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
Nine years ago, historian Ruth Cowan blamed the
situation on the way women are socialized. She
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
No doubt that's been true, but it's a
pattern that's been changing since the mid 19th
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
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
Cowan, R., From Virginia Dare to Virginia Slims:
Women and Technology in American Life. Technology
and Culture, Vol. 20, No. 1, January 1979, pp.
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
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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