Nora Stanton Blatch, engineer and feminist

Posted on March 24, 2010 under history of technology

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an internet-wide recognition and celebration of women in technology. (Here’s my post about women telegraphers from last year.)  

One common narrative early women in technical professions had constructed for themselves was that of downplaying the challenges (or any role at all) of gender in their careers. Nora Stanton Blatch, a fiery women’s rights activist and civil engineer, broke this mold in the early 20th century. She was a rare technical woman working to connect her profession and her suffrage activism. Trained at Cornell as part of the first classes of women accepted to its Sibley School of Engineering, she once said that she had chosen civil engineering as her major because it was the most male-dominated field she could find. Her feminism was no accident: the granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and daughter of Harriet Stanton Blatch, she was raised in a milieu of struggle. Ruth Oldenziel suggests that her “rich feminist heritage enabled her to envision a narrative device in which to frame her life story.”

For a short period of time, Nora was married to the electronics engineer and radio and TV inventor Lee de Forest. As an engineering partnership, they pioneered radio broadcasting and, as a first transmission of their wireless phone in 1909, Harriet Blatch gave a speech declaring “Travel by stagecoach is out of date. Kings are out of date: communication by canalboat is out of date; an aristocracy is out of date, none more so than a male aristocracy.” But after their first child was born, Lee began to rail publicly against Nora’s insistence on continuing to work as an engineer at New York City public works departments and as a suffrage activist. They divorced soon after: Nora was now an engineer and a single mother, continuing to value both her work and family.

Nora’s feminist activism in engineering included professional societies. She was accepted into the American Society of Civil Engineers as a “junior member” in the early stages of her career, but once she turned 32, their age limit, she was booted out, despite her experience at bridge and hydraulic firms and in government, including supervising draftsmen. The ASCE was trying to stake out the rapidly professionalizing field of engineering as a high-status, high-class profession, and one way they did that was by strictly limiting membership, excluding surveyors, for instance, and certainly excluding women. Nora sued the ASCE for membership in 1916, but lost her suit; no women joined the society until 1927.  Nora died in 1971 after a long life of activism.

Further reading:

Ruth Oldenziel, Making Technology Masculine

Margaret Rossiter, Women Scientists in America

5 Comments on “Nora Stanton Blatch, engineer and feminist”

    1. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s granddaughter, Nora, is my grandmother. Very definitely, I grew up in a soup of strong women. They were my world. As well, I have inherited Nora’s papers and artifacts.

      Onward !

      Coline Jenkins
      Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s great great granddaughter
      Harriot Stanton Blatch’s great granddaughter
      Nora Stanton Blatch DeForest Barney’s granddaughter
      Rhoda Barney Jenkins’ daughter

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  2. I am the granddaughter of Nora Stanton Blatch de Forest Barney. Her papers and photos have filtered down to me. In my possession are: her Cornell thesis, mechanical drawing, Cornell and Sigma Xi diplomas. Numerous family photos of Nora, her two husbands (Lee deForest and Morgan barney), her mother (New York State suffrage organizer (Harriot Stanton Blatch), her grandmother (Elizabeth Cady Stanton); mountains of women’s suffrage correspondence (Georgia O’Keeffe, Pearl Buck, Eleanor Roosevelt) and peace correspondence (Albert Einstein); Nora’s autobiography.

    Does any one want to write a book on Nora’s life?
    Kindly email me a proposal. cocococo@juno.com

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