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.