Unconventional Mentor no. 11 - Emily Warren Roebling
“I have more brains, common sense and know-how generally than have any two engineers, civil or uncivil, and but for me the Brooklyn Bridge would never have had the name Roebling in any way connected with it!”
This week I had the pleasure of going to Stylist live in London and heard the wonderful Hayley Atwell speak. (I must feature her as an Unconventional Mentor in the future as she is just fabulous.) During her talk, the interviewer mentioned Stylist’s Visible Women campaign and asked Hayley to share some of the women she thought should have more of a presence in our society and one of the women she mentioned was Emily Warren Roebling. I have heard of her, but only because I was on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York earlier this year and spotted the plaque dedicated to her on the bridge.
Described by her husband as “A woman of infinite tact and wisest counsel” it was the work of Emily Warren Roebling that got the bridge built. She had married Washington Roebling in 1867 and travelled to Europe with him where he was studying about the use of caissons in bridges. The Brooklyn Bridge was started by his father, but just a few days into construction his foot was crushed, he contracted Tetanus and died. Washington Roebling took over as chief engineer, but he too was injured during the building of the bridge and had to take a back seat, literally, and he spent most of the remainder of the construction sat in a chair looking at the bridge through a telescope from his house. Emily took on the project management of the bridge, liaising with all of the key people involved in building it and generally keeping the project on track.
"Back of every great work we can find the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman.”
Although she isn’t hugely well known today, the contribution of Emily Warren Roebling was recognised at the time. The Times Newspaper reported “How the Wife of the Brooklyn Bridge Engineer Has Assisted Her Husband.” There is also a plaque on the bridge celebrating her contribution with the quote "back of every great work we can find the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman.”. She was the first person to cross when it opened and by all accounts was greatly respected by all who she worked with.
In later life, Emily went on to study Law and during her graduation ceremony read out her essay entitled “A Wife’s Disabilities” in which she discussed how the law was prejudiced against women and that “favouritism of women was a pretty compliment which had little foundation on facts.”
Emily died in 1903 at the age of 59, just a few short years before women got the vote, and I’m sure her name would be better known today had she lived longer.
I think Emily is a fantastic role model for women who want to be engineers today, an industry that is still very much dominated by men. The hashtag #ilooklikeanengineer took off in 2015 when Isis Anchalee was featured in a recruitment poster for her employer and people suggested she didn’t look like an engineer, and many women still continue to drop out of STEM subjects at degree level.
Mentor Advice: Step up to the challenge
When her husband took ill, it could have been very easy for Emily to console him, to tell him that he wouldn’t be able to continue his father’s project and encourage him to recuperate and move on. Instead, she ventured out into a male dominated world and took up the challenge to make sure that bridge was built in his name. Not only did she build a bridge, but once she had done that AND raised her son, she furthered her own education and fought for the rights of women to be represented in the law. I just love that when faced with this challenge Emily rolled up her sleeves and got stuck in to the work in ways that weren’t even expected of her. Just think what we could all achieve if we took that approach to some of the challenges in the world today.
To find out more about the work of Emily Roebling check out this brilliant article by the New York Times about overlooked obituaries of women
And do check out Isis Anchalee’s blog too