“The media was continually taking pictures,” says Jill Schoof ’68, a member of that first group. “In a way, it was very flattering, but it made it very hard to get settled, and hard to do our studies. Engineering school was tough.”
The change was a sign that the field of engineering had opened for women. The transition at Clarkson went smoothly, in part because Clarkson’s administration and faculty committed themselves to making it work. Even so, few women enrolled.
“I honestly expected there would be several hundred women,” Schoof recalls. “We started with nine, but three left after the first semester.” Of the six who stayed to graduate, Schoof was the only one to leave with an engineering degree, a B.S. in electrical engineering.
As the years passed, the numbers slowly but steadily increased. “My entry class had about 20 girls,” says Kathryn (Stockslader) Hosford ’74 (EE). “That doubled the number of girls at the school. All of them were in science or engineering. We graduated five women engineers.” Hosford was one of the founding members and first president of the Clarkson chapter of the Society of Women Engineers.
By 2010, roughly 17 percent of engineering majors and 28 percent of all students at Clarkson were women.
The end of single-sex education had long been a goal of many early women’s rights activists, who believed that coeducation was a requisite to full emancipation for women. They believed women’s schools were not equal to men’s, according to historians of the women’s movement.
Women scored an early victory in 1833, when newly founded Oberlin College admitted women. By mid-century, women activists were optimistic. “Our demand that Harvard and Yale colleges should admit women, though not yet yielded, only waits for a little more time,” activist Lucy Stone remarked at the 1856 Women’s Rights Convention in New York.
But Yale didn’t admit women until 1969; Harvard held out until 1972. Elsewhere, however, coeducation spread and became the norm by the end of the 19th century. One of those coeducational institutions was Clarkson, which was founded as a coed school in 1896. “Men tended to take courses in engineering. Women would do domestic science, domestic arts, and domestic engineering,” says Laura Ettinger, associate professor of history at Clarkson, who is researching the history of women in engineering at Clarkson.
Those early courses specifically for women had nothing to do with science and engineering as we understand them today. They trained women to run a household. Domestic science, for example, was what would now be called home economics. “These were areas where women could extend their sphere and not be a threat to men,” Ettinger says. “But in 1907, those programs were discontinued, and Clarkson took a 57-year break from coeducation.”
By the time Clarkson resumed coeducation, the country was racing to beat the Soviet Union to the moon. Computer science was advancing and factories were automating. The U.S. needed engineers. Women began to envision careers in engineering and one of those women was Jill Schoof. “It was the Sputnik era,” she recalls. “A lot of us wanted to be part of space work because of that.”
Her grandfather influenced her career choice. “He was kind of an inventor and entrepreneur. Every time I thought of an idea that could become an invention, he encouraged me to build it.” Another influence was an engineer she had known as a child. “He had a workshop. I was allowed to use it, one tool at a time until I learned to use that tool safely.” Eventually, he allowed her to work in the shop alone. “I was under age 10,” she recalls.
In high school, she was casting about for an engineering college when the boy’s guidance counselor took her aside. “You know Clarkson is accepting women now,” he told her. After graduation from Clarkson, she went on to work at a company that built cameras for satellites. She has also done research at Harvard and MIT, and is now a professor at the Maine Maritime Academy. She also runs a consulting firm DESIGN for SCIENCE and INDUSTRY, based in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Schoof was typical of the women who arrived at Clarkson during the early years of coeducation. “Many of these women had fathers or uncles, or someone else, who was in engineering or some other technical field,” says Ettinger.
But some came with little or no encouragement.“My father told me I couldn’t go into engineering,” recalls Diana Di Francesco ’77 (ChE). “He said, ‘Engineering is a man’s world.’ And it wasn’t just my dad. It was 90 percent of the adults I met. They thought I was out of my mind — reaching for the stars. I don’t remember any of my teachers or any professional that encouraged me. One of my missions in life is to make sure that never happens again. I don’t think anybody should have their opportunities squashed because of a biased perspective.”
Ironically, her father was an engineer — the project manager of the Agena Rocket Engine, which powered the two-man vehicles used in NASA’s Gemini program. Despite her father’s opposition, Di Francesco persisted, completing her degree at Clarkson with a scholarship and loans that took her 15 years to pay back. Her father didn’t say much when Di Francesco succeeded. But she added, “I felt he was proud of me.” Di Francesco runs an engineering-consulting business that helps small and mid-sized companies comply with Food and Drug Administration regulations.
Clarkson’s efforts have helped to bring large numbers of women into engineering, but there is still far to go. Nationally, women make up more than half of the students entering college, but only 20 percent of undergraduate engineering majors. “Engineering remains the undergraduate field with the lowest percentage of women,” says Ettinger.
But the figures would be much lower without the efforts of schools like Clarkson. “I chose Clarkson because it was women friendly,” says Hosford. “Clarkson went out of its way to recruit us and make us feel comfortable on campus. The professors were happy to have us there. Some other schools were not so friendly. They would ask, ‘Why would you want to come here?’ And, ‘Why would you want to be an engineer?’” Hosford is a retired senior engineer for the Federal Communications Commission, where she drafted new rules governing FM broadcasting, satellites, wireless and other emerging communications technologies.
“Clarkson prepared me well for logical analysis, creativity and the basics of engineering technology,” she says. She also met her husband, Gary Hosford ’73 (industrial distribution), ’75 (industrial management). “We were one of the first Clarkson couples.”
Other early women engineering graduates have had favorable recollections as well, according to Ettinger. “They generally talk more about the gender–related problems they faced in their careers than the problems they faced at Clarkson.”
Even so, there were problems that came with being groundbreakers in a previously all-male school. “Some talked about getting catcalls,” says Ettinger. “Some talked about trying to prove how much they belonged here. But one of the things I got from these women was that they really didn’t want to be treated differently. They came here to get a really strong technical education, and they felt they got that.”
Then and Now
Sara Grimaldi Ray works in the Boeing Company’s intellectual property group, which protects the aerospace giant’s patents and copyrights from infringement. She holds degrees in law and mechanical engineering.
Five decades ago, Ray ’04 would have raised eyebrows if she had sought either degree. If she had gotten them, she would have had a tough, perhaps impossible, time landing the kind of job she holds today.
But much has changed. Today, no one thinks about the fact that Clarkson is granting large numbers of engineering degrees to women.
However, in the early years, the presence of women at a top engineering school like Clarkson was news. When Ray’s aunt, Diane Di Francesco, enrolled at Clarkson in 1973, she did so against the wishes of her father, who didn’t think women belonged in engineering. By contrast, Ray’s father drove her to see Clarkson and the neighboring State University of New York at Potsdam. “I would imagine things were very different when my aunt was at Clarkson,” says Ray.
And they were far different when the first women arrived at Clarkson in the fall of 1964. The women were treated as equals to men in the classroom, but their lives bore little resemblance to the men’s elsewhere on campus.
“We had an 11 p.m. curfew,” says Jill Schoof ’68. The men had no curfew. “We were not allowed to live off campus. The boys were. For the first two years, we ate by ourselves. We didn’t like this, but we accepted that this was the way it was.”
Moreover, had Schoof wanted to play varsity sports, she couldn’t have. There were no women’s teams, and in any case, there weren’t enough women to field a team.
By the time Ray arrived in 2000, the women’s curfew had long disappeared. Coed living was an option. Women’s varsity sports were a fixture — a drawing card for Ray who played on the women’s varsity soccer team.
But the biggest change was perhaps more subtle. “It was an everyday fact that there were women in engineering at Clarkson,” says Ray. “When you walked into a lecture hall, other girls were there. It wasn’t like you were a token one or two. I was just another student.”