Engineering at The University of Alabama began in 1837, but it was not until the 1920s that women started to enroll in the College of Engineering. In 1939, Rose Rabinowitz, an aeronautical engineer, was the first woman to graduate from the College.
In Fall 2017, three female engineering seniors set out with the goal of finding the first women in engineering at UA. After researching old Corollas, the University’s yearbook, and commencement programs, it became clear to them that there is very little documentation about women in engineering at UA in the early 1900s.
“When we talk about the history of women’s equality, a lot of emphasis is placed on ‘firsts,’ which are, of course, important in their own right,” said Beatrice Kealy, chemical engineering graduate from Verona, Wisconsin. “But during our research, it became evident that it took several decades after the first woman [enrolled] in the program for there to be any sort of female presence.”
Rose Rabinowitz, who studied aeronautical engineering, is attributed with being the first woman to graduate from UA’s College of Engineering in 1939. Early female engineering graduates at UA, like Rabinowitz, helped pave the way for female engineering students in the years that followed.
Lizzy West, a mechanical engineering graduate from Trophy Club, Texas, believes these women would be celebrated in today’s world, but in the 1920s, she thought these women probably faced an uphill battle because it may have been hard for some people to accept change.
“Now if you’re the first woman to do anything, there’s a lot of pomp and circumstance around it and back then I don’t think that was the case,” West said.
Electrical engineering student Patricia Hall became the first African American female graduate of the College in 1978. Today, major steps are being made toward increasing the number of women in STEM fields, which West believes is largely due to the women engineers who pioneered the way for females to be successful in engineering today.
“I think it’s just kind of a different type of atmosphere surrounding it,” West said. “Now we’re trying really hard to encourage women to reach out into fields that they weren’t in before.”
Hannah Larson, mechanical engineering graduate from Hurst, Texas, said the focus for women in engineering has shifted since the first woman engineer at UA. She feels there is less attention paid to whether an engineer is male or female and instead more attention is put toward the work being generated.
“I think we’re fortunate to live in a time and place now where your actions and your work dictate how you’re treated,” Larson said. “I no longer am constrained by things I have no control over, like my gender. I’m judged by what I can produce as an engineer.”
It’s hard to know for certain, but West thinks one of the biggest differences between women in engineering in the 1920s and today could be the support system. Because of the lack of women in engineering in the ‘20s, she believes these women had to be more self-reliant. Today, women have the support of peers, female mentors and student organizations committed to women excelling.
“The way I operate now is I have my group of girlfriends in engineering, and we’re very closely knit and hold each other accountable. I didn’t really think about the fact that a lot of these people didn’t have that,” West said.
Larson believes that the opportunities and the skill set she has gained at UA are unlike any other school. For her, being a woman didn’t have a major impact on her experience in school.
“Even though I am in a male dominated field, and I have taken classes where I am the only girl in the class, I feel as respected, if not even more respected, by my peers,” Larson said. “They really do set you up to succeed here, and that’s something that I have found very valuable.”
The female faculty in engineering at UA have played a role in influencing and guiding female students throughout their time here, West said. These women provide encouragement and advice for students, which she noted is another support system that may not have been available for women in engineering in the early 1900s.
“I’ve always been really passionate about women and minorities in STEM. I think if I didn’t have some of those examples, [I] might not have lasted or it might have been more difficult,” West said.
In 1970, Dr. Hui-Chuan “Hannah” Chen, a computer science professor, became the first female faculty member hired in the College. She spent 34 years teaching at the Capstone and graduated UA’s first computer science doctoral student.
Then 24 years later in 1994, Dr. Viola Acoff was hired in the metallurgical and materials engineering department making her the College’s first African American female faculty member. Today, Acoff serves as associate dean of undergraduate and graduate programs.
Kealy said these early progressive women paved the way by helping ease the stigma of women in engineering, and now female students have become a norm in STEM fields. West feels that it takes strong women to be able to break the glass ceiling.
“It’s still hard for women now to kind of buck up and enter a field where they know they’re going to be in the vast minority,” West said. “To find women who had the courage to do it then is really cool.”
The first women in engineering at UA played a vital role in the lives of female engineers today. It’s because of people like them that women like West, Kealy and Larson are able to pursue their dreams of becoming successful.