Engineering history is replete with triumphs and setbacks, many of which were experienced firsthand by female engineers. Accepted in the field until engineering societies forced them out and encouraged to become engineers during World War I until brushed aside, female engineers have long been an essential yet marginalized group. Some, however, overcame incredible odds to leave an indelible mark on the field of engineering.
Here are five women in engineering who made history. We’re sure to have missed some of your favorites. Rest assured: the women listed made an impact on the field of engineering that can be felt to this day. They walked so you can run.
Emily Warren Roebling (1843-1903)
The proverb “behind every great man is a great woman” can be a bit on the nose sometimes, as was the case with Washington and Emily Warren Roebling.
When Washington — chief engineer for the Brooklyn Bridge — fell ill, his wife Emily took on her husband’s duties overseeing construction. Try as she might to keep her involvement a secret, her contributions were instrumental to the project’s success. Chief Wire Engineer David McCullough went so far as to refer to her as “the first female engineer.” Once construction of the bridge was completed, she spent her remaining years as a prominent figure in women’s clubs and an advocate for women’s equality.
Katherine Parsons (1859-1933)
Katherine Parsons assisted and possibly collaborated with her husband, Charles Parsons, on the 1884 invention of the steam turbine. She managed thousands of female engineers during World War I and later advocated for the continued involvement of women in engineering. Parsons and her daughter Rachel were two of the seven founders of the Women’s Engineering Society, which to this day promotes the education of women in engineering.
Women Engineers During the Great War
Women carved out a niche in engineering during the 19th century — that is, until engineering societies started only accepting degree-holding members. Most schools refused to admit women, and for a time, the door to a career in engineering was closed for around half of the American population.
Everything changed with the start of World War I in 1914. Women were, for the first time in history, encouraged to pursue engineering roles. After the war, the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act forced women to relinquish their positions to returning servicemen. Some refused and carried on, often as the only female engineer at their workplace.
Julia Morgan (1872-1957)
In 1894, Julia Morgan became the first woman to earn a degree in civil engineering. She then moved to Paris to study architecture but was denied admission on the basis of her gender. She persisted, ultimately becoming the first woman to enroll in and graduate from the architectural school at L’Ecole de Beaux Arts.
After returning to her hometown of San Francisco, Morgan became the first woman to earn an architect’s license in California. Soon after, she opened her own architectural office. The Great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 destroyed nearly 30,000 buildings, including Morgan’s office, but in the aftermath, she designed hundreds of homes, churches and commercial structures. Over the course of her prolific career, she designed nearly 700 buildings: more than any other architect of the 20th century.
Edith Clarke (1883-1959)
19th-century women were expected to host afternoon tea, manage the household, and devote themselves as wives and mothers, not pursue a career in engineering. Edith Clarke had no intention of succumbing to the trappings of her time and instead devoted her life to education and engineering.
In 1919, she graduated with an MS in electrical engineering from MIT, becoming the first woman to do so. Unable to find work as an engineer, she settled for being a “human computer” at General Electric (GE). There she filed her first patent: a graphic calculator. In 1926, she became the first woman to deliver a paper to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE).
Clarke retired in 1945, but it didn’t stick. When offered a professorship at The University of Texas at Austin, she couldn’t refuse, becoming the first female engineering professor in Texas and possibly the country. She taught at UT Austin before retiring for the second time in 1956.
Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000)
Hedy Lamarr was a burgeoning European film star until her 1933 marriage to munitions manufacturer Fritz Mandl. She was soon relegated to hosting dinner parties where her husband rubbed elbows with Nazi German generals and admirals. She escaped in 1937 and, in a turn of events fit for a movie, devoted her inventive mind to combat Nazi Germany.
“Analysis gave me great freedom of emotions and fantastic confidence. I felt I had served my time as a puppet.” — Hedy Lamarr
A leading lady during Hollywood’s Golden Age, Lamarr wasn’t about to sit back and do nothing while World War II raged on. “Analysis gave me great freedom of emotions and fantastic confidence,” she said. “I felt I had served my time as a puppet.”
Along with composer George Antheil, Lamarr co-invented a “Secret Communications System”: a frequency-hopping device that prevented radio waves from being intercepted, thereby allowing U.S. Navy torpedoes to reach their targets. Although it wasn’t used during wartime, her breakthrough system is the foundation of modern-day Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth technology.
History in the Making
Many of the barriers preventing women from pursuing an education and career in engineering have been removed. Nonetheless, women remain underrepresented in engineering, making up only 15% of the field. Somewhere out there is an engineer-in-the-making who could make history if only she took the next step. The University of Texas at Austin can help.
UT Austin offers a 100% online Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering that’s ranked among the top mechanical engineering programs in the nation. This 30-credit, non-thesis executive program explores emerging trends and technologies essential for career advancement in the field of engineering.
We don’t know where you are in your career or where your goals lie, but our executive MS in mechanical engineering program offers something for everyone: flexible online courses, industry-relevant course content and the same comprehensive curriculum taught on campus. As a Texas Engineer, you’ll learn what it takes to become an engineering leader from expert faculty members who’ve seen it all before.
Visit our program page to learn more about our 100% online MS in mechanical engineering. If you’re ready to get started, apply now. Within our program, you’ll be joined by other aspiring engineering leaders, both men and women, looking to make history.