About a year ago, I began this blog with a post about who Ada Lovelace was. Now, on another Ada Lovelace Day, I’d like to talk about who she wasn’t.
A few months ago, I received a reply from an agent about my novel, The Steel Lady. Ada Lovelace is not the protagonist of the novel, but she is a prominent character. The agent was good enough to offer some feedback, but their main point was befuddling; they asked why Ada, “an influential feminist and historical figure,” had a life so fraught with conflict, particularly in relation to those close to her. The comment made my brain itch. On the one hand, I wanted to point out that Ada was categorically not a feminist, nor was she particularly influential. On the other hand, I bristled at the idea that personal conflict somehow negated feminism.
Let me start by saying that I love all things Ada Lovelace (or Ada Byron, if you prefer). I love that she was the poet Byron’s daughter. I love that she was taught math in order to control her “passions”. I love that at age eighteen, when she met Charles Babbage, she immediately understood his Analytical Engine, the mechanical computer that was never built. She understood computers before computers existed. Compared to that, whether or not she really was the first computer programmer seems superfluous.
In my novel, Ada Lovelace is a tragic character. She is bitter, addicted to gambling, in conflict with her husband, and fatally ill at the age of 36. This is the part that I didn’t make up. Ada’s own time did not allow her to fulfill her potential as a programmer and mathematician; even Charles Babbage, her mentor and collaborator, implied in his publication of her Notes that it was not in fact Ada’s work, but rather his. Even her death by uterine cancer smacks of an unfairness to her as a woman.
I understand the desire for a compelling feminist heroine. The difference is that when I went looking for one, I didn’t find Ada. I found her daughter. Both in my novel and in reality, there was hope for Annabella King (later Anne Blunt) in a way that there wasn’t for Ada. The world was changing in a way that allowed for choices for woman that, though still unfair, were at least more liberating.
History doesn’t cast Ada in the light of an influential feminist figure – she achieved little and died young. For many years, her achievements were nearly forgotten. She makes a much better feminist rallying cry. Her story may not influence you, but it should make you angry – for her, and for women like her whose potential is consistently wasted because they are women.
The more I think about the comment, the more what bothers me is the implication that somehow a woman can’t be both a feminist and a conflicted character. It seems to imply that Ada’s flaws are incompatible with her supposed influence. Ada's intelligence was unfulfilled; if the gambling and affairs at the end of her life can be attributed to anything, they ought to be attributed to that. She struggled and failed. If we pretend otherwise, we do a disservice to her, and to women everywhere who struggle against insurmountable odds. If we ignore these failures, we gloss over the very injustices that gave rise to feminism in the first place.
If we’re going to remember Ada Lovelace today (and we should), then we should remember all of her. If we wish to recast Ada Lovelace as a feminist figure, it ought to be by letting her be as human as the next man.
Jane Perrella. Teacher, writer. Expert knitter. Enthusiast of medieval swordplay, tea, Shakespeare, and Batman.