Ninety years ago, two of the country’s pioneer civil-structural engineers, sisters Elmina T. and Alda H. Wilson, were integral to the passage of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote. They were the youngest daughters of John and Olive (Eaton) Wilson, successful farmers in Keokuk County, Iowa. John’s parents came from Scotland while Olive’s family hailed from Ohio. After marrying, they settled in Iowa where all seven of their children were born and encouraged to receive as much education as possible.
Born September 29, 1870, Elmina was the first woman to receive a four-year civil engineering degree (BSCE) from Iowa State University (ISU) in 1892. She then earned a master’s in 1894, the same year her younger sister Alda earned her BSCE. Although Elmina was not the first woman to receive a civil engineering degree from an American university — that honor belongs to 18-year-old Elizabeth Bragg (see sidebar) — she was first to receive a master’s in the field and first to become a full-time college professor of civil-structural engineering. Plus, the Wilsons were the first sister-sister combo to earn engineering degrees at the same time.
What is more, the Wilson sisters were the first women to take up structural engineering as their life’s pursuit. Bragg, for instance, never made engineering her livelihood.
While at ISU, Elmina worked summers for architectural and engineering companies in Chicago and took advanced engineering courses at both Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Cornell, the alma mater of her mentor and the dean of engineering at ISU, Anson Marston (1864-1892). Wilson and Marston closely collaborated on building the 168-foot-tall Ames, Iowa, water tower, the first raised steel tower west of the Mississippi, which is listed on the National Register of Historical Places.
In 1904, the Wilson sisters took a year sabbatical in Europe to study architectural and engineering works, completing much of their travel by bicycle. Upon their return to New York City, Elmina worked as a structural engineer for Purdy and Henderson, then the country’s leading engineering designer of skyscrapers. Among the notable highrises Wilson worked on was the historic Flatiron Building in Manhattan. During this same time, the firm was also designing the Met Life Tower, soon to become the tallest building in the world.
In addition to making her mark in structural engineering, Elmina increased her efforts on behalf of women’s rights, serving as president of the Woman Suffrage Club, Manhattan Borough. There she mingled with the national leaders and supporters of the women’s suffrage movement, including Carrie Chapman Catt, Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, and others.
On June 2, 1918, two years before the 19th Amendment actually became law, Elmina passed away, after an extended illness, a few months shy of her 48th birthday. She left behind much potential and an iconic stature as the “first lady of structural engineering,” an inspiration for others to follow in her footsteps. Her beloved sister Alda became a noted architectural designer and, at her death at age 87 on July 25, 1960, was the executive secretary of Carrie C. Catt in control of her valuable women’s rights and suffrage movement papers, which Alda later donated intact to the Library of Congress.
Elizabeth Bragg (1858-1929), the middle child of the nine children of Robert and Mary (Philbrook) Bragg, was raised among wealth. Her father was a prominent San Francisco ship builder. Three of her brothers went into the business while Elizabeth and her sisters earned college degrees in teaching, science, or engineering. After receiving her degree in civil engineering from the University of California at Berkley in 1876, Elizabeth remained at home until her marriage to George Cumming in 1888, a civil engineer with the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. They had four sons and were active socially, but no records show that she practiced engineering.
Richard G. Weingardt, P.E., is CEO and chairman of Richard Weingardt Consultants, Inc., a Denver-based structural engineering firm. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.