Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 80:
WOMEN

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 80.

Today, let's talk about women in engineering. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The history of technology sometimes seems so male-dominated! We're finding that women have done much more than we'd realized in other fields. But that's less true in engineering.

Nine years ago, historian Ruth Cowan blamed the situation on the way women are socialized. She said:

While we socialize our men to aspire to feats of mastery, we socialize our women to aspire to feats of submission. ... Men are meant to conquer nature; women are meant to commune with it. Boys play with blocks; girls play with dolls. ... Women who wish to become engineers ... have to supress some deeply ingrained notions about their own sexual identity.
No doubt that's been true, but it's a pattern that's been changing since the mid 19th century.

Historian Carroll Pursell responded by taking stock of American women inventors. He began with a mill designed in 1715 by Sybilla Masters for cleaning and curing corn. But he notes that she had to patent the device in her husband's name.

Scientific American magazine took up the cause of women in 1861 when it plonkingly suggested that women "do not exercise their ingenuity as much as they ought." A year later it reported that the magazine took out several patents each year on behalf of women who wrote letters suggesting new ideas.

You see the heavy hand of social attitudes behind both these illustrations. Still, progress was being made. In 1888 the patent office listed all women inventors since 1790. They showed only 52 before 1860 and nearly 3000 between 1860 and 1888. Change was indeed afoot, but not enough.

When the Transactions of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers talked about using women in factories in 1917, it still used very patronizing language. Listen to this:

... we have found women under proper conditions and with proper training almost, if not quite, the equal of men. ... [They are] remarkably quick to learn.
And it goes on to say,
It has been necessary to more closely supervise ... the work turned out by women ... for few women have any conception of the importance of dimensions ...
That was 70 years ago. Today, one of the recent presidents of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers was a woman. Women make up 16 percent of today's engineering students, and they're a significant part of the engineering scene. Technically trained women loom particularly large in our astronaut and spacecraft programs.

The problem of social attitudes is still around, of course. Not all parents and high school counselors really understand how good a field engineering can be for women. Still, women have quietly become a very important part of engineering today.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Cowan, R., From Virginia Dare to Virginia Slims: Women and Technology in American Life. Technology and Culture, Vol. 20, No. 1, January 1979, pp. 51-63.

As I've gone through the early episodes rewriting and updating and rebroadcasting them, I skipped over this early one. That is because I have discovered that women have played a far larger role in science and technology than most of us realize. But that role has fairly sytematically been written out of the history books.

If you go to the KEYWORD command on the Engines home page, and type in the word women, you'll discover hundreds of programs in which I have subsequently gone back to the literature to find so many of these all-too-often-overlooked stories.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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