Ruth Gordon Schnapp, California’s First Woman Structural Engineer

In the year 1933, the Long Beach Earthquake bore down on Southern California with the fury of revelation.  At 6.4, it was not the largest earthquake to ever hit the state, but it left behind a shocking amount of structural damage, particularly to schools.  The reason for the heavy school damage, it turned out, was the unreinforced masonry (URM) construction that many public buildings up to that time employed as a cheap and effective default.  URM buildings feature bricks and cinderblocks as load bearing elements that are not necessarily connected to foundations or supporting rebar elements, and as a result, when a major event like an earthquake hits, these structures have a tendency to leap from their foundations in ways that buildings ideally oughtn’t, while often shoddy mortar contributes to complete collapse of wall structures.  

The extent of the structural damage in 1933 caused California to reevaluate how new public buildings would be constructed.  URM structures were made illegal for new construction, while architectural firms were increasingly compelled to have structural engineers constantly checking their work for compliance with new earthquake prevention codes.  With the weight of an earthquake-prone state’s hospitals and schools resting on their shoulders, California structural engineers were expected to have an encyclopedic knowledge of building design and structural elements to allow them to pass the state’s grueling 16 hour exam.  Only twenty five percent of those who took the exam passed it their first time through, and among those was a person whose name was to be synonymous with earthquake engineering for the better part of a half century: Ruth Gordon Schnapp (1926-2014).

Gordon might have done anything with her life.  In high school, she was the pianist in a performance of the Tchaikovsky piano concerto, the acrobat in a Vaudeville production, and a star mathematical student.  For the multitalented, the end of high school represents a dread moment of enforced specialization when the world no longer lets you dabble in all the things you might be in order that you might become the one thing that will make you a living.  Gordon’s father, a Russian immigrant who had turned his hand to all manner of jobs while laboriously moving, country by country, to the promise of freedom and work in the United States, believed entirely in women’s ability to do whatever men could, and encouraged her in her developing desire to become an engineer, a practical career that paid well.  

Realizing that the piano was an instrument that required Greatness instead of Very Goodness, Gordon took her father’s advise and began applying to prestigious colleges, including a university she hadn’t heard of previously but had been told was good for engineering: Stanford.  She was one of thirteen women engineering students entering that year, one of only two to graduate, and the only one to graduate in civil, as opposed to electrical, engineering.  A Seattle native, she returned home in the summers to work at Boeing, which was at the time deep in the work of pushing out B-17 bombers for the Second World War.  On her hands and knees for hours at a time crawling over metal templates of vast aircraft, she gained experience in both design and in disaster prevention as she trekked back and forth across the Boeing plant dealing with any design crisis issues that arose.  

The day after the war in Japan ended, however, Boeing announced that all of the female staff who had been so instrumental in the plant’s success during the war were to be demoted to typist positions at a vastly reduced wage to make room for the returning men.  Gordon was due to return to school soon anyway, so she joined the typing pool and, in protest over her treatment, typed everything handed to her as. slowly. as. possible.  Back at Stanford, she had other types of discrimination to combat.  For a class that involved welding, she and her fellow engineers very sensibly wore jeans to protect their skin but since it was an evening class, the students did not have time to change into Ladies’ Attire before arriving at the cafeteria for dinner, prompting the university to declare that no women were to be seen on campus without the appropriate attire again.  That regulation struck Gordon as absurd and dangerous, and she told the administration as much.  Stanford considered the problem and, somewhat miraculously considering the era, ultimately agreed with Gordon’s view, exempting people taking certain classes from the rigors of the dress code.

These experiences were previews of what was to come as Gordon challenged authority whenever she found it wanting in the equity of its gender policy.  After graduating Stanford in 1950, however, her main problem was finding a job.  Company after company refused to so much as look at her application upon finding out she was a woman until at last she happened upon the firm of Isadore Thompson, who didn’t care who you were as long as you knew your stuff.  He set her right away on the task of overseeing work at a hospital in Southern California that was employing new welding fastening techniques in its construction.  She knew nothing about the techniques and said as much, to which he responded that she had a whole weekend to learn, and best get cracking.

Crack she did, informing herself about the potentials of new techniques and the drawbacks of long established ones so that, unique among engineers of her day, when an architect asked why she was insisting that a particular code be followed, she could give a compelling and precise answer that won her respect up and down the Golden State.  She was advancing steadily, and enjoyed moving from desk work to the job of field engineer, where she could go onto sites and directly communicate with construction teams about what they were doing and why.  The next logical step for someone interested in making structures earthquake-safe was to try for a California Structural Engineer’s license, the only problem being that no woman had ever done it before.  Somewhere between her field work and the raising of three children, however, she found time to study for the massive exam and bucked the odds by passing on her first try.  She now had everything she needed to make the schools and hospitals of California safe from the state’s most recurrent natural disaster.

While working on large scale projects like the San Francisco Public Library, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Quentin Prison, and the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, she also fought to gain women better representation in engineering, joining the Society of Women Engineers and giving one hundred talks to school-children about what engineers do and how girls can join the profession.  When she became the first woman inducted into the Structural Engineers Association, she noticed that several of the presenters used “girly pictures” to accompany their presentations, and pushed hard to ensure that inappropriate images wouldn’t be used in Association material ever again.  She resigned twice from the Society of Women Engineers when they failed to take strong stances for broad-based equality in the workplace in 1960 and 1980, but maintained membership in her local chapter in recognition of the good work it did, and contributed $1000 every year to that chapter’s scholarship fund for promising women engineers.

Having worked so successfully for the state of California ensuring the earthquake safety of the next generation of buildings, Gordon made the decision in 1984 to go into business for herself and founded Pegasus Engineering, Inc., a company that for the next seventeen years performed earthquake and natural disaster structural assessments.  Retiring from civil service early to found her company cost her considerable amounts of pension benefits, but the freedom to work unencumbered by bureaucratic structures that regularly promoted under-qualified men over distinctly qualified women made the change worth it.  

By 2001, Ruth Gordon had devoted half a century of her life to ensuring the safety of California’s students, doctors, and patients and, at the age of 74, one would have forgiven her for retiring completely, but even as she closed down Pegasus, she continued her work talking to children and adults about earthquake safety, and encouraging the exploration of new avenues for attracting women into the engineering field.  She had grown up in a state that had never certified a woman to perform structural engineering work, and had spent much of her time as the only woman in her classes and in the field, finding the path forward as best she could without the benefit of a role model to cling to.  But thanks to her work, her advocacy, and her example, no girl with a bent for math and a love of seeing buildings rise will never have to walk that path alone again.  


FURTHER READING: Anna M. Lewis’s Women of Steel and Stone (2014) is a nice middle school and up resource detailing the lives of 22 woman architects and engineers, and Schnapp has an entire chapter in that work.  Besides that, your best source is probably the 2006 oral interview she gave to Deborah Rice for the Society of Women Engineers.  

And for more awesome Women in Science comics, check out the archive and my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Volume 12 and 3

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