Advancing the Image of Engineering One Audience at a Time

STEM Pioneers

Women have been making Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) innovations for centuries. These women, our STEM fore-mothers, were often the first women in their colleges and the first women in their companies in a technical field. Their passions required a strong sense of persistence and grace. Discover your heroines through their amazing journeys. Let the next generation of youth be inspired by their stories.  Page last updated June 1, 2016

Women STEM Pioneers and WWII

World War II turned the nation’s resources on end as men rushed to fight the war from 1941 – 1945 presenting opportunities to women to fill non-traditional roles. Over six million women took an active part in the work force. They filled factory positions making munitions, airplane or working on farms. Over three million women worked for the Red Cross and over 200,000 women served in the military. At the end of the war, women were laid off from the positions they had during the war. “Rosie the Riveter” as a pop icon has an interesting history and documentary. Women’s work may have started as a ‘temporary’ replacement of men’s factory jobs in manufacturing but it also laid the groundwork for women’s gradual move into STEM.

Top Secret Rosies – Female Computers of WWII

Ballistic missile calculations during WWII were done by hand, taking mathematicians up to 40 hours to calculate. The Army’s “Top Secret Rosies of WWII” were a team of women  mathematicians that you can find more on through LeAnn Erickson’s documentary (trailer).  These women – or human calculators – also ushered in the first all electric computer called the ENIAC in 1946 for the Army: an 80-foot long, 8-foot tall, containing hundreds of wires, 18,000 vacuum tubes, 40x 8-foot cables, and 3000 switches reducing the ballistic calculations that once took 30 hours down to seconds. The programmers, recently credited for the development of the ENIAC, include Francis “Betty” Snyder Holberton, Betty “Jean” Jennings Bartik, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum, and Frances Bilas Spence. Top Secret Rosie Alyce Hall is the first known African American female mathematician. Humble and noble beginnings for our first programmers.

More top secret computers from WWII and the Cold War are being discovered:

  • Alice May Anderson, SWE Fellow, aka “ASROC Alice” served the US Navy for 36 years working on the Mark Torpedoes, ASROC, SUBROC and Polaris Ballistic Missiles ultimately becoming the Prime Ballistics Investigator in 1978.  From her technical start as a drafter during WWII to her ultimate retirement, she served our nation’s defense for 49 years. In honor of her STEM contributions, the Women in Defense named Alice an honorary member and submitted her name to the Arlington Cemetery “Women’s Memorial”
  • Katherine G Johnson, calculated the trajectories of the Mercury and Apollo flights to the moon. In honor of her STEM contributions, NASA Langley named a new computational research facility in her name.
  • The Rise of the Rocket Girls – Is the story of an elite team of mathematicians and scientists working to carry the U.S. into space, then on to the moon and Mars. They would eventually become NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (or JPL)

The Ladies Bridge

Over 25,000 women rebuilt and maintained Great Brittain during WWII. These trailblazing women in construction were discovered when historians traced down a local urban legend about the “Ladies Bridge” (documentary) aka the “Waterloo Bridge”.

Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP)

Hollywood 10-part miniseries called FlyGirls

Sister Mary Keller – 1st Computer Science PhD

Meet the Sisters in STEM inspired by Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls. There you will meet Sister Mary Keller (1914 – 1985) who earned her PhD in 1965 at Dartmouth College. She went on to develop the BASIC programming language, conduct research in FORTRAN, and founded the Clarke College computer science department.  There you will also meet Sister Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz and Mother Noella Marcelino

Mary Sherman Morgan – Rocket Girl

North Dakota farm girl to brilliant scientist whose crucial contributions led to the development of a new rocket fuel powered the country’s first satellite, Explorer 1, in 1957. Video.

Margaret Gee – Physicist, Mathematician, Pilot

Margaret (Maggie) Gee – Physicist – a 1923 Berkeley native – is known as one of two Chinese-American WWII civilian WASP (Women’s Army Air Corp Service Pilot) as depicted in the children’s story book Sky High: The True Story of Maggie Gee. Very little is said about her non-traditional pioneering STEM contributions paving the way as the first woman physicists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, from 1958 – 1988, where she worked on computer coding and hydrodynamics improving the lab’s computing capability to support the Navy’s Polaris, Poseidon missile and magnetic fusion programs.  The book Gender Camouflage: Women and U.S. Military mentions in passing that to gain her wings, Maggie studied “physics, math, aerodynamics” which must have been her inspiration for returning to UC Berkeley after the war to obtain her BS in Physics and MS in Mathematics.  Prior to getting her wings, Maggie also welded and worked as a drafter at Mare Island Naval Shipyard serving our nation as one of the “Rosie the Riveters”. Maggie was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1993.

Maggie passed away Feb 1, 2013.  She is featured in the California State Library Women’s History Month Calendar.  I am extremely grateful the calendar acknowledges her STEM pioneering roots as well as her being a pilot.

Euphemia Lofton Haynes – Mathematician & Pi Day

Dr Haynes is highlighted in the Smart Girls “Happy Pi Day” along with mathematicians Hypatia, Sophie Germain, Mary Somerville, Ada Lovelace, and Emmy Noether. She was the first African American woman to earn her doctorate in math in 1943, taught and chaired the math department at a local high school and at the District of Columbia Teachers College. She was on the Board of Education in the District of Columbia where she worked for racial inclusion in education.


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