ASEE 2010: “The image of a woman engineer:” Women’s identities as engineers as portrayed by historical newspapers and magazines, 1930-1970

The Society of Women Engineers’ National Collection is an archive with rich potential for investigating the historical story of women’s identities as engineers. Filled with newspaper and magazine clippings, oral histories of pioneer women engineers, and SWE’s own institutional history, these archives allow us to see how women engineers were skillfully positioned as acceptably feminine, despite their peculiar profession. Noting women’s body measurements, hair color, dressing habits, and even home address, in addition to their usual marker of age, such newspaper reports pointed out the unusualness of individual women’s participation in engineering against a backdrop of national discussions on white women’s suitability for the paid workforce and their cultural roles as wives and mothers. Embedded in these historical data are additional threads of race – of note to the newspapers are the white women who choose to work until marriage, rather than women of color colleagues, even sparser to find, and who have never questioned their need to work in the paid workforce.

In this paper we describe the content analysis method by which we processed these historical data, and some of the conclusions we have drawn about women’s identities as engineers as portrayed through historical public sources drawn from 1900-1980 with a focus on the 1950s and 1960s.

Download the paper:2010 Pawley and Tonso