The web site of Austin-based writer Eileen McGinnis.

 

Software Entrepreneurs Elsie Shutt + Stephanie Shirley: Mothers of Invention, Inventive Mothers

In time for Thanksgiving: here’s a mini-post giving thanks to two remarkable programmers and business owners. It is also a paean to part-time work.

In the mid-twentieth century, what was a programmer and young mother to do? Start her own company of course. Oh, and staff it with fellow mothers who were also searching for part-time programming work.

In 1957, Elsie Shutt started Computations, Inc., a freelance software-services business, in Harvard, Massachusetts. Across the pond, Stephanie ‘Steve’ Shirley hit upon a similar concept: she began Freelance Programmers Ltd. (later F International) outside of London in 1962.

Both women turned what were initially short-term, ad hoc solutions to their own work-and-parenting dilemmas into thriving businesses. In the process, Shutt and Shirley gave not only themselves, but many others, a lifeline. Absent existing opportunities, they improvised their own – not just generating work for themselves but inventing a new business model. This model depended on an overlooked and undervalued component of the tech workforce: new mothers. 

Shirley, in particular, prioritized work assignments based on social need:

High priority was women who were the breadwinners, unmarried mothers…and people with severe disabilities.

Their efforts were not without backlashes, challenges, and additional emotional labor, such as having to navigate questions about their husbands' abilities as 'providers.' The condescending media coverage of their respective companies included a Business Week profile in 1963 that referred to Shutt’s employees as “the pregnant programmers.” The article included a staged photo (see below) that would fool NO ONE who has actually tried to work at home with a baby. 

Similarly, in 1964 The Guardian described the entrepreneur Shirley as “retired, with a young baby." The author noted that, 

[Shirley] has found that computer programming…is a job that can be done at home between feeding the baby and washing nappies.

 Staged photo from a 1963  Business Week  profile of Shutt's company.

Staged photo from a 1963 Business Week profile of Shutt's company.

Given the lack of social and financial support for parents in this country, part-time work is an economic privilege. Even when it is a ‘choice’ one can afford to make, it’s not one everyone wants to make.

But I wonder why part-time continues to be so stigmatized, perceived as lesser than. There’s a questioning of one’s professionalism, drive, ambition, commitment, ‘seriousness.’ 

Working part-time saved my sanity. Returning to adjunct teaching when my son was 4 ½ months old felt like a spa vacation and a soul-affirming meditation retreat all in one. I don’t think anyone has so gleefully led a 9 am composition course full of bleary-eyed freshmen as I did in those early months back on campus. But the days at home were important, too. They laid the foundation for my relationship with my son and provided endless parenting lessons in patience and adaptability. Working part-time has also allowed me a space – not much, but a tiny opening – to write.

To me, Elsie Shutt and Dame ‘Steve’ Shirley exemplify how part-time work, regardless of one's field, can be dignified, serious, curiosity-driven – a focused, intentional path rather than an aimless, noncommittal ramble. They are two computer pioneers whose examples still have a great deal to teach us. 

P.S. This post draws heavily on Janet Abbate's research in Recoding Gender.

Misremembered Lines: Toni Morrison on Creating the Self through Community

The Daddy Diaries: Charles Darwin, Fatherhood, + The Origin of Big Ideas