Female enrollment and graduation rates in colleges and universities is up overall, and although STEM fields are still seeing fewer women than men in the classroom, that gap may be closing. Today, one in seven students in a given engineering program is likely to be a woman. While that may seem like a small percentage, it shows how much more open engineering and technical professions are to women today than they once were. These five women made a mark in their chosen professions and blazed a trail for others even when women weren’t admitted to many universities.
Born in1840 into a prosperous household, Helen Blanchard learned to sew as all cultured young ladies did at that time. Unlike most other women of her time, Blanchard had ideas of how to improve the technology of her day. When a financial crisis wiped out her family’s fortunes in 1866, she moved to Boston and brought her innovative ideas with her.
Her improvements to the sewing machine that revolutionized home sewing and the textile industry a few decades before began to pay off. In 1871, she developed a mechanism for zig-zag stitching on selvage edges that is still in use in some machines today. Another of her inventions had a more vital use than stitching cloth; her improvements to surgical needles helped countless patients. Before she passed away in 1922, she’d developed 28 patents, 22 of which were related to sewing, and earned the affectionate nickname “Lady Edison.”
Emily Warren Roebling
Plenty of people admire the Brooklyn Bridge, but far fewer know the woman who helped make it a reality. Emily Warren always had a keen interest in learning, and after she married Washington Roebling, she became fascinated with the bridge his father John had designed. The young couple went to Europe to study caisson designs for the bridge, but shortly after they returned, the elder Roebling died and left the bridge plans and construction in his son’s hands. Sadly, Washington became incapacitated by decompression sickness after working on the very caissons he studied, leaving Emily to oversee the final construction.
Roebling spent 14 years devoted to what had become a life’s work and fought to have her husband’s name retained as the chief engineer of the project. In 1883, she became the first person to ride a carriage across the completed bridge. She may not have planned to become an engineer, but the bridge she helped build bears her name as well as her husband’s and father-in-law’s.
Lillian Moller Gilbreth
Lillian Moller was a Renaissance woman of her era. Born in 1878, she earned her first degree in literature from the University of California at Berkeley and her doctoral degree in psychology from Brown. She put her extensive education to work with her husband Frank Gilbreth; together, they conducted time-motion and fatigue studies that helped revolutionize management in industry. They had 12 kids, one of whom grew up to write “Cheaper by the Dozen” based on his memories of home.
As busy as she was as a pioneer of modern management techniques and a mother of twelve, Gilbreth also found time for teaching and volunteer work. She was instrumental in developing and promoting the “Share the Work” program that helped workers find jobs during the Great Depression. After a lifetime of service to her profession, Gilbreth earned a place in the National Academy of Engineering, the first woman to achieve that honor.
The Industrial Revolution was not without its costs. While New Yorkers enjoyed unprecedented technological advances and growth, the smog that burgeoning industry produced made living in the city unpleasant on clear days and hazardous on others. Not much is known about Mary Walton herself, but in 1879, she patented a method that began to change the air in cities throughout the country for the better. Her process used a device that shunted smoke from industrial, residential and locomotive chimneys to a water tank where pollutants were scrubbed from it and flushed into the city’s expansive sewer system.
Walton also made an impact on the elevated trains that helped New Yorkers navigate the city but created noise pollution. Sound-dampening wooden baffles filled with sand kept the trains from shaking neighborhood windows and disturbing the peace. She sold her system for $10,000, but the quieter streets she gave the city were priceless.
In an era when few men and even fewer women earned a degree at all, Edith Clarke was studying at MIT. Born in 1883, Clarke lost her parents at the age of 12. Her innate curiosity and the support of her sister led her to get undergraduate degrees in astronomy and mathematics at Vassar. After teaching for a few years at Marshall University, she earned enough to achieve the educational goals she’d deferred to help her younger siblings. In 1919, she earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering, the first woman to do so.
Despite her impressive educational credentials, Clarke had trouble finding work in her field. Instead, she went to General Electric and worked on personal projects, one of which she patented as the “graphical calculator,” a device that solved simple equations involving current and impedance on power lines. She worked for decades for GE, and when she retired, she took up teaching again, this time at the University of Texas in Austin.