and is the Director of the Hummers and Strummers, a ukulele band composed of senior citizens.