Women’s History Month: Civil Engineers Alda and Elmina Wilson

Alda and Elmina Wilson were sisters and Iowa natives who held the distinction of being the first female graduates from Iowa State‘s Civil Engineering program. Neither was the first woman in the United States to formally study Civil Engineering – that honor belongs to Elizabeth Bragg of California. Nevertheless, Elmina was the first woman in the country to earn a master’s degree in Civil Engineering, and she and her sister were also the first women to earn their living as successful full-time professionals in the field.

Elmina Wilson was born on September 29th, 1870 and Alda Wilson on September 20th, 1873. They lived in Harper, Keokuk County Iowa with their parents, John Chesney and Olive Eaton Wilson and six older siblings. Both their parents and grandparents were apparently very progressive and encouraged pursuit of higher education. It is unclear whether all of the older children did so (though one sister named Olive studied Agriculture at Iowa State before marrying). But Elmina, at least, seems to have settled on her career choice early in life. In a 1905 interview with the New York Sun, she mentions her love of mathematics and surveying as motivational factors, as well as of the necessity of having a degree to teach. She also speaks about having spent time doing railway field work as a teen, “walking the ties for miles, carrying transit and chain, whenever a fence crossed the path of the surveying party of which I was a member, the men went over it, but, of course, I went under.”

Elmina earned her B.S. in Civil Engineering from Iowa State in 1892.

Elmina Wilson at her 1892 graduation from ISU with a B.S. in Civil Engineering (University Photographs, RS# 21/07)

Elmina Wilson at her 1892 graduation from ISU with a B.S. in Civil Engineering (University Photographs, RS 21/07)

Alda soon followed in her footsteps, earning her B.S. in 1894, the same year Elmina made history by graduating with an M.S. and becoming the first female instructor in the department. During their time in school, both sisters were members of Pi Beta Phi, and both supplemented their ISU coursework with practical summer internships for various architectural and engineering firms in Chicago. Elmina also took advanced courses at Cornell, and Alma completed a masters at MIT, after which she took a job in Chicago, where she worked until 1904.

Elmina’s time as an instructor at ISU spanned over a decade post-graduation. She worked as an Assistant of Civil Engineering from 1892-1897, as an Instructor of Civil Engineering from 1898-1902, and an Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering from 1902-1904. 

1894 Bomb yearbook, page 54. Elmina is listed as a department instructor even before she had officially graduated with her masters', as she taught while pursuing her graduate degree.

1894 Bomb yearbook, page 54. Elmina is listed as a department instructor even before she had officially graduated with her M.S., as she taught while pursuing her graduate degree.

While an instructor at ISU, Elmina also periodically collaborated on design projects with her supervisor and mentor, Anson Marston, the head of the Civil Engineering department. Most notably, she contributed to designs of the Marston Water Tower, now on the National Register of Historical Places.

1899 Bomb yearbook, page 23. Faculty. Civil Engineering. "By hammer and hand, all arts do sand. Yet too low they build who build beneath the stars." When this department was first established in the early years of the College history, there being no adequate place in which to conduct such a course, the students were taught simply land surveying and leveling. To-day the whole upper story of Engineering Hall is devoted to the work of this department. This includes a large class room, drafting room, office and instrument room, and is supplied with instruments for ordinary field work, including transits, levels, compasses, plane tables and the like, besides a cement testing outfit and testing machines. The students test in the laboratory, building stones, paving brick and other materials used in the construction of buildings. There is also a hydraulic laboratory connected with the new water works which furnishes facilities for many kinds of experiments in the mechanics of the flow of water. The best preparation, to our mind, that an engineer can have is a thorough knowledge of the underlying principles of his profession, without attempting an application of these principles by the use of formulas or rules, unless the laws and theory on which these formulas are based and the means by which they are deduced are thoroughly understood. Prof. A. Marston has had charge of this department since the Spring of '92, and Miss Elmina Wilson is the assistant professor.

1899 Bomb yearbook, page 23. She has no portrait in the faculty section, but Elmina is listed as assistant professor directly under the department chair Anston Marston.

From 1903 to 1904, Elmina took a sabbatical from teaching to reunite with her sister Alda (who had been working for some time in Chicago) for a trip to Europe. The sisters took the opportunity to study and draw, as well as marvel at, great European architecture. Happily, the ISU University Archives collection of Alda and Elmina’s papers contains all of their sketchbooks and journals from this period.

Alda Wilson European Sketchbook page, pencil illustration of architecture from an aerial view, entitled "Vaulting of San. Francisco - Lower Church Assisi 3-8-1904" (RS#21/7/24, folder 5)

Alda Wilson European Sketchbook page, entitled “Vaulting of San. Francisco – Lower Church Assisi 3-8-1904” (RS 21/7/24, folder 5)

Alda Wilson European Sketchbook page, pencil illustration of architecture dissected with numerical dimensions of components, entitled "Gothi Stone Staircase Pecci Palace Siena. Mch.16 1904" (RS#21/7/24, folder 5)

Alda Wilson European Sketchbook page, entitled “Gothi Stone Staircase Pecci Palace Siena. Mch.16 1904” (RS 21/7/24, folder 5)

Alda Wilson European Sketchbook, 2 page spread, pencil illustration of architecture from an exterior view, entitled "Pompeii Dec. 5 1903" and Cave Dec 6th 1903" (RS#21/7/24, folder 5)

Alda Wilson European Sketchbook, 2 page spread, entitled “Pompeii Dec. 5 1903″ and Cave Dec 6th 1903” (RS 21/7/24, folder 5)

Following their trip, the Wilson sisters decided to move to New York City together to pursue more hands-on work experience, as well as to become active in the movement for Women’s Suffrage. While there, Alda designed architecture, and Elmina first took a job with the James E. Brooks Company and then, several years later, with Purdy and Henderson. The latter company was associated with the era’s foremost innovators in engineering design and headed by a man nicknamed the “father of skyscrapers.” Among other projects she completed at P&H, Elmina is reported to have collaborated with another newly-minted female engineer, Marian Sarah Parker, on designs for the Flatiron Building.

Elmina’s life was cut tragically short in 1918 due to illness. She was 48 years old, childless, unmarried, and at the height of her career when she died. A 2010 article in the journal Leadership and Management in Engineering points out that she also just missed the passing of the 19th Amendment, for which she fought actively, by a mere two years.

Alda, however, lived a long and varied life. Despite having spent much of her career in her sister’s shadow, and despite having been deprived, by an accident of birth-order, the historical notoriety of being “first,” she continued to prove herself resourceful and innovative, even in the wake of her grief. She moved back to Iowa after Elmina’s death, only to find that the Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) was suffering from a shortage of competent drafters, as most of the men who had previously been employed in the office had shipped overseas to fight World War I. So Alda became the superintendent of the first ever Department of Women Drafters in Ames.

1918 Report of the State Highway Commission, page 15, listing Alda Wilson as Superintendent of the Women's Drafting Department (RS# 21/7/24, folder 1)

1918 Report of the State Highway Commission, page 15 (RS 21/7/24, folder 1)

Shortly thereafter, having strengthened a friendship with fellow ISU graduate and women’s rights leader Carrie Chapman Catt, Alda became Catt’s personal secretary in addition to her other professional responsibilities. By the time her own death arrived in 1960, Alda, aged 87, had advanced to the powerful position of executive secretary and executor of Catt’s estate. It is thanks to her that many important documents related to the women’s rights movement from the early 20th century now reside at the Library of Congress.


Women’s History Month: Evidence of Exclusion at ISU

Last month, a SCUA blog post on Black History Month and audiovisual recordings referenced the problem of “cultural memory gaps,” which is to say, gaps in the historical record that came about as the direct result of exclusionary attitudes and practices of the time. Sometimes, the loss or absence of a record is noticeable, as was the case with Ralph Ellison’s undocumented visit to Iowa State University. Sometimes, however, this loss or absence takes the form of lost potential, as is the case when members of underrepresented groups are systematically denied access to education, opportunity, and association that might have allowed them to better develop their talents in the first place.

Traditionally, Women’s History Month draws attention to the achievements and contributions of extraordinary individuals who proved exceptions to the rule of their time. It is equally important, however, to remember why so few achievements and contributions exist (at least, in documented form) to celebrate. Today, therefore, we are going to look at material which evidences some discriminatory practices and attitudes connected with ISU history.

The first example is a rejection letter from the Vet Med school, dated 1957.

The picture below features a photocopy of the original letter, with the name of the individual to whom it is addressed redacted for privacy purposes. The photocopy also contains markings from a patron who once included the letter in a class guide and wished to draw special attention to the justifications offered for the rejection.

March 11, 1957. Dear Miss: It is the policy of the Division of Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State College not to admit women to the professional curriculum. Because of limited educational facilities it has been necessary to restrict the number of new students who may be admitted to approximately sixty-four. Each year we receive more applications from men students than can be accommodated. If women were admitted, they would displace the same number of men. In many cases women are not physically equal to the educational requirements of the large animal clinics. There are many good fields for women which are closely related to veterinary medical science, such as medical technician, radiologist, major study in bacteriology or zoology, and possibly human medicine. We are sorry to disappoint you. If you wish, we will be happy to consider your application for admission to some other curriculum offered by the Iowa State College. Sincerely yours.

Photocopy of 1957 letter of rejection (Iowa State University, Margaret Sloss Women’s Center, Subject Files, RS 3/6/1; Iowa State University, College of Veterinary Medicine, Office of the Dean, Administrative Records, RS 14/1/8)

Notice how none of the justifications for rejection reference the applicant’s personal qualifications, but instead emphasize a desire to give male applicants priority consideration based exclusively on their gender.

The practice of discriminating against qualified applicants based on gender ended shortly thereafter, in 1960. Unfortunately, though, the attitudes which shaped the original policy seem to have persisted within the institution beyond the following decade, as there is later evidence of discriminatory practices that limited female students’ access to opportunities for professional development in more subtle ways, even after they had been admitted.

For example, we have a piece of correspondence from 1971, written in the name of the Osborn Research Club and signed by distinguished professors in animal husbandry and bacteriology, one of whom was dean of the graduate college at the time. The purpose of the letter was to establish unwritten policies in response to a challenge, though it is unclear whether this was common practice, as Osborn did not have a constitution at the time of founding.

The Osborn Research Club is a prestigious, now nearly-century-old, group on campus. It is not merely a student club or an honorary, but rather an academic, discussion-based, professional organization, intended to stimulate debate among active researchers in various branches of science. Unfortunately, certain matters were not up for debate.

2. No, women should not be admitted to membership; nor should they be guests at the meetings. (Unanimous). There are several good arguments for not accepting women as members (or even as guests). The presence of women, as members or guests, would make less free the discussions both at the table and after the paper; their presence might also restrict the freedom of selection of the content of the paper or the manner in which it was presented. The rules of politeness in our society are different when women are present than when the affair is stag. Almost all women view matters from a subjective viewpoint; many men can, and some do, view matters objectively. A woman presenting a paper is most likely to view serious and deep discussion as criticism; a man is not likely to react this way. In the presence of women men have to be careful not only what they say but how they say it. Sigma Xi, which is much more impersonal than Osborn Research Club, should serve better the needs of the woman scientist on our campus until such time as the campus women start some activity of their own.

Correspondence from Osborn Research Club, 1971 (Iowa State University, Osborn Research Club Records, RS 20/2/1, box 1, folder 11)

It is especially interesting to note that, despite the authors’ confidence in the absolute truth of their assertions, there was a pointed reluctance to open this question up for discussion among their reportedly objective-minded members. In fact, the authors of this letter – who, incidentally, signed themselves as “The Patriarchs” – burdened their membership with the responsibility of raising the issue in the first place, perhaps hoping it would simply not come up during their time in office.

3. We advise against the chairman going out of his way to present these questions of membership to the club for action. By tradition any member has always been free to bring any matter before the group for consideration at any meeting. It is probably wise that the chairman be informed in advance of such intention. 4. The chairman should decide the amount and nature of background material presented at the outset in a formal way. Discussion should be free and complete. (But we warn that there will be more wind than wisdom.)

Correspondence from Osborn Research Club, 1971 (Iowa State University, Osborn Research Club Records, RS 20/2/1, box 1, folder 11)

But, indeed, the patriarchs‘ hesitance to democratize the issue and create “wind” seems to have been well-founded, as the young men of the club voted to admit women in 1972, the year immediately following. Today, the Osborn Research Club counts numerous female researchers among its officers and members.

Nor is this the only moment in ISU history when students have stood up to their elders in the name of a social justice cause.

In the summer of 1943, the ISU chapter of Mortar Board, then an honor society for senior women (now a co-ed honorary for upper-classmen), initiated a letter-writing campaign to debate a national board ruling, which had excluded a highly-qualified black student from joining the Ohio State University chapter, even though the girl’s classmates had already unanimously voted her in.

The letter, after quoting the Mortar Board constitution, summarizes the incident below:

As you will note after reading carefully our purpose and membership qualifications we have no statement in that which bars a girl because of race, color or creed. However, in the past your Council has made it a policy to admit only members of the white race except where special permission has been requested and granted. This spring one of our chapters unanimously elected a girl of the negro race. This girl has all the necessary qualifications for membership: high scholarship, service to the school, and holds many importatn [sic] offices including that of president ofthe [sic] Y.W.C.A. and A.W.S. board member. The chapter advisors, knowing of our former policy, referred the matter to Council. Since the six members of the Council are so widely separated it was difficult in so short a time to discuss adeqately [sic] the situation and to decide wisely and fairly. also, we did not wish to pass judgment hastily on a matter of national policy of some years standing. Therefore, we reqested [sic] the chapetr [sic] to elect the other new members this spring and if, after our Council meeting, we decided to sanction the election of a negro, this action would be retroactive and the chapter in the fall would initiate the girl in question and she would still have her full year of active membership.

Correspondence from Iowa State University chapter of Mortar Board (Mortar Board. Torch Chapter (Iowa State University), RS 22/2/3, box 1, folder 10)

The language of the ISU chapter letter remains carefully diplomatic throughout, framing the issue as one of local democracy, in which each chapter should be allowed to decide on their own admissions policies. It does, however, repeatedly call for response from its sister chapters (implying that the complaint, although addressed to the national president, was not posted privately). It is also filed together with just such a response from the Mortar Board chapter at the University of Washington, and the latter minces fewer words:

It has seemed to us that there is very little room for debate on the matter. Mortar Board is a national organization to recognize and honor coed achievement and leadership. It is not an organization to honor white achievement and leadership. mortar Board loses its entire meaning if it refuses to recognize ability outside of a certain selected group. If a Negro girl -- or a girl of any other race -- has met the standards set forth by Mortar Board for membership, then there is no conceivable reason why she should not be admitted. If National refuses to verify her initiation, then national would be guilty of one of the basic principles against which we are fighting -- racial intolerance. And we as sub-chapters of the organization would share that guilt.

Correspondence from University of Washington chapter of Mortar Board, 1943 (Mortar Board. Torch Chapter (Iowa State University), RS 22/2/3, box 1, folder 10)

Sadly, we have little evidence on the outcome of this specific incident. The folder contains only a reply from the national president, along with a note on onion skin paper from an unidentified alumnae association. Both the president and the alumnae repeatedly, almost redundantly, classify the matter of whether or not to admit black students as a “problem,” find the University of Washington chapter’s tone “belligerent,” and generally agree with the ISU chapter that such policies, such “problems,” are best decided upon at the local level. There is no indication of whether or not Ohio State permitted the girl to join Mortar Board, let alone whether she had any remaining desire to do so.

With this lack of resolution in mind, here are a few take-away points:

1). Despite what the first two documents examined in this blog post imply, the attitudes and prejudices which shape exclusionary practices, at ISU and elsewhere, are not, and have never been, the sole property of men. Women of color have faced systematic exclusion much longer than, and frequently at the hands of, white women.

2). Historically speaking, it is not at all a new phenomenon for young people to champion policy-based change, only to hear their elders patronize and dismiss them for their zeal. In fact, many individuals who make sweeping generalizations about Generations X, Y, and Z today would themselves have belonged to the generations that protested exclusion with such recognizable turns of pandering, “wind,” and “belligerence.” 

3). The missing pieces from all of these stories are the thoughts, reactions, and even identities of the women whom these exclusionary policies impacted. All of these individuals must have had some perspective on what had happened to them and why. All of these individuals had lives before and after they butted up against the policies. But their stories are filtered exclusively through the words of their oppressors and/or, occasionally, the people who chose to stand up for them. This is unfortunate, because it frames our entire knowledge of these women as victims who required saving, and there is no evidence that this is how they saw themselves. For all we know, they may have been glad to discover upfront how prejudiced these organizations were, or what a potentially toxic environment they had escaped. A number of them may have gone on to be very successful in the context of other institutions, other organizations, or in other fields. Without hearing the story from multiple sides, we have no way of knowing what precisely was lost.

The real loss in all of these cases, then, is the institution’s loss, the archives’ loss, the historical record’s loss. Not only was ISU denied many opportunities to boast a role in shaping young talent, but current and future historians have been denied the opportunity to gauge with any accuracy precisely how much damage these exclusionary policies caused, or to whom. All we know for certain is that they existed, they were implemented, and why.