The Society of Women Engineers recently shared a trove of astonishing documents from the group’s archives. They’re letters, loads of them, all directed at women engineering students who had contacted various universities about their interest in connecting with other women studying engineering.
Lou Alta Melton and Hilda Counts, both students at the University of Colorado in 1919, were trying to start their own professional society. Their letters—and the many responses they received—are part of the Society of Women Engineers sprawling archives, which are housed at Wayne State University in Detroit.
“We have not now, have never had, and do not expect to have in the near future, any women students registered in our engineering department,” Thorndike Saville, and an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, wrote in his reply to Melton. He signed it, “Yours very truly.”
“We do not permit women to register in the Engineering School under present regulations,” wrote William Mott, the dean of the Carnegie Institute of Technology, which would later merge with the Mellon Institute to become Carnegie Mellon.
1919 was the year Congress passed the 19th amendment, granting women the right to vote. But, as so many of the letters in the collection demonstrate, many women wouldn’t be permitted to formally study the subjects that interested them until much later. Discrimination against women in engineering isn’t always so straightforward today, but the forces that push women out of the field (or prevent them from pursuing it in the first place) remain persistent and complex. Women account for some 20 percent of engineering graduates, according to Harvard Business Review, but a huge portion of them either quit or never enter the profession. Much has changed for women engineers in the past century, but perhaps not enough.
“I suspect the number of women who have undertaken general engineering courses is so few that you will hardly be able to form an organization,” William Raymond, the dean of the State University of Iowa wrote in 1919, adding, “However, I may be mistaken.”
Some schools seemed to encourage women to find loopholes so they could at least attend classes—but didn’t take the additional step of letting them pursue a degree. “While we cannot legally register women in the College,” wrote J.R. Benton, the dean of engineering at the University of Florida, in 1919, “there is nothing to prevent our admitting them as visitors to the classes, which permits them to get all the benefit of instruction altho without definite status as students.”
“Hitherto, there has been no demand for engineering courses here on the part of women,” he added, “except in one case, that of Leanora Semmes, who is now taking work in Mechanical Drawing.” A quick search of newspaper archives and digitized books provides no evidence that Semmes ever worked as an engineer—or at least no evidence that she was ever recognized for it.
Counts, one of the letter writers from the Society of Women Engineers archive, is remembered as a trailblazer—her electrical engineering degree was the first ever awarded to a woman in Colorado and she later took a job with the Rural Electrification Administration in Washington, D.C. Melton, the other letter writer, made headlines at least once, when in 1920 she took a job as a civil engineer in the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads.
“Leave it to a woman!” the Iowa City Press-Citizen wrote at the time. “That’s what the United States Bureau of Public Roads in Denver did when an assistant bridge engineer’s job was open. Miss Lou Alta Melton is filling the place in fine shape.” The newspaper described Melton as the only “girl” graduate in her civil engineering class at the University of Colorado.
One response to Melton’s letter came from the secretary of the T-Square Society, a group of women engineers at the University of Michigan that had already formed. They were interested in a potential partnership, the secretary wrote. But these and other early organizing efforts eventually fell apart, as Margaret E. Layne described in her book, Women in Engineering: Pioneers and Trailblazers, “partly because they followed a logic of maintaining professional standards similar to that used by male national organizations. Hence they excluded engineering students and working women engineers without formal education.”
In other words, the high standards for the hypothetical society were deemed necessary to combat sexism, but the sexism that kept women out of formal programs also thwarted efforts to find a critical mass of women engineers for a such a society. It would be decades before the Society of Women Engineers was founded—first as an informal group during World War II, then officially in 1950.
There are still small bright spots in the society’s collection of responses to Melton and Counts. At least one dean of engineering, W.N. Gladson, of the University of Arkansas, wished Melton well. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was more than many other deans were willing to do. “I am aware that in the Northern and Eastern Colleges, often girls register for engineering work and make very excellent students...” Gladson wrote. “Wishing for your organization the fullest measure of success, I am.”
Elsewhere, a professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech seemed to signal that times were changing. (Though he didn’t bother responding to Melton by name.)
“Dear Lady,” wrote J.B. Boon, of Georgia Tech, “Up to the present, women students have not been admitted to [Georgia] Tech.” He added—perhaps optimistically?—that Atlanta officials had taken up the question of women’s suffrage, “so no knowing what may happen!”