Gals & Guns: Women in American Engineering Pre-World War II

by Amy Sue Bix

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Decades before major American universities began welcoming significant numbers of women into their technical programs in the late twentieth century, a handful of women appeared, registering a unique presence in the field. Like men of the late 1800s and early 1900s, a rare group of women during that same era simply worked their way into engineering through observation, persistence, and the happenstance of being in the right place at the right time. Most notably, Emily Warren Roebling oversaw roughly ten years of construction work on the Brooklyn Bridge starting in about 1872 or 1873 after her husband, chief engineer Washington Roebling, was injured on the job. When Washington was inspecting underwater caissons, he traveled up and down too rapidly and suffered severe pain due to decompression stress (now commonly known as “the bends”). While he remained bedridden and partially incapacitated, his wife helped manage the technical correspondence regarding construction instructions. He coached Emily in bridge design so that she could inspect and help supervise work onsite. At the bridge’s dedication in 1883, officials publicly honored Emily Roebling for her role in ensuring the success of her husband’s signature accomplishment.1

As another example, Ethel Bailey turned a high school interest in radios and motorboats into a job during World War I as an assistant government inspector for Liberty airplane engines at an Indianapolis plant test field. Bailey took classes at Detroit’s Michigan State Automobile School and special training through George Washington University. In 1920, she became the first female full member of the Society of Automotive Engineers and joined its staff as a research engineer.2

In the late nineteenth century, a number of American institutions of higher education, including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, remained male-only. Schools created to shape sons of wealthy families into cultivated gentlemen could not accommodate women in that model. Similarly, coeducation seemingly had little place at colleges that prepared young men to become economic and political leaders, businessmen, clergymen, lawyers, and other professionals. Engineering education largely also fit that pattern; institutions or programs that specialized in training technical experts for industry, agriculture, government, or the military catered exclusively to men. When Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute received its first official admissions application from a woman in 1873, the school’s director pressured her into dropping the request. He wrote, “The institute makes no discrimination in regard to sex, but . . . Miss Buswell’s position as the only lady student would not be pleasant. If three or four other ladies were willing to join her, it is probable they would be welcomed.” That promise remained untested.3

Although a large number of public land-grant colleges either were established purposefully as coeducational or generally soon admitted women, the majority of female students entered the humanities, home economics, and teacher-preparation tracks. Local and national educators designed “mechanic arts” and agricultural programs to give a state’s future male citizens modern knowledge that would enable them to attain new heights of economic productivity. The few female students who might express interest in engineering were deterred, both officially and informally. From its start in the 1860s, Iowa State College (later University) followed a philosophy of this coeducational but gender-separated training. Trustees suggested, “If young men are to be educated [as] intelligent . . . farmers and mechanics, is it not as essential that young women should be educated . . . to properly understand . . . their duties as wives of farmers & mechanics . . . conducting a well-regulated household.” In the 1870s, Iowa State taught “Chemistry as Applied to Domestic Economy” and created the first college-based experimental kitchen. The school soon developed related laboratory instruction in “scientific” cookery, sewing, laundry, and household management. The 1880s catalog explained that the domestic-economy curriculum was intended “to prepare young women for the highest demands of home life,” following “the assumption that a pleasant home is the surest safeguard of morality and virtue.” Iowa State’s full “course for ladies” also included studies in English literature, languages, zoology, botany, and chemistry or geology. By 1912, home economics had grown into its own Iowa State division, which expanded rapidly in connection with the national home-economics movement.4

Still, it was a few of these state schools that provided the United States with its first female engineering graduates. In 1876, Elizabeth Bragg Cumming earned a civil engineering bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley, writing a thesis that addressed a technical issue in surveying. She apparently did not practice engineering, however, and instead married soon after graduation and devoted her time to the family, community, and the civic activities that were popular among middle- and upper-income women in the late 1800s and early 1900s.5

For centuries, drawing had been a prized traditional accomplishment for well-bred girls in Europe and America, and possibly due to this artistic connection, skill in drafting became one of the earliest routes to justify women’s entering engineering in the United States. At Iowa State College, Iowa native Elmina Wilson completed a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1892, alongside nine male civil engineering graduates. She stayed in Ames to earn her civil-engineering master’s degree in 1894. Starting in 1892, Wilson joined Iowa State’s staff, first as an assistant assigned to supervising the school’s drafting room for a salary of $300. The school later promoted her to instructor and, in 1902, to assistant professor of civil engineering. She helped officials draft plans for a desperately needed campus water system, and when finished in 1897, the elevated steel-tank water tower became the first that was constructed west of the Mississippi River. Wilson published several technical articles, including a 1902 article in the Iowa Engineer about the testing of hydraulic cement formulas. Perhaps underlining the expectation that it was natural for women to gravitate toward domestic applications of technical knowledge, Wilson wrote a booklet titled Modern Conveniences for the Farm Home. Distributed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1906 as part of the country’s engineering experiment station extension work, her work discussed technical details of household heating systems and water supply (including plumbing traps and vents, waste-water pipes, and sewage disposal), earth closets, and garbage disposal. In 1904, Elmina Wilson left teaching to move into private employment with various companies, including Chicago’s Purdy & Henderson structural engineering firm.6

Elmina Wilson’s sister Alda was three years younger. She completed her civil engineering bachelor’s degree at Iowa State in 1894, took some graduate architecture classes at MIT, and secured work with Chicago- and New York–based architectural firms. After World War I, Alda Wilson joined the Iowa Highway Commission, the state’s very active road-planning agency, where she headed the Women’s Drafting Department. Commenting on the sisters’ careers, the journal of their women’s fraternity Pi Beta Phi editorialized, “Probably no other women have done so much work in engineering lines as these two. . . . No better examples can be found of those refined, intellectual American girls who today are capable of engaging with the highest credit in the most scientific professions.”7

Toward the end of the 1800s, a few other women from various institutions joined the slender ranks of female engineering graduates. Bertha Lamme completed an 1893 degree in mechanical engineering from Ohio State University with a specialization in electricity studies. She then designed motors and machines at Westinghouse for about twelve years. After Lamme married her supervisor, Russell Feicht, the Westinghouse director of engineering, in 1905, corporate anti-nepotism rules required her to retire. According to some accounts, she continued to serve as assistant to both Feicht and her brother Benjamin, who served as chief engineer at Westinghouse from 1903 to 1924. At the University of Michigan, Marian Sarah Parker earned an engineering degree in 1895 and then worked as a structural designer with Purdy & Henderson, the company that later hired Elmina Wilson. Parker transferred from its Chicago office to its New York office, where she planned foundations and steel framing for urban office buildings until she married and stopped working in 1905.8

Similar to the experience of many male engineers in the late nineteenth century, a handful of women entered practice after completing some classes but without a degree. For instance, Edith Julia Griswold took courses in civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering and around 1886 started her own New York City–based drafting practice, with a focus on drawing machinery for patent applications.9

Like male students in these decades, some women who enrolled in college engineering dropped their studies before completing degrees for a variety of reasons involving choice, necessity, or both. Especially in this era, however, leaving academia did not disqualify men and even a few women from engineering-related employment. The most notable example was Catherine (Kate) Gleason, who had grown up with tomboyish inclinations and became familiar with the Rochester, New York, machine shop owned by her father. After his oldest son died, Kate, then about age twelve, volunteered to take his place as an assistant in the plant. Both her parents endorsed the mid-nineteenth-century women’s rights movement that had spread from nearby Seneca Falls; Kate’s mother had befriended Susan B. Anthony, which might at least partially account for the family’s acceptance of the unusual situation. Throughout high school, Gleason helped in the machine shop and took charge of bookkeeping. Some accounts credit her with playing a role in her father’s creation of specialized gear-cutting tools that became widely used in automobile making and other valuable manufactures. At age eighteen, she became the first woman to matriculate in Cornell’s mechanical arts program. Although apparently registered as a “special student,” Gleason took shop classes with male classmates, substituting overalls for skirts. But within months, she returned home because her father still needed her business services. Gleason reentered Cornell in 1888, only to cut short her first year again due to health issues. Although she later took some part-time classes through the local Sibley College of Engraving and the Mechanics Institute (now the Rochester Institute of Technology), Gleason focused her energy on the family firm. In the 1890s, she officially became the secretary and treasurer for the Gleason Tool Company and also acted as its primary sales agent, securing important deals for sizable orders across the United States and Europe. In 1914, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers elected Gleason to full membership, the first woman to earn that honor. Later in life, she led construction projects to develop affordable housing in New York and California. She also discovered innovative standardized methods and patented new machinery for pouring concrete, becoming the first woman to hold membership in the American Concrete Institute.10

But in looking over late-nineteenth-century engineering education, the general absence of women is readily apparent. As just one example, early engineering classes at the University of Illinois appear to have been universally male, with one striking exception. The class of 1885 alumni register lists Josephine M. Zeller as that year’s sole graduate in electrical engineering, which would be unusually early for that combination of gender and specialty. Examination of Zeller’s transcript reveals that she primarily took classes in French, German, English, history, and various arts (painting, drawing, and clay modeling), with zoology and physiology as her only science classes. Given the apparent absence of any studies in physics or engineering, the logical conclusion seems to be that at some point in the school’s record keeping, Zeller’s actual category of “elective” studies may have been abbreviated and then later misread as “electrical engineering.” The first true female graduates in engineering do not appear until four decades later. Louise Pellens earned an agricultural engineering degree in 1909, Beryl Bristow combined physics and engineering for a 1919 degree, and Grace Spencer received a chemical engineering degree in 1922. Before World War II, at least four other women graduated from Illinois in engineering.11

In the early twentieth century, the field of engineering still did not mandate rigid academic qualifications. Entrants came from a variety of backgrounds, a flexibility that created an avenue for one of the most visible female engineers in American history, Lillian Moller Gilbreth, who earned an undergraduate degree in English literature from the University of California Berkeley in 1900. Although skilled enough in high school science and math, she had no overt interest in anything related to engineering until her 1904 marriage to construction company owner Frank Gilbreth. Expecting his new wife to become a competent professional assistant, Frank coached Lillian in building-trade techniques and during her first pregnancy took her up ladders on construction-site visits. As the ambitious inventor of a time-saving scaffold for bricklaying and other ingenious construction devices, Frank soon became the disciple of Frederick Winslow Taylor, the famous and influential “father of scientific management.” Lillian edited and coauthored (often anonymously) Frank’s numerous publications and speeches on the subject of time-and-motion study and the quest for “the one best way”—the most efficient method of performing almost any job. As Frank developed growing international business as an industrial consultant, Lillian became an expert in the rapidly evolving field of industrial engineering. Lillian served as Frank’s intellectual partner, helping him conduct experiments and make “micromotion” films of workers that could be analyzed second by second to eliminate all wasted movement. Frank never completed an undergraduate degree, so he appreciated Lillian’s superior writing skills and pushed her to pursue a doctorate. He believed that by acquiring a Ph.D. Lillian could add prestige to the Gilbreth reputation and also claim credibility for herself as a woman among male professionals, few of whom held such advanced credentials but who “belonged” in engineering by virtue of their sex and hands-on mechanical experience. Lillian earned her doctorate in 1915 from Brown University in the area of psychology, uniting a special interest in industrial and educational psychology with engineering considerations to yield the then-novel field of applied management. Working together, the Gilbreths increasingly moved away from Taylor’s pure scientific management system to emphasize the human element, creating a philosophy that defined workers’ mental welfare and relief from physical fatigue as prerequisites for maximal productive efficiency.

After Frank’s early death from heart disease in 1924 abruptly cut off the Gilbreths’ links to consulting clients, Lillian struggled to support her eleven children and win business commissions in her own right. Frank’s name had given her an entrée to the engineering world, but in the end, engineering colleagues and key employers still perceived her as secondary to Frank. Given those realities, Lillian Gilbreth was in a unique position to comment on the prospects for female engineers. In connection with the 1923 convention of the Women’s Engineering Society in Great Britain, she wrote an article declaring that “Opportunities for women in industrial engineering in America are practically limitless, so far as training and cooperation from those already in the field is concerned.” But when citing particulars, Gilbreth only underlined the scarcity of women’s actual presence; she praised the one female “pioneer” who was then studying industrial engineering at Penn State and the lone female graduate of the Babson Industrial Institute, who happened to be the founder’s daughter. Gilbreth repeatedly expressed optimism about engineering as a future field for women but tempered that enthusiasm with a realistic description of obstacles. In 1940, she wrote, “Standards of selection and placement are often far more rigid for women than for men, which results in a need for greater qualifications. . . . The chief need is to do away with sex discrimination.”12

Gilbreth publicly thanked male engineers for extending “only the most kindly and cooperative treatment” to their few female colleagues. In fact, however, Gilbreth had to fight to win formal acceptance from her peers even after she had established a solid career on her own after Frank’s death. In 1925, Gilbreth “slowly and carefully” sounded out leading members of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers about whether she had any chance to win full membership status in that group, as her husband, Frank, had. Kate Gleason represented the sole female precedent, and according to one former council member, influential leaders at the ASME raised “considerable objection” to the prospect of welcoming any others, feeling that the “admission of lady members has not been an entire success.” Frederick Waldron confirmed that his ASME membership committee felt “well grounded” reservations about the worthiness of other recent applicants from “the fair sex.” Hosea Webster, an engineer at Babcock and Wilcox, advised Gilbreth to postpone her request for consideration, writing, “Based solely upon experience with and observations of the personality and qualifications or lack of qualifications of women applicants who have been presented, there is a very decided feeling that it is not wise to further consider admission of women for membership in any way in this Society.” But other contacts promised to provide glowing references of Gilbreth’s ability and sponsor her petition as a symbol of encouragement to future female engineers. John Freeman wanted the ASME to grant women “equal privileges” inside the profession, telling Gilbreth, “I am glad to see you and Kate Gleason lead the way toward new openings for young women who have a mechanical turn of mind. Charles Newcomb of the Holyoke Steam Pump works during the war took a dozen high school women into his office and trained them for draftsmen, and after the war was over found them so useful that he continued to have a large proportion of young women in his drafting room. Two of our best draftsmen . . . of the Factory Mutual Insurance Company in Boston are young women. . . . I am most heartily in favor of opening every door for women with ambitions in this line.” R. A. Wentworth added, “Undoubtedly the American Society of Mechanical Engineers would be honored by your membership. I will be glad to serve as one of your references in your application. . . . Certainly, in the future, there will be many women members.” In 1926, the ASME elected Gilbreth to society membership.13

Even as Lillian Gilbreth slowly worked her way into an industrial engineering career of her own, the broader world of engineering was changing. Formal credentialing would increasingly come to play a greater role, a shift that ultimately paved the way for women’s entry. True, early twentieth-century college engineering programs universally either excluded or marginalized female students, and for many powerful reasons, few women chose to pursue technical studies. But for women, engineering degree programs were at least relatively more accessible than the challenge of finding opportunities to work their way into the field through the unwelcoming route of industrial hands-on experience. Factories and construction sites proved inherently gender-hostile to women, except for a few who capitalized on family connections (such as Emily Roebling, Kate Gleason, and Lillian Gilbreth). By contrast, academia increasingly distanced engineers from machismo-laden field sites and placed new emphasis on theoretical desk work, enabling women to compete based on brains rather than brawn. Although discrimination continued for female engineering students, grades, examination results, diplomas, and civil service employment qualifying examinations at least in principle offered objective evidence of talent.

In the early twentieth century, a number of institutions added to the small roster of female engineering graduates, one or two at a time. When she entered the University of Kentucky, Margaret Ingels wanted to study architecture, but because the school had no such degree then available, the dean reportedly convinced her to try her hand at mechanical engineering. After graduating in 1916, Ingels then established a thirty-year career as the nation’s first female air conditioning engineer, working mainly for the Carrier-Lyle Engineering Corporation. Ingels also wrote “Petticoats and Slide Rules,” one of the earliest articles that documented the first female engineers in the United States, published in the Midwest Engineer in 1952.14

Prior to World War II, several female students enrolled at the Newark College of Engineering in New Jersey (now known as the New Jersey Institute of Technology). In 1930, for example, Newark College had two women studying chemical engineering, one a senior whose high grades made her a scholarship recipient. Newark’s most distinguished alumna from that era was Beatrice Hicks, the daughter of an engineering executive who earned her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1939. Hicks then completed a physics master’s degree at Stevens Institute of Technology as well as graduate electrical engineering courses at Columbia. During World War II, Hicks became the first female engineer hired by Western Electric, where she worked on the research for and production of quartz crystal oscillators. After the war, she became chief engineer at New Jersey’s Newark Controls Company, a business that had been founded by her family and that manufactured environmental sensing devices for the military and electronics industries as well as fire-control mechanisms for antiaircraft guns. Hicks received a patent on her invention of a special gas-density monitor, a technology that proved to be valuable in the rapidly growing American space program. In 1955, Hicks became the firm’s president and director of engineering. Publicity material from the National Society of Professional Engineers described Hicks as “a very attractive woman, less than forty years old, with dark blue eyes, light brown hair and a svelte figure only five foot three.” She married a fellow professional, Rodney Chipp, who served as director of engineering for ITT Communication Systems: “Altogether the kind of woman-executive Hollywood likes to portray, . . . [Hicks] pleasantly surprises the most poised officers when she negotiates contracts with the Armed Forces.” In the early 1950s, Hicks served as the president of the newly established Society of Women Engineers and traveled extensively to deliver lectures about engineering and women’s role in the discipline.15

Early Efforts to Establish a Professional Sisterhood

Before World War II, simply being a woman who was studying engineering was still unique enough to rate a photograph that might appear on the front page of campus papers at Cornell, Iowa State, Minnesota, and elsewhere. The media coverage treated each woman engineer individually, as if each case were unusual—which it was. Under the headline “Beauty Meets Resistance,” the Penn State Engineer noted in 1934 that Olga Smith had become the first female who enrolled in electrical engineering. At the State College of Washington, Clara Seaman received a degree in metallurgical engineering in 1928, reportedly with high honors; one account credited her with earning a 94 percent four-year scholastic average, “even though she worked in an office to pay her college expenses.” Treating a female mining engineer as a pure curiosity, the San Jose News in California ran a short piece headlined “She’s a Miner!” alongside amusing squibs about a woman who kept her marriage secret for four years and about the skeleton of a newly discovered elephant species. The article opened, “Clara Seaman . . . is not a gold-digger, but a miner. She’s been taking the ‘hard rock’ course at State College.” Most female engineering students talked about their experiences in the singular; they didn’t know enough other female students to refer to themselves as a group.16

A rare and therefore significant exception to that rule came in 1914, when the University of Michigan had thirteen female students in engineering and architecture, enough of a cohort that the women sensed both an opportunity and the desirability of forming a club. The Michigan Technic explained that although the wives of engineering professors had displayed “a great deal of interest in the women and . . . entertained them a great deal at their homes,” the unwieldy size of such gatherings led the female undergraduates to create their own campus group, the T-Square Society: “When women first enrolled in the Engineering Department they naturally felt somewhat out of place among so many men . . . , [so] one main idea of the society was to make the freshmen women feel at home.” Monthly meetings also aimed “to promote sociability and discuss things of general interest.” Member Bertha Yerex Whitman explained that one aim was to “make up for the lack of social relationships with the other women on campus, prevented by the nature of their work.” T-Square automatically considered all women students in the department of engineering and architecture as its members. The organization designed its own membership pin, with an insignia of crossed T-square and triangle, which claimed a share of identity of male professions by embracing the iconic representations of their tools. The editorial staff of the Michigan Technic poked some gentle fun at the women’s group, remarking that after a recent T-Square session, the engineering meeting room was littered with toothpicks and chewed paraffin. The first T-Square president was Hazel Quick, and its vice president was Alice Goff. Both received Michigan civil engineering degrees in 1915 and then entered the workforce. Whitman became the first female graduate of Michigan’s College of Architecture in 1920; she had belonged to an earlier class but paused her education during wartime like her male classmates, so they could later graduate together. During World War I, the Dodge Brothers Company hired Whitman as its first female to work in engineering drafting.17

Other University of Michigan engineering graduates in that period included Dorothy Hall, Dorothy Hanchett, and Helen Smith. Their T-Square Society lasted, documented in photographs in the university’s 1920s yearbooks alongside photos of male-dominated engineering student groups. Their club often included faculty wives and engineering-school secretaries as honorary members. Women students in architecture and engineering shared space on campus, which reinforced common experiences of marginalization. Architecture major Delight Sweeney recalled that in 1915, on her “first morning in the engineering school . . . when I had to walk from one end of the building to the other . . . there were billions of men . . . all staring. I can still remember how my knees banged together.” Several T-Square alumnae established long careers in engineering and architecture. After finishing her Michigan degree, Yerex Whitman thrived in architectural work for three decades, although at first some prominent firms “flatly refused” to consider her for a job. Her Michigan contemporary, Juliet Peddle, became the second woman to finish the Michigan architecture program; she had learned drafting while young from her father, who taught machine design at Rose Polytechnic. In 1928, when Peddle and Whitman were both working in Chicago, those T-Square alumnae helped establish the Women’s Architectural Club of Chicago. Sweeney, who also earned a 1920 architecture degree, became the first female member of the New Jersey Society of Architects and worked with the Federal Housing Administration in the 1930s.18

A similar nascent sense of sisterhood and common professional interests led several University of Colorado women to create a national group of female engineers and architects in December 1918. Lou Alta Melton and Hilda Counts announced formation of the American Society of Women Engineers and Architects, serving as its first president and vice president, respectively. Melton and Counts surveyed American engineering schools by mail to collect data on female students, past and present. Their inquiries revealed that the Universities of Michigan, Kansas, Ohio State, Illinois, and Texas seemed to lead the way in offering engineering training to women. At each of those five schools, the total of female students and graduates in engineering had reached double digits by academic year 1919–20. Putting those figures together, Melton and Counts estimated that about two hundred women might be eligible to join their new group, with membership open to any woman who had either degrees or work experience in either engineering or architecture. Announcements of this new organization ran in several national technical publications. Engineering News-Record explained that according to Hazel Quick, “the organizers felt the need of a society and were not received into the existing societies organized by and for men.” By summer 1920, the group claimed to have eleven members already, from the branches of civil, mechanical, chemical, electrical, and architectural engineering. After Counts received her Colorado electrical engineering degree in 1919, she worked for Westinghouse and later for the Rural Electrification Administration. Melton, class of 1920, found employment as a bridge designer with the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads. A contemporary, Elsie Eaves, also helped initiate organizing efforts. As a civil engineering major at Colorado, Eaves was elected in 1918 to become the first female president of the school’s student engineering society, the Combined Engineers (a fact reported in engineering publications nationwide). After completing her degree with honors in 1920, Eaves established a thirty-year career analyzing construction-cost economics and industry standards. Although the American Society of Women Engineers and Architects never grew into a major national organization, Eaves and Counts Edgecomb continued to encourage fellow female engineers and after World War II helped promote the creation of today’s Society of Women Engineers.19

Invasion Rhetoric: Defining the Boundaries of Men’s Sacred Domains

Land-grant schools and public colleges such as Michigan remained the best places for women to establish a small but real presence as engineering students in the early twentieth century, although a few studied at other schools, such as MIT. One at a time, a handful of women earned degrees, and some moved into paid engineering employment. The account here is intended to be suggestive rather than a comprehensive documentation of every woman who completed engineering education before World War II. To note just a few examples, the University of Colorado awarded a civil engineering degree in 1903 to Minnette Ethelma Frankenberger, and the school’s engineering journal listed her in its alumni directory for several years as working as a draftsman in Boulder. At Cornell, Nora Stanton Blatch earned a bachelor’s degree with honors in civil engineering in 1905. Extending the women’s rights activism of her famous grandmother Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Blatch became an advocate for suffrage and the Equal Rights Amendment. She explained at one point that she decided to become an engineer precisely because so few women had entered the field. Blatch worked as a draftsman and assistant engineer with New York City’s water-supply board and Public Service Commission and became chief draftsman for the Radley Steel Construction Company. In 1906, Blatch joined the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) as a junior member. After reaching that category’s age limit in 1915, she applied for an associate membership, as men normally did. The ASCE refused her request and dropped her from its rolls, alleging that despite her employment record, she was too inexperienced to qualify for an upgrade. In the ensuing lawsuit, the New York State Supreme Court decided that as a private body, the ASCE was not compelled to grant her any particular privileges. It was not until 1927 that the ASCE granted its first associate membership to a woman, Elsie Eaves.20

After Blatch, Cornell hosted a few other early twentieth-century female engineering students, including Olive Dennis. Before arriving in Ithaca, New York, Dennis completed a bachelor’s degree in science and mathematics at Baltimore’s Goucher College for women, followed by a master’s degree as a fellowship student in math and astronomy from Columbia University. While teaching high school math, Dennis studied civil engineering in extension classes, adding surveying studies and other summer courses through the University of Wisconsin. Dennis then spent one year at Cornell to finish her training, receiving a civil engineering degree in 1920. She worked for over thirty years at the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, first as a draftsman in the bridge engineering department, then as an engineer of service and a research engineer who designed some of the railroad’s terminals. More in line with expectations about feminine nature, Dennis also designed the china used in the train line’s restaurants and the interior decoration for passenger cars. To help make riders more comfortable, Dennis improved the quality of seating and lighting. She invented and patented a window ventilator that allowed riders to control their individual seating area’s air flow. Dennis traveled as much as forty thousand miles on the B&O line annually as part of her mission to cultivate passenger loyalty, especially among females. As the first (and for many years, the only) female member of the American Railway Engineering Association, Dennis served on its committee supervising the economic study of railroad location and operation.21

At land-grant schools like Cornell, women such as Blatch and Dennis drew a certain attention because they were an intriguing rarity, a curiosity. Remarking on that female presence, a 1930s New York newspaper ran the headline “Three Co-eds Invade Engineering Courses and Compete with Men at Cornell University: Stand Well in Their Studies.” The article featured a photograph of mechanical engineering junior Jeannette Knowles working on a compression-testing machine and noted that the three students represented “the greatest number of women students ever enrolled here at one time,” attending classes alongside the 850 men who were enrolled in Cornell engineering.

In this era, the word invade appears repeatedly in popular references to the presence of a few female engineering students at a number of schools. Next to photographs of the two women enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1925, that campus’s engineering magazine ran the headline “Co-ed Engineers: Man’s Domains Are Again Invaded.” The piece noted that when Esther Knudsen and Ursulla Quinn first arrived in 1921, male students in the engineering classrooms heard “the click-click of women’s heels upon the tiles of man’s last retreat at the University” and helpfully rushed to redirect the presumably lost female students to their proper building. Doubters expected that within one quarter or, at most, one year, Quinn and Knudsen would “change their minds and leave the Engineering School to men alone.” But the two “courageous” and “determined” women had advanced to graduation, “whereas most of the sceptics have dropped by the wayside.” An accompanying cartoon undercut the tone of respect, showing two women doing outdoors surveying work in oddly short skirts that were riding up to show their legs. But the article praised Knudsen and Quinn for their excellence in practical surveying and design laboratory work as well as theoretical courses: “It is safe to predict that through their efforts and their succeeding, classes of engineering will have larger and larger quotas of girl students in the ranks. And Man’s sacred domains will be sacred no longer.” As it turned out, Knudsen and Quinn remained “determined,” and both received their civil engineering degrees from Minnesota in 1925. Knudsen then became the first woman civil engineer hired by Wisconsin’s highway commission, as the Milwaukee Journal explained under the headline, “Wisconsin Girl Engineers Like Their Jobs: Miss Esther Knudson [sic], of the State Highway Commission, and Miss Emilie Hahn, Graduate Mining Engineer, Attain Success and Retain Their Feminine Charm.” Photographs showed Knudsen wearing what she called “sensible” masculine clothing (pants) while out in the field surveying, but also wearing a skirt and feminine shoes while posing on the steps of her drafting office. The article pointedly stated that “Knudsen abhors masculinity in women” and devoted several paragraphs to stressing the “feminine tastes” of Knudsen and Hahn. Both had studied music. Knudsen also enjoyed batik work and painting and had been a model. In noting that Hahn had just become the first woman to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in engineering at the University of Wisconsin, that same Milwaukee Journal piece remarked, “The invasion of the university by women which began in 1860 with the entrance of one co-ed is now complete.”22

Similarly, after Jeanne Chandler graduated from Purdue in 1941, the campus newspaper reported on her job as the only female engineer with Newark’s electric and gas company under the headline “Coed Invades ‘Man’s World’; Finds Success in Engineering.” And in 1940, Wayne State in Detroit described four women’s presence in the engineering college with the phrase “Female Engineers Invade Chem Labs and Airplanes.” The common use of invasion rhetoric following World War I and during World War II is not entirely surprising. But the dictionary definition of “invasion” accentuates the negative connotations of that word, implying a hostile incursion by a threatening horde, with destructive consequences. As an exaggerated overreaction to the arrival of just one or two women, this choice of “invasion” language dramatically underlines the extent to which women in engineering appeared as the other, entering a field that everyone assumed was and must be male territory.23

Adopting another metaphor of violent attack, one 1930 newspaper interviewed fifteen female engineers and then declared that “In knickers and in printed chiffon, wearing long hair and hair closely cropped, modern women have stormed their way into the field of engineering, while men could only gape in surprise.” The woman reporter opened with the question of fashion, noting that most female engineers preferred clothing that was neither overly tailored nor frilly, mirroring Gilbreth’s philosophy that “a woman engineer should dress in a way that is neither too masculine nor too feminine. She should try to avoid appearing in any thing conspicuous or inappropriate, in order to help those who will follow her.” The article did not cover up professional obstacles, quoting Laura Munson as saying that to overcome doubters, a female engineer “must be quicker, more accurate and more intelligent than the average man” who is doing a similar job. The women interviewed judged the typical female engineer as “superior to her male rivals” in persistence, tact, delicate touches, and “attention to the finer details which a man finds so boring and dull he lets them slide by.” Aeronautics specialist Elsa Gardner, trained at St. Lawrence University and working for a U.S. torpedo firm, asserted that engineering “requires a breadth of vision which I believe women possess in greater measure than men.”24

Throughout the early twentieth century, the few female engineering students scattered across various schools (while completely excluded from others) seemed like such an anomaly that no one seriously anticipated that a large number would choose to copy their venture. At Cornell, a mere hint that greater numbers of women might someday enter engineering spurred an undercurrent of uneasy jesting among their male counterparts. Before speaking to the Cornell Society of Engineers about financial problems in 1938, the vice chair of the board of trustees noted with amusement that when he arrived at Cornell in 1886, he heard rumors that during the two previous years, “there had been a woman who had had the temerity to register as an undergraduate in Sibley College,” Cornell’s engineering school. Justin DuPrat White went on to remind listeners that Cornell’s later few female engineering students had earned the nicknames of “Sibley Sue” and “Slide Rule Sadie,” a reference that elicited knowing laughter from his audience of engineering alumni. White proceeded to “congratulate” Cornell men “for their great tolerance [for] . . . the entrance of women in the Engineering College. . . . Lord knows that the lawyers have almost been swamped with the influx of women in their profession. . . . My prediction, as I gather it from the medical men, is that [women] are going to handle [engineering] with a good deal of challenge to you men if you are not careful.”25

Leaders of engineering schools generally did nothing to promote or ease women’s enrollment during this era and indeed, often apparently sought to discourage female students. When first-year student Gladys Tapman initially talked with Cornell’s engineering dean sometime around 1931, “he pointed out the difficulties in the way of a woman engineer. In reply, she quoted the motto on the university shield which promises instruction in any subject regardless of sex.” The New York Times commented, “To vindicate . . . her ambitions, she completed the course in three and a half years.” After receiving her civil engineering degree in 1934, Tapman found employment helping design Mississippi River dams and locks, factories and oil refineries on the East Coast, and sanitation works and traffic lighting with the Civil Service in Manhattan.26

At Cornell alone, by 1938, Blatch, Tapman, Dennis, and more than eighteen other women had received engineering degrees, one by one over the years. Isolation made their experience hard. One “Slide Rule Sadie” (as they were nicknamed) said:

A girl has to want . . . pretty badly to go through with the course in spite of the unconscious brutality of . . . [male] classmates. . . . She must be ready to be misunderstood, as . . . many . . . will conclude that she took engineering . . . to catch a husband. She must do alone lab reports and other work men do in groups—because men who are willing to face the scorn of their peers and . . . work with her are more interested in flirting than in computations. She must be prepared for a lonely academic career; she cannot approach her classmates to exchange notes without appearing bold.27

But one hint of change came at Purdue, where Frank Gilbreth had long been connected. After his death, his wife, Lillian, stepped into his place as a visiting lecturer. In 1935, the School of Mechanical Engineering hired her to teach management, making her Purdue’s first female engineering professor. Not coincidentally, that same year, Purdue appointed famed aviator Amelia Earhart to serve as a career consultant for female students. Purdue had recently opened its first residence hall for women and wanted to fill it. With Earhart’s high-profile appointment, female enrollment jumped 50 percent, and the new dorm overflowed. For both Earhart and Gilbreth, their ties to Purdue reflected the direct influence of progressive-minded president Edward Elliott, who supported bold thinking about opportunities for women in American society. After hearing Earhart deliver a speech encouraging women to become pilots and calling on the aviation business to welcome more women, Elliott courted her to come to his campus. Purdue had an ambitious aeronautical engineering program and was the only university in the country to own a fully equipped airfield, where Earhart worked on her latest planes. Engineering dean A. A. Potter grumbled about Earhart’s appointment to Purdue’s aeronautics staff; he reportedly objected to her lack of academic credentials and complained that she confused engineering with the job of a mechanic. But Earhart interacted well with both engineering students and female students. She scandalized conservative faculty wives but intrigued young women by wearing pants in public. Earhart warned Purdue women against sacrificing their own interests for a husband and encouraged them to think about combining marriage and career. Students recalled that she encouraged women to enter the fields of engineering and science, regretting the gendered separation of occupations that limited students’ choice of classes. Earhart wrote, “Today it is almost as if the subjects themselves had sex, so firm is the line drawn between what girls and boys should study.” One of Purdue’s few female engineering majors of the time, Marguerite Call, praised Earhart for having “explained to us very clearly what some of the obstacles were in the way of women who went into what has always been known as a man’s field. She was encouraging, too. She didn’t see why, if a woman has special talents . . . she couldn’t go out and show ‘em!” One Purdue staffer described Earhart’s role as “motivating the girls to do something more than take home economics,” and the same could be said for Gilbreth’s appointment. Elliott explained that he had brought Gilbreth and Earhart to Purdue “with the intention of introducing new forces for the study of the most important modern unsolved problem of higher education—the effective education of young women.” In between other personal commitments and work-related travel, both Gilbreth and Earhart lived in Purdue’s women’s housing for several weeks each month and ate in campus dining halls, where they spent substantial time talking both formally and informally with female students. Gilbreth continued to teach at Purdue until retiring in 1948 at age seventy, the first woman to reach full-professor rank in engineering in any American institution.28

Although Gilbreth and Earhart hoped to encourage and inspire female students of any major, their presence did not immediately convert Purdue engineering into a more gender-balanced field. As at other coeducational schools before World War II, very few women at Purdue enrolled in engineering, and among that handful, attrition rates proved high. At least in public, some put on a brave face, stressing the positive aspects of their academic experience and the common experiences that they shared with male engineering classmates. In summer 1940, Ellen Zeigler and Kathleen Lux joined seventy Purdue men at the school’s regular civil engineering camp, where the “camper-ettes” joined men in playing baseball, swimming, and performing field observations and computations. In fall 1941, Lux joined male counterparts on a weeklong field trip to a student American Society of Civil Engineering conference in Chicago, where they toured filtration and sewer plants, a Gary cement company, the Hammond waterworks, and Carnegie Steel’s Bessemer converters and open-hearth furnaces.29

Those industrial connections and the hands-on applied aspect of engineering still raised some of the deepest doubts about women’s place in the discipline. In 1931, one University of Minnesota observer reported that female students in the college of engineering and architecture and in chemical engineering recorded lower grade-point averages than male counterparts. As a possible cause of women’s “inferiority,” the article suggested that “men are much more interested, and therefore scholastically better, in the practical courses. They have had closer contact with the practical side of engineering before their entrance into college and have some background for their theoretical studies. . . . Convention has told the women to leave this type of work to the masculine world, with the result that even vitally interested women were unable to gather that experience through work or observation.”30

Perhaps to counter such lines of criticism, Purdue’s Charlotte Bennett maintained in 1935 that she had completed shop class perfectly well. Although she initially had a hard time figuring out how to design a foundry, “I doubt if the fact that I was a girl made the work more difficult . . . because several of the students in the class seemed as ignorant of foundries as I was—if not more so.” In a distinctly defensive tone, Bennett reported that she had not created any disasters in class. Although instructors initially refused to let her pour metal, “finally after much persuasion I was allowed to . . . pour several . . . molds. They said I did it as well as anybody.” Her welding practice had gone without “any accident,” and although she had accidentally made the top fly off her indicator when opening steam cocks in mechanical lab, “I got the steam shut off and someone caught the part that came loose and it wasn’t damaged. It was one of those things that happen to eds and coeds alike and make one more careful.” Bennett completed her degree in 1936, Purdue’s first female graduate in chemical engineering, and then became a secondary-school math teacher.31

Purdue’s Ellen Zeigler admitted that women’s lower physical strength tended to keep them out of many industrial jobs but declared that for positions in drafting, consulting, designing, and statistical analysis, women with talent could compete through “extra enthusiasm and ability” plus hard work. Success in engineering came not through masculine identity, she insisted, but through nongender-linked qualities such as open-mindedness, insight, adeptness in social interactions, and manual skills for quick problem solving. Zeigler worried that too many female engineering students suffered from a lack of confidence and for that reason, she praised university co-op programs for giving women the experience to know “that she can and will succeed in her line of work.” She warned fellow female engineering students who were seeking employment to be better-prepared than male classmates, since “if the woman desiring the job has the same record as the man, the man will undoubtedly get the job . . . [but] a woman of unusual ability has as much chance of success as any man.”32

There was no point in denying that they were unusual, but these scarce female engineering students sought to stress that they approached their work in just as straightforward a manner as their male classmates and honestly enjoyed technical subjects. At the same time, media portrayals depicted women engineers as relishing their femininity. Purdue’s campus newspaper told readers that electrical engineering graduate Jeanne Chandler enjoyed knitting sweaters for herself, assisted her mother in house cleaning, and envisioned herself eventually getting married. Penn State praised industrial engineering major Anne Very as a social butterfly who was fond of both mathematics and dancing. Significantly, Very was following in the academic footsteps of her father, Dexter, who had earned his Penn State degree in highway engineering in 1913, while also becoming football team captain and a national star. His daughter originally enrolled in liberal arts and then transferred, becoming Penn’s first female graduate in industrial engineering in 1939.33

Experimental Curiosities: Women at MIT, 1871–1941

The record of female students who entered MIT extends back to 1871, when Ellen Swallow, who held an undergraduate degree from Vassar College, requested permission to pursue an MIT advanced degree in chemistry. MIT denied her application for graduate-level work but agreed to let her enter as a “special student” to pursue a second bachelor’s degree without charge (a status that gave school leaders a loophole to deny her official presence in case of any objections). The faculty vote of approval described the move as “an experiment” that should not set a broad policy precedent for female admissions. Swallow later recalled being excluded from general classes and literally being closed off to work in separate laboratories.34

After Swallow earned her MIT bachelor’s degree in 1873, she wed Robert Richards, head of the school’s mining engineering program. Although Ellen Swallow Richards hoped to continue working for her doctorate, MIT was not prepared to issue a first Ph.D. to a woman. Instead, she poured increasing efforts into opening an MIT-based education to other women. She raised funds from sympathetic Boston women (contributing a thousand dollars a year herself) to establish and equip a new Women’s Laboratory at MIT in 1876. Volunteering as an unsalaried instructor there, Richards taught chemistry and related subjects. Over the next seven years, approximately five hundred female “special students” studied or worked in the Women’s Laboratory. Many were secondary-school teachers who were seeking laboratory experience and advanced training. But Richards and her supporters continued their campaign to win women’s admittance to regular courses. To ensure that administrators could not cite inadequate facilities as an excuse to turn away female students, Richards in 1882 raised eight thousand dollars to add a women’s lounge and bathrooms to the school’s new chemistry building. MIT conceded the point, agreeing to close the Women’s Laboratory and start admitting undergraduate students “without distinction of sex.” In 1883, eleven women attended MIT along with 432 men; in 1887, there were twenty-five. Meanwhile, MIT appointed Richards to a paid post in the new Sanitation Chemistry Laboratory, where she conducted pioneering work in sanitary and environmental engineering, including sewage treatment, water safety, and food analysis. Reflecting her conviction that women could use science as a tool to improve the family diet, Richards later helped organize the emerging discipline of home economics (often called domestic science or, significantly, domestic engineering).35

Richards had created the first physical places on the MIT campus for women—first, the Women’s Laboratory, and second, the Margaret Cheney Women’s Lounge, named for a Richards protégée who died prematurely. The Cheney suite served for the next eighty years as “a feminine retreat in the midst of a male environment,” which women students appreciated as a comforting “refuge” where they could study, relax, and eat lunch. That last function stirred controversy, which reflected deep uncertainty over women’s place at an overwhelmingly male school. Some female students felt uncomfortable eating in the main cafeteria amid throngs of men, but the women’s governing committee refused to sympathize, “since the girls have deliberately chosen to attend an institution where men students predominate.” Those observers saw no reason “why preferential treatment should be accorded the women students, or why Technology should allow them privileges which the men do not enjoy.” Defending women’s interest in having lunch in their own lounge, Mrs. Frederick Lord, representing MIT alumnae, responded that eating separately “gives a much needed chance for the girls to know one another.” Lord did not challenge “the traditional attitude of the Institute that no discrimination be made in the women’s official relation to the Institute.” But citing “obvious” differences between male and female students, Lord suggested that MIT could create a special position to address women’s distinct educational and personal needs. In 1939, the school named architectural library staffer Florence Stiles, herself a 1923 MIT graduate, to fill the semiofficial post of adviser to women students.36

None of MIT’s earliest female graduates specialized in engineering. The first was apparently Lydia Weld, who initially entered Bryn Mawr College but moved to MIT to complete a naval architecture and marine engineering degree in 1903. Weld began her career by drawing ship plans for a firm in Newport News, Virginia. In the years leading up to World War I, she worked for the United States War Shipping Board in San Francisco, coordinating supplies of essential materials for accelerated ship construction and repair until illness led her to retire in 1917. The first MIT undergraduate degree in chemical engineering went to Marion Rice in 1913. She was the only female graduate with 312 men in that year’s commencement, and the Technology Review reported her “receiving the hearty cheers of her fellow students as she was handed her diploma.” As the daughter of a wealthy inventor, Marion Rice Hart did not need to seek employment. She earned a geology master’s degree at Columbia, completed a three-year round-the-world sailing trip, began flying at age fifty-four, made seven solo trans-Atlantic flights, and wrote a guide to celestial navigation and memoirs of her long and colorful life.37

The small ranks of female undergraduates who finished studies at MIT before World War II included at least two graduates in civil engineering, three in electrical engineering, three in chemical engineering, two in engineering administration and management, and one each in metallurgy and naval architecture. The lone female aeronautical engineer, Isabel Caroline Ebel, graduated in 1932 but discovered that a woman’s MIT degree did not open doors in the aircraft industry. Amelia Earhart’s intervention helped persuade New York University’s Guggenheim School of Aeronautics to admit Ebel for advanced studies, but after finishing those extra qualifications in 1934, Ebel did not secure a permanent engineering position until 1939 with Grumman. Among the other early generations of MIT women, Edith Paula Chartkoff completed the metallurgy and mining program in 1925. After writing her undergraduate thesis on “the effect of cold work on austenitic steel,” Chartkoff Meyer went to work for the Cleveland Wire Works of General Electric. Harriet Whitney Allen wrote a thesis on the “current capacity of rubber-insulated cables” for her 1927 electrical engineering degree. Ruth Pfeiffer MacFarland wrote a 1934 thesis on “dye effects in sail duck” for her naval architecture degree. Hannah Chapin Moodey entered MIT as a junior from Smith College and earned an electrical engineering degree in 1936. After noting that “some industrial corporations still refuse to hire women engineers, on the ground that living conditions in the field are difficult,” a 1957 Atlantic article on science careers for women cited Moodey’s job designing cathode ray tubes at RCA Victor’s color television laboratory as an encouraging sign.38

At the graduate-student level, Edith Clarke became MIT’s first female graduate in electrical engineering in 1919. She was the first woman chosen to join the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and was one of her era’s best-known women engineers. But in 1912 through 1914, MIT’s female enrollment stood at zero. The number of female undergraduates and graduate students enrolled at MIT averaged approximately forty-five a year in the 1920s, fifty per year in the 1930s, and sixty-five in the early 1940s, but among undergraduates and especially in engineering, attrition rates remained high. In 1941, most undergraduate women continued to major in biology and public health, chemistry, or architecture. One accounting by Marilynn Bever records a total of only about seventeen undergraduate degrees granted to women in all MIT engineering programs between 1871 and 1941. The program in mechanical engineering, a perennially popular choice among male MIT students, apparently had at least three women enrolled at various points over those decades but recorded none who completed degrees.39

Each woman arriving on campus during this era stood out as a curiosity amid a couple thousand men. MIT’s newspaper introduced one 1940 entrant as a New York “glamor girl” who was interested in pursuing cancer research, “naturally” loved parties, and won a hundred-dollar bet from fellow debutantes by getting accepted at MIT. Officially, coeds remained invisible. Writing in the Institute’s 1941 Handbook, president Karl Compton told incoming students, “In choosing MIT, you’ve taken on a man-size job, and it will take man-size effort to get it done.” The Handbook did mention the existence of the Association of Women Students (AWS), created two years earlier, but campus traditions embodied masculinity itself. As an official welcome, the institution held a “smoker” for freshmen and their fathers. MIT camp became the site for freshman initiation, featuring water fights against the sophomores, baseball games with faculty, and similar male-bonding rituals.40

Steered Away from Engineering and toward Technical Home Economics

Young women who were interested in engineering often had to pursue that interest over the questions or outright opposition from professors. When Peggy Shultz decided to enter mechanical engineering and pursue airplane design at Iowa State College in the early 1940s, family members supported her decision because they knew of her childhood interest in aviation. But college faculty members were “not so encouraging. Ever since last summer they have tried to persuade her to take something else.”41

One possible factor in that faculty ambivalence may have been that Iowa State College had an alternative outlet for female students with technical interests, which channeled them away from engineering and toward the more conventional field of home economics. Iowa State had evolved around a land-grant assumption that, just as studies in engineering and agriculture could make young men better farmers and mechanics, so academic work could make women better homemakers. At Iowa State, that philosophy grew into a new form of technical studies that was devised for female students and was linked to but segregated from masculine engineering. In 1924, Eloise Davison, a graduate student in household administration, test-taught a one-quarter class that focused on making women into modern “household engineers” who would be skilled in evaluating, purchasing, using, and maintaining the new types of household equipment that were just appearing on the market. Reflecting a common sentiment of the 1920s, Davison observed that “The whole modern period in which we live is an age of machinery,” which meant that the “average homemaker” must “overcome” her lack of experience with technology. Significantly, the new class was a cooperative venture of Iowa State’s home economics division and its agricultural engineering department. By 1929, Iowa State had promoted equipment studies to the status of a department, and its initial roster included not only female home-economics faculty but also mechanical engineering professor Herbert Sayre, signifying the perceived connection between engineering and equipment studies. Elements of engineering authority and masculine representation lent legitimacy to the new discipline, yet from the outset it was clear that women would define the field.42

For dozens of women each year from the 1920s onward, Iowa State’s equipment curriculum embedded lessons in engineering inside culturally acceptable boundaries of woman’s knowledge. Majors took three physics courses and several classes in electrical equipment and circuits. Professors insisted that students learn scientific and technical principles to understand how and why ovens and other appliances worked (or did not work). Hands-on experience reinforced theory. In “electrical laboratory,” staff members ordered women to overload a circuit and blow a fuse deliberately, replace the worn-out fuse, and read voltmeters and ammeters at each stage. In lab exercises, students dismantled, inspected, and reassembled gas and electric ranges, making notes on broiler design, heat distribution, and construction quality. Later generations of classes learned to apply the laws of thermodynamics to understand refrigerator mechanisms and to apply principles of heat transfer to plan technical specifications for a complete home heating and cooling system. Some graduates parlayed that knowledge into employment with appliance companies, utilities, and publishing companies.43

Faculty and graduate students conducted technical research, experimentally testing the efficiency of the latest ranges, mixers, and other kitchen tools. For her master’s degree in 1923, Davison measured the comparative efficiency of coal, kerosene, and gas stoves, using a calorimeter that was designed to measure water evaporation rates. Faculty and students published results in experiment station newsletters and leading home economics journals. Adopting the conventions of engineering and science, these papers were filled with diagrams, data, and tables. Program members shared the engineering world’s dedication to technical expertise, but home economics was defined by and for women, explicitly addressing females’ presumed sphere of interest, domestic life. In that fashion, Iowa State’s program created an alternate vision of gendered knowledge, asserting a link between technical mastery and femininity—at least in the kitchen. Other schools, including the University of Minnesota, Purdue, Ohio State, and Washington State University later created their own equipment courses. Home equipment classes undoubtedly thrived because women’s appliance studies did not threaten men, but ultimately, such programs transferred a powerful alternate image of technical knowledge beyond engineering schools to the “women’s sphere” of education.44

The household equipment department at Iowa State and similar programs at other schools encouraged women to assert their interest in applied technology. On other occasions, however, the existence of such home economics fields proved a gender-stereotyped trap, a place where women with mechanical interests could be pigeonholed and kept away from men’s engineering domain. Growing up in a rural home, Lenore Sater had been interested in machinery since childhood, helping her father maintain family cars and handle farmstead repairs. When she arrived at college in the 1920s and expressed interest in civil engineering, Sater received a decidedly lukewarm welcome. Sater recalled:

I hoped to be a civil engineer, connected with some railroad or bridge construction company. My professors discouraged the idea as impractical, however, for I was not interested in the office work which they felt would be the only kind of position open to women. I wanted to supervise the actual construction. I did not like routine, inside office work. Out-of-door sports . . . appeal to me. . . . I like to do hand-work. Wood-carving, lathe work, and tooling have always been fascinating to me.45

Aware of the personal and professional challenges that a female engineer in the field would confront, administrators and faculty may have thought that it was logical and natural to steer Sater to the home economics program. They may have worried that a female engineering student might get in over her head and, with the best of intentions, intended to do Sater a favor in shielding her from hostility by indignant men who were unaccustomed to a female presence in engineering classes. Sater earned her master’s degree in Iowa State’s household equipment program, conducting thesis research on how the thickness of sheet aluminum affected utensils’ thermal efficiency. Iowa State promoted her to join the equipment program’s faculty. She later took a sabbatical to pursue her physics doctorate, then became head of the Housing and Household Equipment Division at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Nutrition and Home Economics.46


It is impossible to produce any definitive numbers or even a reliable estimate of how many young women before World War II felt a pull of interest toward engineering, only to be halted by self-doubts or sidetracked into more traditionally feminine fields. Some professors and university administrators actively deterred some women from enrolling in engineering, and other women dropped out or transferred to more traditionally female subjects; again, it is hard to document exactly how many. Isolation sometimes frustrated the one or two at a time who defied those informal barriers. The women who persisted understood the simple reality of their situation: they needed to tolerate the inevitable skepticism of male classmates, professors, employers, and acquaintances and try to overcome doubts about women’s ability, simply by working harder than men.

The fact that there were relatively so few female engineering students, ironically, meant that there was relatively little malicious criticism of them, at least publicly. As long as that small cohort attended institutions that were already coeducational and did not press too aggressively for acceptance in all-male honor societies, then their presence did not arouse much substantial outward opposition. There were plenty of jokes about “Slide Rule Sadies,” and by her mere existence, a female engineer attracted inescapable curiosity. But behind the invasion rhetoric, observers assumed that engineering studies would remain firmly in masculine territory.

Female engineers themselves insisted that nothing in the inherent nature of the discipline disqualified women, and some optimistically envisioned that their path-breaking example might inspire more young girls at some point in an unspecified future. But there were no sustained discussions about whether, why, or how to shift the gender balance of engineering. Female engineers found that interacting with even a few others was reassuring. As Lillian Gilbreth’s marriage quickly evolved into an informal technical apprenticeship, she took heart from seeing Kate Gleason climbing over construction equipment. Gilbreth later expressed her pleasure at meeting a group of engineering women in Great Britain. But female engineers in the United States were too outnumbered, too scattered, too overworked, and perhaps too intimidated to battle the gender environment of their discipline openly and to organize campaigns to encourage the entrance of more women. Throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, the rarity of women in engineering only seemed to confirm that “Man’s sacred domains” (as the University of Minnesota commenter put it) ultimately remained secure from invasion.

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