5 First Female Engineers
2018 is said to be the year of the woman, so VHR are honouring and applauding 5 of the first female engineers within our engineering industries.
Eleanor Roosevelt once named Phoebe Omile one of ‘the eleven women whose achievements make it safe to say the world is progressing’, and this is due to Phoebe’s incredible aviation pioneering in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Phoebe was an American aviation innovator, particularly noted for her accomplishments as an early female aviator (second to Amelia Earhart). However, what makes Phoebe a female first is her astounding achievement being the first female to receive an airplane mechanics license and be appointed to a federal position in the aviation field.
As one of the first female engineers in aviation history, Phoebe set several world records, including the first highest altitude parachute jump by a female and the first woman to cross the Rocky Mountains in an aircraft.
Phoebe began her career in the early 1920s when aviation was unregulated and open to those daring enough to take it on, male or female; nevertheless, Phoebe quickly became a celebrity in her own right. After the death of her husband, in 1941 Phoebe met their tremendous need for pilots for service in World War 2. She established 66 flight schools across the USA and conducted an ‘experimental’ program where women trained men as instructors. Her controversial belief that “if women can teach men to walk, they can teach them to fly” was paramount to the training of the Navy V-5 and the USAAF Women Airforce Service Pilots.
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As one of the first female engineers, Victoria Drummond stamps her mark as British inspirational women. Her career began in 1915, where she was encouraged to choose her own career and subsequently repeated her father’s ambition to become a marine engineer. She began her apprenticeship in Perth, Scotland, which then kick-started the beginning of her career.
Fast forward a decade where Victoria joined the Merchant Navy Ship and was named the first female marine engineer. Not only this, Victoria would later be the first female member of the Institute of Marine Engineers, as well as the first female to be included in the Hall of Heroes.
During World War 2, Victoria served at sea as an engineering officer in the British Merchant Navy (despite having been initially rejected multiple times). She was to later receive awards for acts of bravery under enemy fire, as her leadership skills on this occasion were integral to those lives saved.
‘Her conduct was an inspiration to the ship’s company, and her devotion to duty prevented more serious damage to the vessel’ (‘The Times’, 10 July 1941).
Post war, she was rejected over 37 times for a Board of Trade Certificate as a ship’s engineer before she finally succeeded in becoming the first woman ever to be awarded one.
Find out more about amazing women in marine.
Mary Winston Jackson
Perhaps recognizable from the hit movie ‘Hidden Figures’, Mary Winston Jackson was the first African-American female to work as an aeronautical engineer for NASA.
Born in Virginia in 1921, Mary throughout her career rightfully earnt her title as one of the most inspiring first female engineers. It all began for her as she excelled academically in both math and science during school years, earning herself bachelor degrees in both mathematics and physical science.
After a series of jobs, Mary found employment at NASA in Virginia. During the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Executive Order 8802 was issued; this prohibited discrimination within the defence industry, however Virginia state law still enforced segregation in the workplace, meaning Mary experienced a considerable amount of indignity.
Despite her urgency to resign from NASA due to the unequal rights, she was promoted from her position as a research mathematician to aeronautical engineer by her supervisor, who saw her potential. She became NASA’s first African-American engineer and developed expertise working with wind tunnels and analysing data on aircraft flight experiments.
After 34 years, Mary has achieved the most senior title possible within the engineering department, however, she decided to take a demotion in order to serve as an administrator in the Equal Opportunity Specialist field where she worked to make changes to women and other minorities who were accomplished within the mathematical/engineering field.
She continued to work as an influencer in the career paths of women in science, engineering, and mathematics in NASA until her retirement in 1985.
Learn more about how to encourage women in to engineering and STEM careers.
Beating 400 other applicants with no pilot experience, Valentina Tereshkova nevertheless became the first woman to go in to space, earning an exceptional prestige of being one of the first female engineers in aerospace.
Valentina volunteered for the Soviet space program in 1961. Although she did not have any experience as a pilot, she was accepted into the program because of her 126 parachute jumps. At the time, cosmonauts had to parachute from their capsules seconds before they hit the ground on returning to Earth. She has 18 months of training which included tests to determine how she would react to long period of time being alone, as well as enduring gravity and zero-gravity conditions.
Her first mission was a dual mission; however, Valentina would be flying solo in her own space capsule. This mission lead to her success as the first female in space; she orbited earth 48 times and logged 70 hours over 3 days.
Valentina – in order to join the Cosmonaut Corps – was inducted in to the Soviet Air Force, resulting in the first civilian to fly in space. Additionally, Valentina remains as the only woman ever to have been on a solo space mission. Although Valentina never flew in space again, she later became a test pilot and instructor and earned a doctorate in technical sciences.
She was a refugee fleeing from Nazi occupied France, and a single mother also, but Helene Rother carved her mark on the automotive industry as one of the first female engineers to successfully develop a career in design engineering.
In 1943, Helene joined the interior styling staff of General Motors (GM) in Detroit. Specialising in designs for automotive interiors, as well as furniture, Helene became USA’s first automotive designer.
Honestly spoken, “she was one of the few women to succeed in a man’s job during an era when the vast majority of women couldn’t even see a glass ceiling – it was hidden behind steel doors”
Althought GM tried to keep it quiet the Helene was earning US$600 a month (when the average male salary was $200) it was leaked and reported in The Detroit News, but downplayed because they feared that it would spark too much controversy by allowing a woman power in a male-dominated industry.
Helene was the first woman to address the Society of Automotive Engineers in Detroit. One reporter wrote that “500 listeners came to laugh, but stayed to cheer her logical conclusions”; this was an incredible turn in her career as she became well respected as not only a classy, charismatic Parisian woman, but also as an incredible artist and engineer.
Find out more about revolutionary women in the engineering industry here.