Women in Warfare: Female Engineers Make Their Mark on Defense Technologies
Generations of women have influenced the evolution of electronic warfare. Which notable innovations have women introduced from the Great War onward?
While front-line combat—especially throughout pre-modern history—has often been framed as a male endeavor, female contributions have also been pivotal. Generations of women, including those without formal engineering education, have directly influenced the evolution of modern warfare, though many of their stories have been untold.
Earlier this month, in celebration of Women's History Month, All About Circuits published a highlight on Hedy Lamarr, the “Mother of Wi-Fi” who laid the foundation for modern RF technology.
Hedy Lamarr was widely known as a movie star in her time, starring in films like Heavenly Bodies and Samson and Delilah. Image used courtesy of MGM
Lamarr is often credited with discovering a frequency-hopping radio communication system designed for jam-resistant torpedo control. While the U.S. Navy didn’t initially implement the design, Lamarr's findings—combined with transistors of the 1950s—gave rise to sonobuoys to detect submarines later on. Lamarr's frequency-hopping systems also guided torpedos aboard U.S. ships blockading Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Lamarr, however, is just one example of how women have changed the face of warfare from World War I on.
Women in Early 20th Century Education: A Segue into WWI?
While America’s education system continued to boom heading into the early 20th century, it remained a sphere largely inaccessible to women. However, this changed when a number of new programs rose to prominence from 1870 to 1910, like education, business, liberal arts, home economics, and engineering. This development boosted female participation in higher education.
These factors converged in 1914 with it the start of WWI. The Allies sought technological advantage throughout the war effort, and women were integral to many of these developments. With male employees leaving in droves for the front lines, women quickly filled growing vacancies and were even awarded government contracts more readily.
A 15-year-old girl turns the ball ends of an air pump's connecting rod for an airplane engine. Image (modified) used courtesy of the National Archives
Henceforth, the engineering trade relied on women for numerous, pre-approved processes—many of which were mechanical:
- Fitting and calibrating
- Moving coil winding
- Blanking and notching
- Tool setting
Companies used women liberally in munitions work and other industrial processes deemed appropriate for them. Successful execution of these duties facilitated the production of many WWI armory and supply items.
Hertha Aryton and the Expansion of Formal Training
Some key figures arose from this cultural shift. One was Hertha Ayrton—an eventual holder of 26 patents and the first female presenter at the Institute of Electrical Engineers. During a conflict notorious for its chemical warfare, Ayrton successfully designed a handheld fan that cleared poisonous trench gases via wave motion. Manufacturers eventually distributed 104,000 of her fans to soldiers on the front lines.
Ayrton's research on how waves create ripples in the sand later influenced her design of a handheld fan that would expel poisonous gas from trenches in WWI. Image used courtesy of Royal Society Publishing
The UK conscription of male soldiers in 1916 vaulted numerous other women into the engineering realm as well. Many helped design and assemble components for airplane engines. Though the training needed to elevate women from technicians to experienced engineers wasn’t widely available, U.S. and British governments eventually invested in such educational opportunities for women. On-the-job education, plus formal schooling, helped women make an impact while their male counterparts were away.
Unfortunately, this female engineering movement subsided substantially following WWI’s conclusion. Companies carved out roles for returning veterans, and many women returned (often reluctantly) to primarily domestic lifestyles. While the war, unfortunately, wasn’t a turning point for women’s equality, their contributions proved just how valuable—and capable—women with practical knowledge were.
Women at Work During World War II
1939 ushered in yet another global conflict, again inviting many women to make their mark on the battlefield. Women filled engineering roles left empty by men who were called away to foreign theaters. They became key cogs in assembly lines (cue Rosie the Riveter); however, their contributions were also intellectual.
The U.S. Office of Education fast-tracked the training of women in science, mathematics, and engineering as the war progressed. While women with technical backgrounds were still rare, these individuals were central to keeping design work running. Government-sponsored training courses multiplied. In the private sector, companies like GE hired younger women for mathematics and calibration tasks. It even dipped into the collegiate population.
Curtis-Wright, an airplane manufacturer, also formed a training coalition with seven universities—with the goal of teaching-related coursework in engineering, mathematics, blueprinting, and production. These “Curtis-Wright Cadettes” also worked in aerospace design and testing. Colleges simultaneously welcomed more female engineering students, either through necessity or good faith.
Betty Masket, a Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical Engineering Cadette, stands beside a Helldiver. Image used courtesy of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum
This ensured that a steady pipeline of talent was available during the war. While many female engineers weren’t fully-fledged professionals during WWII, their skillsets proved to be valuable building blocks with which they could make notable contributions. Women otherwise enjoyed great professional success with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Army Map Service—where they worked as heating engineers, mechanical engineers, radio and telegraph operators, or engineering aides.
Trailblazing for Future Generations
The decades following WWII have shown immense growth in female education. While American male enrollees outnumbered women 2.3:1 in 1947, female graduates later outnumbered men 1.35:1 in 2003. There’s been an aggressive push to invigorate female interest in STEM fields in recent years.
Although female graduates in engineering are vastly outnumbered, they’re in a position to make significant impacts in the industry. There’s been a greater push to include women in electronic design efforts, including in military applications, though the gender gap is still wide. Warfare has become increasingly gender inclusive on all fronts, and more major innovations are fully expected from female professionals in the coming years.
This article is part of a series that All About Circuits will publish throughout Women's History Month, celebrating key female figures in electrical engineering. Stay tuned for more feature stories. You can find what we've already covered below.