Uncovering the History of the First Women P.E.s

Credit: notviper

After earning her professional engineer license, a SWE member began the long journey to identify not only the first women P.E.s, but their personal stories, too.

By Marsha Lynn Bragg, SWE Contributor

Melinda Luna, P.E., excelled in math and science and through academic assessments discovered she had a predilection for engineering. Once she decided to study civil engineering, she began to hear the unfavorable predictions:

My parents told me that women were not engineers.
My college counselor told me that the best I could do is to marry one.
I was told no one would want to marry a female engineer.

Though one of only four women in her graduating class and the only Hispanic, Luna earned a degree in civil engineering at Texas A&M University. Her professors encouraged all students to attain a professional engineers (P.E.) credential as it would provide both opportunity and credibility for public works projects.

According to the National Society of Professional Engineers, P.E. certification enhances an engineering professional’s stature and prepares them for higher levels of responsibility. A state board of registration issues the P.E. license, which indicates the highest standard of competence, a mark of achievement, and assurance of quality for the engineering profession. The state of Wyoming enacted the first engineering licensure law in 1907. Today, every state regulates the practice of engineering to guarantee public safety by granting only P.E.s the authority to sign and seal engineering plans and offer their services to the public.

Luna earned a P.E. in 1993 from the Texas Board of Professional Engineers. She is also a certified floodplain manager and currently leads a team of professional engineers and engineers in training in the Hydrologic and Hydraulic Group at TRC Companies, in Austin, Texas.

“It was never a question for me,” Luna said of the P.E. certification. “I know many women didn’t get it because they didn’t want the responsibility. I’ve found it levels the playing field. I can point to it and say, ‘I got my certificate the same as you.’” Her credentials led her to work on and lead water and floodplain management projects in her home state of Texas, and in South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, California, and Nicaragua.

Melinda Luna, P.E.

“When I first started researching engineers for each of the states, I thought it would be easy; just go to the website of the professional board in each state and then research it. When that didn’t happen, I sent out emails and letters to the national boards.”

– Melinda Luna, P.E., team leader, hydraulics and hydrology, TRC Companies

Seek and ye shall discover

Often the only woman and perhaps the first Hispanic woman assigned to a project or within a team, Luna wondered how many other women, especially Hispanic women, had P.E. certification. “I had not seen a woman engineer since I became one. That was part of my motivation — to look for a list of professional women engineers.”

But tracking down women P.E.s in the United States was challenging. Records for women engineers were sporadic and incomplete. Records for Hispanic women and women of color were even harder to find. Engineering organizations and companies did not track gender or keep accurate historical records — if records were kept at all.

Undeterred, Luna continued her outreach efforts because she wanted to find more than names. Luna wanted their stories. What led them to pursue engineering? When did they get their degrees? What were some of the obstacles they faced? Was it patriarchal tradition or culture that held some women back? Did they marry and have families? What projects bear their P.E. seals?

A parallel search

Unbeknownst to Luna, the Society of Women Engineers was conducting similar research. About three years ago, SWE Past President Jill Tietjen, P.E., F.SWE, contacted SWE Archivist Troy Eller English on behalf of the State Licensure Board of Colorado wanting to know whether SWE kept records when states licensed their first woman engineer.

During the 1950s, SWE discussed the value of P.E. certification for women engineers in its newsletters and at conferences, Eller English said. “They thought it was a way to legitimize themselves. They knew they were competent engineers, but many men assumed that they were not.”

At that time, very few women went through the process of obtaining a P.E. license. Those who did, Eller English surmises, were committed to their careers because the certification process is demanding. In some fields a P.E. wasn’t required. “It is much more necessary now, especially in civil and structural engineering, and those were areas of engineering that women were a little slower to come into.”

Eller English encountered similar challenges trying to obtain information, so she scoured SWE newsletters, directories, and old journals and identified nine SWE members as being the first P.E. in their state. She also found SWE members with P.E. licenses in 13 other states but nothing to indicate they were the first. Other sources, including state licensure offices, state professional organizations, and local newspapers, offered a few leads, although Eller English wasn’t completely confident of the accuracy because information was uneven, terminology varied, and actual women firsts may have been overlooked or forgotten.

She also needed to be mindful of the time period when many women, via marriage, took their husbands’ surnames. “Some first names commonly associated with one gender today, such as Leslie or Carol, were associated with the opposite gender 75 years ago. I’ve seen women have their names misspelled, even ‘corrected’ in newspapers and reports,” Eller English said.

Troy Eller English, SWE archivist

“It is important to recognize this achievement because for too long there was such a belief that women did not pursue engineering. There are some notable exceptions, but a lot of women, their achievements and accomplishments were not celebrated at the time, so I think it is absolutely worthwhile to celebrate them now.”

– Troy Eller English, SWE archivist

Right name, right answer

“When I first started researching engineers for each of the states,” Luna said, “I thought it would be easy; just go to the website of the professional board in each state and then research it. When that didn’t happen, I sent out emails and letters to the national boards.” She also browsed online newspapers and eventually contacted SWE, although Eller English admits that at the time, she had little information to offer.

As her research unfolded, Luna found 48 women P.E.s, from every state except North Dakota, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire. She also uncovered the diversity she was looking for: Women engineers came from different ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and geographic locations. Some married and had children who later became civil engineers. “I was hoping for another diverse group such as [the] LGBTQ community. I thought, what are the chances of that happening because most of these women are pre-1970s.”

While checking for civil engineers in North Dakota, a professional engineering association gave her the name of Greta Paulsen, an electrical engineer. She was unable to find any information before 1976, however, so she went back to the association. They suggested she look under “Gary.”

As it turns out, “her name was Gary and she changed it to Greta. That told me she was born a male. I was told she identifies as female now. I was so excited to learn that,” Luna said, adding that Paulsen had identified as female when she earned P.E. certification.

“I found out there isn’t a typical female engineer; there is diversity beyond my wildest dreams.”

Luna has for several years written about civil engineering history. Learning about women civil engineers and their contributions is especially meaningful when she meets young women engineers who do not have that history. During a conference, she met a young woman engineer from Alaska who was dismayed at so few women engineers in the state. “I asked if she knew that the first woman P.E. in Alaska was a woman named Irene Ryan who earned a P.E. before Alaska became a state.”

The March/April 1998 issue of SWE Magazine states that Ryan arrived in Anchorage at age 21, took flying lessons, and was the first woman to fly solo in Alaska. She earned a degree in geological engineering at the New Mexico School of Mines (now the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology), becoming the first woman graduate. She married, returned to Anchorage, and raised a daughter. During World War II, Ryan, who was named a SWE Fellow in 1986, helped design airfields throughout the territory, including Anchorage International Airport. She also was the first woman to serve as an Alaska state senator. “I could see her identifying with her (Ryan) right away,” Luna said, adding that she shared a website for the young engineer to follow up on her own.

Hispanic women among first to earn civil engineering degree

Melinda Luna, P.E., a team leader, hydraulics and hydrology, for TRC Companies in Austin, Texas, had just given a well-received presentation about her research at a conference sponsored by the Western Association of State Highway and Transportation. She left the conference hall to go to her room and got off the elevator near the top floor. Out of nowhere, a woman approached her with a familiar demand: Get her some coffee.

“She didn’t look at the way I was dressed or my name tag,” Luna said. “She looked at my ethnicity and probably thought that the only way I could be on the executive floor is if I was cleaning it.”

Credit: negoworks

Luna identifies as Hispanic. She is a civil engineer, a certified professional engineer (P.E.), a certified floodplain manager, a wife, a mother, and a novel historian and heritage researcher focused on civil engineering. Rather than take offense, she uses these slights and microaggressions as opportunities to educate people about the diversity within engineering.

For the past two years, Luna has gathered names, educational backgrounds, accomplishments, and whatever details she can find about the first Hispanic women civil engineers. She is also working on a larger project to identify the first women P.E.s in the United States and its territories. Luna wants this research to inspire young women who, like her, had never met a woman engineer.

“I started the project to identify women engineers and to put things in perspective not just for someone else but for me, too,” Luna said. “I am doing this to put something out there that says an engineer can be anyone.”

Finding Hispanic women civil engineers has been difficult, Luna says, because some engineering organizations do not have historical data or track gender. With dogged yet careful prodding and consulting the Society of Women Engineers, the American Society of Civil Engineers, state licensing boards, and professional associations, among others, Luna has collected information from these and other sources.

Although women civil engineers are fewer in number compared with men — about 17.4% overall and 10.1% Hispanic according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey — Luna’s research reveals Hispanic women got an early start. She has to date discovered eight women from Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Columbia, Spain, and Nicaragua who were the first in their countries to earn a civil engineering degree, the earliest in 1919.

Justicia Espada Acuña Mena of Santiago, Chile, was the first woman to join the Faculty of Physical Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Chile in 1913 and earned her degree in civil engineering in 1919. According to Luna’s findings, Acuña Mena raised seven children and worked as a calculator for the State Railways’ Department of Roads and Works, retiring in 1954. The College of Engineers of Chile inducted her into its Gallery of Illustrious Engineers in 1981. She is also highlighted in a 2021 Google Doodle.

Luna was delighted to discover the first Hispanic woman civil engineer in the United States who also holds a P.E. license: Celina Ugarte de Peñalba of Bluefields, Nicaragua. The 1958 graduate of the National University of Nicaragua was the first woman engineer in that country. Her stellar academic achievements brought her to the U.S., where she earned a master’s in civil engineering at the University of Kansas, followed by a Ph.D. in civil engineering, specializing in structural and seismic engineering at the University of Delaware. She taught at UD from 1964–1973 and established a SWE section. In 1968, she became the first woman to register as a certified professional engineer in Delaware.

Other firsts in their home countries include: Elisa Beatriz Bachofen of Buenos Aires, Argentina, a 1918 graduate of the University of Buenos Aires, who served as a bridge designer for Dirección de Puentes y Caminos; Juana Pereyra of Montevideo, Uruguay, graduated in 1920 from the University of the Republic and taught bridge and road engineering in the university’s Faculty of Engineering.

Luna says finding histories of Hispanic women civil engineers is personally meaningful because she identifies with them on many levels. Some of these trailblazing women also married, raised families, and made significant yet often overlooked contributions in their specialties. They earned degrees and licenses despite opposition and the rarity of the endeavor. Luna hopes that advanced technologies and digital capabilities will make it easier to research, share, and educate others as to who is and who can be an engineer.

Yvonne Young Clark, P.E., F.SWE
Elsie Eaves, P.E., F.SWE

A bit of curiosity

Eller English soon realized that the project Luna began and her own efforts to identify the first women P.E.s in the country was an undertaking SWE should support. “I was really excited when Melinda first contacted me in 2021. She had been doing this research for years and had made much more progress than I ever did. Overall, I was able to provide Melinda with a few leads and confirmation of many of the women she already had. By far she did most of the research and legwork.

“This project required more than just a little bit of curiosity for the answer,” Eller English said. “It required someone with her passion to go out and actually find all the answers because they were not easy to find.”

By the time the two reconnected and shared documentation, Luna’s list of the first women P.E.s in the U.S. and its territories had climbed to 51, with New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands outstanding. Eller English and Luna agree that two women P.E.s stand out: Elsie Eaves and Yvonne Young Clark.

Graduating from Howard University in 1951 with a degree in mechanical engineering, Clark was the first woman to do so. She was the first woman faculty member in the College of Engineering and Technology at Tennessee State University and the first woman to earn a master’s degree in engineering management from Vanderbilt University. Clark’s career of firsts was marked with gender-based and racial discrimination indicative of the times. She was SWE’s first Black member, joining the Society in its early years.

Various sources have inaccurately pointed to Eaves, a 1920 graduate of the University of Colorado, as the first woman in the country to receive a P.E., Eller English said, noting the challenge of identifying “firsts.” Eaves’ career in civil engineering included teaching engineering mathematics at her alma mater; serving as editorial assistant for the Engineering News-Record, a weekly engineering and construction magazine; and gaining associate membership in 1927 to the American Society of Civil Engineers. As a founding member and first Fellow of SWE, Eller English said Eaves sought to downplay the “first” attribute, although she was one of few visible, prominent, and respected women engineers during the 1920s–1940s.

It turns out that Eaves was right, Eller English said. In fact, a 1976 obituary for SWE member Marie Reith, which was written by Eaves and published in the SWE Newsletter, states that in 1936 Reith was the first woman in New York to receive a P.E. license. (Eaves received her P.E. in 1938.) Luna’s research identified two other women believed to have earned P.E.s earlier. Anne Gertrude Garrell Adams, an architectural engineer, attained her P.E. license in 1923 after earning a degree in mechanical drawing in 1920 from Indian State Normal College. Gender was the reason the University of Pennsylvania denied admission to Dorothy Allison Carlin. Instead, she found success at the Cornell University engineering school, only the seventh woman admitted. After graduating in 1924, she was the first woman civil engineer employed by the Philadelphia Transit Department and the state’s first woman P.E., in 1929. She helped develop the high-speed rail line that connects Philadelphia with Camden County, New Jersey.

The project moves forward

Next year will mark 100 years since the first woman engineer earned the first P.E. license, Luna said. “It is a pretty big landmark for women. SWE had a big role to play in women getting their P.E.s and not just in civil engineering. And the diversity — ethnicity, age, married, not married, everything. I was happy to see that.”

Added Eller English: “It is important to recognize this achievement because for too long there was such a belief that women did not pursue engineering. There are some notable exceptions, but a lot of women, their achievements and accomplishments were not celebrated at the time, so I think it is absolutely worthwhile to celebrate them now.”

Luna’s goal is to present more than a list of names. She wants to flesh out information that includes their accomplishments, projects, and societal impact. Luna has also started compiling a list of Hispanic women civil engineers and has so far identified eight women in countries outside the United States. She’s hopeful that as more resources are digitized and available online, that information will be readily accessible because organizations and associations like SWE see the value in recognizing women.

“I want more information for that little girl who’s told you can’t be an engineer,” Luna said, “but can look at that resource and say, ‘I ID with that person.’ My research shows that anyone can be an engineer.”

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