In the NY Times Overlooked project, the newspaper is publishing obituaries of women they ignored. As they explained, all too often since 1851, they “chronicled” the lives of white men. But not the women who also left “indelible marks.”
Where are we going? To prejudice against educated women.
Emily Roebling deserved a NY Times obituary because of the Brooklyn Bridge. Building the bridge was a Roebling project. Her father-in-law John Roebling was the original designer. Her husband Washington Roebling took over when his father died in a construction accident. And, after Washington was bedridden because of the bends, Emily continued the family’s oversight.
Starting with their European honeymoon, she and her husband together learned about caissons, bridge innovation, and construction. When her husband lay ill, she was prepared to manage the contracts, the politics, and the engineering decisions. One male contemporary described her as a woman of “almost male intellect.” But she described her brains more appropriately when she wrote to her son, “I have more brains, common sense and know-how generally than have any two engineers, civil or uncivil…”
She should be remembered though because the Brooklyn Bridge is an architectural phenomenon, Connecting the cities of Manhattan and Brooklyn (not yet a part of NYC), it was the longest steel wire suspension bridge in the world. Because John Roebling developed a new way to create cable from steel wire, the bridge could be high enough to let commercial maritime traffic travel underneath. It was long enough to connect Brooklyn and Manhattan. And it was strong enough to have two railway lanes, another for a pedestrian promenade, and two for wagons and animals.
Meanwhile the bridge became an economic powerhouse. By making transit easy between two large cities, it increased the size and scope of market activities. Labor could easily commute. Goods and services could be made and sold in both places. The resources of both cities could become one and thereby increase their economies of scale and efficiencies.
And a woman played a major role.
Our Bottom Line: Human Capital
Emily Roebling’s brains return us to cultural attitudes about a woman’s intellect.
In The Woman Reader, Belinda Jack points out that the prejudice against women who could read dates back to the ancient world. She used as one example a Roman noblewoman who was described by a historian as masculine and promiscuous because of her literacy. Jack points out that in 19th century England, literate women were encouraged to read books about proper conduct or beekeeping.
So, when we see the NY Times ignored many of our brightest women, I wonder whether we are seeing a version of the same attitude with similar results. Diminishing the number of female role models, we have the underutilization of human capital.
Because few of us knew there were three Roeblings that built the bridge, our daughters had no female engineers to emulate.
My sources and more: Through the NY Times description of its “Overlooked” project. I met Emily Roebling and investigated more of what she achieved. I learned more about the Brooklyn Bridge and Emily Roebling here and here. Do take a look to form your own conclusion. The more I read, the more it sounded like Washington and Emily Roebling were a husband wife partnership.