Professor brings feminism to film

A film and media arts professor produced a film about empowered women during WWII.

LeAnne Erickson aims to tell unknown stories in her films. Kara Milstein | TTN
LeAnne Erickson aims to tell unknown stories in her films. Kara Milstein | TTN

Filmmaking, feminism and World War II military calculations have something in common: LeAnn Erickson.

 Erickson is an associate professor in the film and media arts department with more than 25 years of filmmaking experience and has created several documentaries, experimental videos and animations since the mid-1990s.

 Her most recent film, “Top Secret Rosies: The Female Computers of WWII,” was a story she accidentally discovered.

 The award-winning filmmaker was working on another project, “Neighbor Ladies,” which included a group of women in the Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia who were fighting “blockbusting.”

 Erickson said the process of “blockbusting” occurs when real estate agents sell property to African Americans in a primarily white neighborhood and then suggest to the white neighbors that they should move. Erickson said this process can cause the demographic of a neighborhood to totally change over a month or two.

 The women involved in the piece were interested in living in integrated neighborhoods. Two of the women, who are twin sisters, started a real estate agency in the 1960s, something practically unheard of at the time.

 “I was at their house scanning photographs for the documentary and they were reminiscing over old photos,” Erickson said.

 Erickson said she saw a photo that was taken while the sisters were working for the army during the war. Erickson then discovered that these sisters were recruited out of high school to perform math calculations for the military. Many people believe the women’s work was instrumental in the allies winning the war, Erickson said.

“I realized I had discovered an unknown story,” Erickson said.

 She told the sisters once she finished “Neighbor Ladies,” she would fundraise and return to start another film on their military work. It took seven years, but Erickson was able to finish “Top Secret Rosies” in 2010.

Since then the film has been screened for Google, Apple and various other film festivals. It has left an impact on the technology world, Erickson said, which surprised her.

 The film professor assumed her primary audience would include World War II history buffs. Her biggest audience ended up being those in the technology realm – particularly women.

 “It was a lost story of women and computer history, so it has this resonance,” Erickson said.

 She said she views “Top Secret Rosies” as a historical documentary and thinks of her newly released interactive book app, “The Computer Wore Heels,” as a form of documentary too.

 Erickson also visited several high schools and colleges while on tour for her film and met numerous women who are studying computer engineering or mathematics.

 “Lots of [the students] approached me and said, ‘I wish I would’ve known about this story when I was a kid,’” Erickson said.

 Erickson, inspired by the women she had met, decided to create an interactive book application for the iPad.

 For the app, she decided to focus on the three women involved with “math wizardry,” or three women who had a passion for math and were teenagers at the time of the war.  She wanted to gear the app toward young girls who often lose interest in math and science once they hit junior high, she said.

 Erickson hopes young girls will become inspired after discovering that the first original programmers of the first electronic computer were women.

 The app, Erickson said, is aimed toward late elementary, early middle school children.

She said her parents instilled in her a sense of fairness and that they pushed the “American Dream.”

“The reality is that’s not how it is … and these stories won’t be told otherwise,” Erickson said of her strong interest in women’s history.

Erickson calls it her “mission” to tell these unknown stories. Her audience for the app also includes librarians and teachers in the hopes that they will place it the hands of young adults.

“Role models are important, and I hope the women in this story can serve as [role models] to young girls,” Erickson said.

Emily Scott can be reached at and on twitter @emilyscott315

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