This week in my Technology & Gender seminar, we read and discussed Ruth Oldenziel’s Making Technology Masculine: Men, Women and Modern Machines in America, 1870–1945. As a complementary exercise, I had my students analyze a set of primary source documents from the period in the early 20th century that Oldenziel argues is crucial to the institutionalization and normalization of technology as a masculine enterprise. The sources are a series of letters between the presidents of various engineering schools in the fall of 1917, and are part of one of my favorite stories about the importance of serendipitous discovery in historical research.

In the spring of 2005 I was a relatively new faculty member in the History & Sociology of Science department at the University of Pennsylvania, and had just finished teaching an undergraduate survey course on the history of technology. One of the topics we covered was the history of women in engineering.

A few weeks after the end of the semester one of my most excellent students, a Penn undergraduate named Joan Lee, came to my office with a collection of documents she had found in a dumpster. Joan was teaching in a summer program aimed a teaching girls and boys about science and technology, and went looking for some waste paper out of which to construct paper airplanes. What she found was a set of letters to and from John Frazer, the then dean of the Towne Scientific School at the University of Pennsylvania. In early November 1917, Frazer had written to the deans or presidents of all of major engineering or technical colleges in the United States, asking them about their policies on admitting women to their programs. He received responses from Stanford, Cornell, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Wellesley, Berkeley, University of Michigan, University of Illinois, Washington University of St. Louis, Case Western, Brooklyn Polytechnic, Tulane, University of Virginia, Georgia Tech, and the Stevens Institute of Technology.

The original letters and the responses can be found here. They are fascinating. They are also a very poor representation of the actual state of women in engineering in the early 20th century. For that you should read Oldenziel.

Women in Engineering