‘Women and Ideas in Engineering’: a story of resilience

By Molly Zupan, Special Sections Editor

In 2015, two female Illinois faculty members began a collaborative project. Three years later, in August, this project was published and stocked on bookshelves. 

Laura D. Hahn and Angela S. Wolters co-wrote the book, “Women and Ideas in Engineering: Twelve Stories from Illinois,” to “reflect on the past, tell stories from the present and look forward to the future,” Wolters said.

Hahn is the director of the Academy for Excellence in Engineering Education and Wolters is the director of Women in Engineering. The book was published by the University of Illinois Press.

According to both Hahn and Wolters, the original inspiration behind the publication of the book was a book from 1967 titled, “Men and Ideas in Engineering — Twelve Histories from Illinois,” which highlights 12 narratives of men and their contributions across the 100-year history of engineering at the University.

“I had the book on my shelf, and the title always irked me a little bit,” Hahn said. “We wanted to set the record straight and do a little digging into the contributions of women from the College of Engineering.”

    Sign up for our newsletter!

    Hahn, Wolters and many others dug deeper than ever.

    Collectively, they spent weeks sifting through historical archives, transcripts and records. These efforts couldn’t have been achieved without immense help from Bethany Genn Anderson, the University library’s archival operations and reference specialist, Wolters said.

    A majority of the book’s historical content was found in review of records held by the University of Illinois Archives, including Board of Trustees Reports, Illio yearbooks and alumni biographical files.

    Many contributors felt now was the ideal time to collect and reflect on the hard work, passion and dedication that was and is visible among past and present women in the College of Engineering, to show how much progress has been made since 1967.

    “Women and Ideas in Engineering: Twelve Stories from Illinois,” tells the story of a vast group of brilliant, strong-willed pioneers who share an astounding dedication to engineering, with perseverance that knows no bounds. 

    In an excerpt from the book, Jennifer T. Bernhard, the associate dean for research and engineering professor, said, “The title ‘Men and Ideas in Engineering’ might seem exclusionary now, but it was simply a product of its time — near the end of an era, especially in academia, when engineering and engineering research was almost exclusively a pursuit of men.”

    Just over 50 years later, “Women and Ideas” was published, aligning with the University’s sesquicentennial celebration and reveal of Illinois’ newest statue: the female engineer. On April 28, 2017, the statue was shown to the public; it’s located on the north portion of the Engineering Quad.

    Nine character traits are embellished on the raised surfaces that support the quintessential engineer, distinguishing what makes Illinois’ women in engineering noteworthy. These honorable traits are: confident, passionate, intelligent, courageous, innovative, resilient, pioneering, successful and inspirational.

    Each of these traits were exemplified by the women noted in the book, including Mary Louisa Page, Kathryn “Kit” Gordon, Louise M. Woodroofe, Grace Wilson and others.

    According to Hahn and Wolters, the initial plan was to follow the setup of “Men and Ideas” by covering 12 specific women; as the project progressed, contributors realized there were far too many remarkable women who deserved to be acknowledged. 

    This resulted in the composition of 12 themes, to sort each woman into the area of expertise she was most associated with.

    “When we started out, we thought we would be mimicking this book in terms of telling 12 stories from Illinois … We were worried we wouldn’t even find those 12, but quickly after we started our research, it grew beyond the 12,” Wolters said.

    The themes are separated into chapters such as Relentless Innovators, Mentors and Mentoring, and Foundations for the Future. There are 12 chapters total.

    An appendix at the back of the book lists and details the first 11 women graduates of the College of Engineering, from 1867 to 1917, and includes a list of the women graduates from 1918 to 1967.

    “Women and Ideas” includes third-person accounts along with first-person autobiographies from current faculty members.

    “In addition to us reporting in third person on women in engineering, especially from the past, we also published some first-person commentary from current students, faculty and alumni about their experiences in particular fields or research,” Hahn said.

    The male companion book only told stories in third person. This is one of the ways the recent female-based version is different.

    A website was also created to accompany and expand the content of the book.

    “We didn’t want to restrict these stories to the ones that happen to be in the book,” Hahn said. “So we started a website where we can continue to share these stories. We are still collecting stories, as things evolve.” 

    To further the impact of the book, a seminar course is being taught on the content by Hahn and Wolters. A number of women highlighted in the text are coming to campus to participate in the discussion and to engage with students who were lucky enough to be able to enroll.

    “This book is partially about sharing stories not only to retain and inspire our current female engineering students, but it’s also a way to recruit students to consider studying engineering,” Wolters said.

    Along with students in the College of Engineering, prospective students can access these stories, from the book or the website, which can be an advantage in the process of choosing a major in the field.

    Both Hahn and Wolters expressed their gratitude to the innumerable others who aided in the collective process of telling such a compelling story of the women in Engineering from Illinois and the opportunity that called them to lead such a momentous project.

    “Everyone was positive about this project. It was amazing to be a part of this because everyone’s been behind it. There are so many voices that extended well beyond us and our efforts,” Wolters said. “It isn’t very often that you get a chance to work on a project like this.”

    [email protected]