Exclusion and Unexpectation
Girls Coming to Tech!:
A History of American Engineering Education for Women
By Amy Sue Bix
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2014, 359 pp., $34.00, hardcover
Searching for Scientific Womanpower:
Technocratic Feminism and the Politics of National Security, 1940-1980
By Laura Micheletti Puaca
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014, 261 pp., $34.95, paperback
Reviewed by Nina E. Lerman
Lack of diversity in the STEM fields (Science-Technology-Engineering-Math) has come under much discussion in the early twenty-first-century United States. “Diversity” masks an amalgam of many stories and many intersecting categories, all needing histories—and the twentieth-century exclusions from these targeted fields have remained underexplored. The two books under review here address important gaps in a long, gendered history of access to knowledge, illuminating gender disparities and feminist strategies. They also remind us that the gates to STEM have until quite recently been guarded, and even when officially opened, the political and pragmatic road leading through them has been a rough and rutted one indeed. Reconfiguring access to knowledge economies has rarely been a smooth journey.
Amy Sue Bix, faced with a limited literature on women in engineering, chose the advent of co-education as lens. Girls Coming to Tech! offers a rich account of experience on the ground at a range of engineering schools, combining administrative reasoning and student perspectives as well as a century-long view of institutional gatekeeping and gradual change away from a single-sex educational norm. In Searching for Scientific Womanpower, Laura Micheletti Puaca is most interested in the histories and politics of feminisms and women’s movements, and the kinds of arguments deployed in making education and jobs available for women in scientific fields. Puaca’s policy-driven history explores strategies of change, from funding to workplace organization, and the implications of these strategies, from 1940 to 1980.
World War II figures centrally in both books as a rupture when women were not only allowed into these fields but actively encouraged and recruited, as industry and research were mobilized in new ways. Readers are invited to consider the era of Rosie the Riveter not only in terms of home, work, and pay but also, as Bix points out, as an important reframing of women’s access to knowledge, whether of rivet-guns, aviation, or electronics. As Puaca emphasizes, women’s advocates during the war had a new argument at their disposal: if “science” would “win the war,” while simultaneously many male bodies were called to fight it, then women trained in science offered an untapped and non-draft-eligible resource. As in Rosie’s iconic arenas of female manufacturing work, mobilization in science, engineering, and technical work was substantial: not only women already possessed of degrees in the sciences but also high school graduates with willingness and aptitude could enroll in newly invented training programs and work in drafting, calculation, writing technical manuals, and more. Programs such as the Curtiss-Wright Cadettes, built on collaborations between industry and higher education; jobs opened for female mathematicians and scientists; formerly single-sex engineering opened admission.
Historians have explored the changing post-war options for Rosie and her rivet gun, but what of Sadie Sliderule and Susan Science? The answers vary, as these two rich accounts—separately and especially together—attest. In Searching for Scientific Womanpower, Puaca argues that the tensions of the mid-twentieth century offered a crucial new frame for granting women access to scientific knowledge, as “winning the war” expanded into the broader Cold War rubric “national security.” 1 Concerns about “scientific manpower” led to a quest for boosting American “brainpower,” allowing activists in education and science to highlight the “wasted” resources of so many female brains. For reasons of national security, then, training women in scientific and technical fields could be made acceptable to otherwise uninterested, inaccessible, or radical- averse sources of power and funding. Puaca finds that especially during the first few decades of the Cold War, again in the 1980s under the foreign policy of President Ronald Reagan, and similarly in the wake of 2001 terrorism, “national security” arguments were common in discussions of girls’ education and women’s work in the fields now referred to as STEM. Only relatively briefly, during the height of “second wave” equality feminism, did arguments—and subsequent policy change—based solely on equal opportunity prevail.
In Girls Coming to Tech!, the potential patriotic contributions of female brains figure as one thread among several in the arguments for institutional change. She points out that historically, unlike in science or medicine, women had no role in the daily work of engineering, even on the sidelines: no botanical drawings or ladies’ chemistry; no healing or nursing. At best women provided administrative and secretarial support, which was kept well away from the construction site or the shop floor. Citing formal engineering’s military and industrial foundations, Bix argues it should not be lumped together with science, medicine, or the cleaner applications of mathematics. The female engineer, even more than the female scientist, was a blatant contradiction in terms for much of the twentieth century: greasy or military or mountaineering, (male) engineers prided themselves on a pragmatic technical masculinity so foreign to female humanity as to make the “lady engineer” simply laughable, or easily (sometimes, loudly) dismissible.
Bix prepares the reader for the intensity of wartime activity with a chapter on women pioneers, as the field of engineering professionalized and claimed a place in higher education. She then details the many World War II education and training programs, from drafting schools to engineering degrees, open to and encouraging of young women students. Girls Coming to Tech! offers the students’ perspective and particularities of institutional context, in complement to Scientific Womanpower’s policy-level emphasis. But while some degree programs stayed open—for example Columbia’s engineering school and Renssalaer Polytechnic (RPI)—other doors closed again when the veterans returned. The later case studies provide much of the rich material Bix musters precisely because they are not salient examples of national security logic: in 1952, for example, Georgia Tech admitted its first white females even as the state continued the policy of paying out-of-state tuition elsewhere for black males; in 1968 CalTech admitted women as it worried about losing “good men” to co- ed competitors. In this wider picture, early racialized feminism and oddly retrograde stereotypes vie with national security to produce (some) women’s engineering opportunity.
The policy-driven historical sources in Scientific Womanpower (reports from committees and councils and commissions, and the attendant popular journalism) tend to mix engineering and sciences together behind the door more women should enter. In these venues, concern with “scientific” training could quite easily be voiced in terms of statistics on the numbers of Soviet women in engineering, and conferences often included representatives of multiple fields of science and engineering. It is worth noting that the “brainpowered” women themselves often organized according to their particular knowledge identities and credentials, just as their work and institutions were organized: the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) met and shared tactics with Sigma Delta Epsilon, the society for women in science. But in many meetings and conferences, “scientific” offered a broad moniker for the contributions American women had the potential to make, in a range of masculinized and internationally competitive fields.
Under this large umbrella, Puaca sorts through a host of collaborations driven by Cold War security concerns: in chapter three, for example, “Scientific Womanpower Enters the Sputnik Era,” gatherings focused broadly on women, or broadly on science, could generate attention to the policy nexus of women in scientific fields: the Commission on the Education of Women of the American Council on Education considered science; the NSF Committee for Scientific Personnel and Education considered women. Targeted activism such as the 1958 National Conference on the Participation of Women in Science, scheduled in tandem with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meetings, further highlighted the issue. Such gatherings routinely included multiple voices: the American Association of University Women (AAUW), Sigma Delta Epsilon, SWE, representatives of women’s colleges, of universities, of industry.
But none of this busy activity should be taken to mean that women’s participation had become natural or obvious in wider discourse, because proposing “scientific womanpower” as a gendered contribution to the nation clashed directly with the now-familiar cold war assumptions about female domesticity and motherhood as a key component of democracy and American freedom. In spaces where female participation in the sciences was not the core issue, the attitude Dean Mary (Polly) Bunting of Douglass College (the women’s college of Rutgers University), came to call the “culture of unexpectation” was pervasive: male policy makers made no comment on reports, for example, that students in the top ten percent of their high school classes who did not go on to higher education were ninety percent female. Bunting herself read this as a “waste” of American brain resources—but fellow committee members noticed nothing unusual. Similarly the difficulty married women scientists faced maintaining their careers and keeping up with their fields were often assumed to be natural (or even a reason not to bother training them), rather than a glaring challenge to existing workplace organization and a site for targeted interventions. National security issues offered a promising gateway into the brainpower conversation, but like so many other feminist arguments in US history, it had much to work against.
In engineering schools, meanwhile, the culture was often more actively exclusionary than simply “unexpectation.” In multiple instances, Bix finds, the idea of admitting women immediately troubled men because it would (obviously) lower the standards of their institutions. Girls Coming to Tech! accordingly offers a deep exploration of structural and cultural resistance, illuminating the other side of the gendered barriers to knowledge access: when discussion at CalTech centered on how many excellent (male) prospective students might be choosing co-ed Berkeley or Stanford, it also fretted about the social adjustment of the (male) Caltech engineer in an all-male environment. MIT had been educationally co-ed for decades, but had no women’s dorm and routinely used housing as a reason to cap female enrollment, until in 1960 Katherine McCormick (of the class of ’04) pledged $1.5 million to build on- campus women’s housing. After the dorm opened in 1963, MIT doubled the number of women it admitted each year: from twenty to forty, in an institution enrolling over 5,000 students.
The commentaries Bix accumulates expose the cultural infrastructures. At MIT the dorm discussion did indeed invoke the specter of cold war Soviet competition, as needed. But the media cast McCormick’s substantial philanthropy in gendered discomfort: MIT “dedicated its first women’s dormitory to go with its first women’s dean, an attractive blonde lured from nearby Radcliffe,” reported Time magazine, apparently distracted from national security issues in the face of “striking equations—long legs, wind-blown hair, fresh faces—attached to creatures who turn out to be working on doctorates in fluid dynamics.” Fellow students at Georgia Tech ranged from supportive, to interested in “vital statistics,” to dismissive of femininity (“For the few women (neuters?) we would get, why mess up Tech?”); the administration enforced a 10:30pm curfew on the women—an hour earlier than library closing time. At Caltech—the institution providing the book’s title headline—women’s admission was often discussed in terms of social life: “Coeds are sure to get a very warm welcome at Caltech. But will there be enough to go around? Don’t fight, boys!” These glimpses may help explain the data: despite significant growth in sheer numbers, women constituted barely more than seven percent of American scientists and engineers by the late 1950s, and in 1957, female engineering students nationally remained less than one percent of total engineering enrollment.
These ground-breaking analyses expose multiple themes worth further pursuit. Given the expectations and stereotypes rampant in most of these discussions, sexuality, now well established as a key tension of cold war culture, is one obvious intersection. Class status is of particular interest in the history of engineering, a path known for many first-generation success stories among the sons of the (white) immigrant working class. Existing studies of individual female scientists, and mentions of more than a few of the female engineers here, suggest that family influences and connections helped support women’s early forays into these male-dominated fields. Explorations of race and gender together might build on these two works along with, for example, Amy Slaton’s 2010 Race, Rigor, and Selectivity in US Engineering: The History of an Occupational Color Line. Access to knowledge has been blocked, and brainpower “untapped,” not only for women. And what of women of color? Georgia Tech admitted its first three (male) African American students quietly in 1961, nine years after its first two (white) female students. A further nine years passed before the enrollment of a small cohort of women of color, braving the double-othering of being a minority presence within two existing minority categories of student.
Both authors emphasize the insights of longer-term histories and bring the discussion into the recent past as they conclude their works. Puaca echoes calls for a longer history of feminism, spanning the obvious activist “waves” and studying the strategies between. In choosing the decades from 1940 to 1980, she hopes to incorporate wartime and cold war conversations about women in science before the more familiar activism of the 1960s and ’70s, as well as the ways arguments for equality could facilitate a different level of change. Bix takes her readers through challenges to girls’ socialization toward the end of the century, spanning multiple feminist waves; the book can be read as a topical study laid out in rich and readable archival detail, but it is also a formidable lesson both in practices of female activism and in various forms of deep exclusion and masculinist entrenchment. The slowness of women’s acceptance in engineering, ironically, offers a long vista of gendered struggle and strategy. As we read through the insults endured, the triumphs over “climate” as well as over problem sets, we might be inclined to echo Puaca’s assessment of the national security argument as “less successful [than equality]... in tackling the deep-rootedness of women’s subordination in science and society.” Bix, however—considering a full century of history—“underlines just how dramatic a revolution” has been effected: “Its most essential lesson lies in the simple fact that today’s young women take it for granted” that access to engineering knowledge is theirs if they want it.
Both books leave readers to contemplate the deeper histories of the twenty-first- century discussions of STEM “diversity.” Current statistics in these fields are uneven: of bachelor’s degrees in the biological sciences in 2012, 59.3 percent went to female graduates; in the physical sciences 40.6 percent in engineering (all fields), 19.2 percent. Echoing Polly Bunting’s comment from a half-century ago: what is today’s culture of (un)expectation?
Nina Lerman is a research scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, on leave from the History Department at Whitman College in Walla Walla Washington. Her current research explores access and categorizations of knowledge in the industrializing nineteenth century.