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“The Image Of A Woman Engineer:” Women’s Identities As Engineers As Portrayed By Historical Newspapers And Magazines, 1930 1970

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Historical Perspectives for Engineering Education

Tagged Division

Liberal Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.1392.1 - 15.1392.11



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Paper Authors

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Alice Pawley Purdue University Orcid 16x16

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Karen Tonso Wayne State University

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

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

Abstract 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.

Introduction A recent surge in interest in engineering philosophy1-5 and identity6-7 has revitalized a discussion on understanding the gendered nature of engineering8-9 and engineering education10-12. Here, we use a sociocultural notion of identity that involves how persons are given meaning or made sense of in context, that is how individuals come to be considered engineers, or not, when positioned against a sociocultural notion about engineers taken for granted in society.13 This paper is part of a larger project, that of understanding how historical representations of engineering continue to have power in contemporary representations. Using historical sources, including newspaper clippings, oral histories of women engineers, and organizational documentation from the Society of Women Engineers National Archives, we have characterized three themes of interest to an engineering education audience: representations of women engineers as strange, representations of women engineers as normal when put into hegemonically feminine contexts, and significant absences from these media representations, including men’s voices and explicit discussions of race.

Methods Unlike the quantitative data collection and analysis many engineering educators may know, archival research is significantly different, beginning with a “research question,” progressing through a contingent “research design” matched to the nature of the data, and following findings and conclusions that emerge from archival research. This section endeavors to describe our data collection and analysis processes, but must be read with the caveat that these findings are early in this project, and will benefit from additional revisits to the data and seasoning over time (and with the help of the ASEE audience).

Pawley, A., & Tonso, K. (2010, June), “The Image Of A Woman Engineer:” Women’s Identities As Engineers As Portrayed By Historical Newspapers And Magazines, 1930 1970 Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky. 10.18260/1-2--16164

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2010 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015