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Articles > Great Morph series

Great Morph
Part 4 - Time to Move On

Approximately 2000 years ago, the Roman historian Tacitus insisted one of the first duties of history was to ensure that “merit shall not lack its record”. In the same treatise, Annals – Book III, he also observed: “So obscure are the greatest events, as some take for granted any hearsay, whatever its source, others turn truth into falsehood, and both errors find encouragement with posterity.”

By Don Sayenga

Published in Wire Rope News & Sling Technology June 2016

Brooklyn Bridge

Creation of the Brooklyn Bridge is a good case study as one of those obscure great events which has encouraged a large number of errors in posterity. Most of them have been deployed by altruistic writers such as Dr. Solomon and Dr. Weigold who presumed they were awarding a form of merit to the record of Emily Warren Roebling. Instead, they have morphed her efforts to save her husband’s status into something more like a cartoon. She deserves better treatment from us.

Weaving a Tangled Web

Dr. Marilyn Weigold traversed a new route to the Brooklyn Bridge. In terms of memetics, her story was more persuasive and more viral than Dr. Solomon’s wishful thinking version. Her magic wand was a bigger stick. She was writing as a historian and as a professor of history at Pace University in the New York City metropolitan area. Her book Silent Builder (1984) retold the entire tale, beginning by placing excess emphasis on the 1883 anonymous letter from Trenton in which an unknown gentleman declared: “...Mrs. Roebling... was able to assume the duties of chief engineer...”. Dr. Weigold postulated the lack of any verifications or citations placing Emily Roebling into a status as chief engineer of the icon could be interpreted as proof her labors had been kept clandestine (by males?) for social reasons.

Considering how difficult it would be to prove a real world plot to suppress such facts, Weigold’s version was equally as good a myth as Steinman’s. Silent Builder reminds us of the old conundrum absence of evidence as opposed to evidence of absence. Trachtenberg had suggested there was a secret history of how the bridge was financed. Why not a secret history of the engineering as well? The Weigold posture was supported in 1996 by Prof. John Stuart of Florida International University who gave a paper at the annual meeting of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. He explored “...the exclusion, silence, and subterfuge...” surrounding Emily’s efforts. He called her “a remarkable woman accomplished in the field of engineering...” but (as usual) he omitted verifications of his opinion.

If we are expected to buy the Brooklyn Bridge as an icon clouded by subterfuge, we’re forced to ignore the contemporary efforts of the engineers from WAR’s staff, none of whom ever mentioned her in the role of an engineer. Francis Collingwood, who built the Manhattan approach, published more than a dozen commentaries about the bridge in the transactions of the ASCE. Wilhelm Hildebrand wrote a book about how the cables of the bridge were being made. Edmund Farrington, who probably knew more details about building wire suspension bridges than anyone other than WAR, provided a very concise description. Van Nostrand’s magazine published hundreds of pages about engineering subjects every year but there is no trace of her in it. Some of the communication between WAR and his staff was in cursive and thus sometimes in her handwriting, but regardless of a few news reporters’ speculations, trying to visualize Emily Roebling being involved in the bridge engineering done by those men requires a great leap of faith.

CinderEmmie was a catchy tune at the right time. The USA was locked in the Cold War. Space travel pioneers such as Valentina Tereshkova and Sally Ride were grabbing headlines, but the average female commuter crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in a traffic jam was not much interested in orbits and spacesuits. Eva Peron was too controversial. Gidget was too much of a tomboy and too involved with a sport that was too obscure. Lyudmilla Tourischeva popularized a sport more adaptable to American culture, but gymnastics after all is a form of child’s play. Feminists wanted to invade male-dominated bigtime turf such as academic tenure and corporate boardrooms and similar high-pay vocations.

Emily Roebling

Poster girls resembling Lillian Gilbreth and Marie Curie were being sought. When Dr. Weigold and Dr. Solomon published their stories in the 1980s, surviving portraits of Emily Roebling made her look regal. Her visage projects prestige and confidence. Her efforts as her husband’s executive secretary were underway at the same time Susan B. Anthony and others were going to trial for violating a federal law in the 29th Congressional District of New York. Describing CinderEmmie as the “surrogate chief engineer” or “first female field engineer” is much more impressive than “courier”. Get the picture?

Take a Letter, Tillie

Tillie the Toiler

Alas, there is no hall of fame for executive secretaries. The quasi-holiday known as National Secretary’s Day has been restyled as Administrative Professionals’ Day. Even when steno pools and shorthand pads still prevailed at many places in America, everyone had forgotten our English words “secretary” and “secret” both come from the same root. The stenographer era of American business history has disappeared almost without a trace. Mandatory classes for cursive handwriting in the elementary schools and the option of qwerty typing instruction in the high schools soon will be grouped with antique curiosities like telegraph operators and the Morse code.

When The Great Morph reappeared in the 1980s and 90s, the job title “secretary” already was headed for oblivion. Metro Business College in Missouri puts it like this: “By the 1930s, there were few men secretaries. Today the term secretary has almost become abandoned in some parts of the country. Some even say it is demeaning to women and promotes a negative stereotype ...However, historically, the term secretary was reserved for someone with a powerful position for a powerful person.

A primary example of the demeaning cultural significance of the word “secretary” would be the long-running color cartoon strip “Tillie the Toiler” by Russ Westover. His cartoons appeared daily in American newspapers from 1921 to 1959. The heroine, Tillie Jones, an attractive, well-dressed typist, was an airhead who spent most of her working hours on telephone talking to other pretty secretaries. She never seemed to have any other work to do. Originally drawn as a vamping flapper with bobbed hair, her clothing and hairstyle evolved thru annual changes in fashion.

Depicting CinderEmmie in an engineering role nudged her public persona upward several notches beyond the aspirations of Tillie and her vapid typist companions. In the real world, female private secretaries already were making and implementing significant business decisions during that same era, but no prizes were being awarded by the cultural media. We didn’t have a job description for a powerful female private secretary.

America’s Got Engineering Talent

David McCullough, by his own admission, was “not an engineer” and he found technical matters “slow going”. When he wrote “...only a small minority of the trustees understood very much about the engineering of the bridge...” while Emily “had by then a thorough grasp of the engineering involved” he wasn’t depicting CinderEmmie as someone morphing into the role of chief engineer. More obviously, he was showing she was someone who understood the words her husband was using when she conveyed his messages to his staff and to the trustees. If the trustees did not understand the engineering, it is unlikely any dim bulb newspaper columnist understood it.

For verification, we can take a look at the report of the Chief Engineer dated January 1, 1877. It is 33 pages in length, accompanied by more than 80 pages of detailed specifications. An average person trying to read it today would probably find it even slower going than McCullough did 45 years ago. Paging through it carefully, trying to grasp it as something Emily Warren Roebling might have written in her spare time, one’s imagination stalls quickly. Similarly, the complex recalculation of main suspension cable overdesign performed in the summer of 1878 is a technical matter challenging the abilities of any of the most experienced wire engineers even today, regardless of gender.

And a Doodle Doo Too

In 2013, when London-based writer Erica Wagner photographed the bridge from a tourist boat, the tour guide told his audience the Brooklyn Bridge was built by a woman. Wagner, who is publishing a biography of Washington Roebling, cites this as an example of how the Great Morph has captivated its American audience. Wagner says: “It’s ironic, to say the least, that Emily, who came to her husband’s defense to prevent him from being replaced as Chief Engineer, has so often become the person who replaced him in tales told of her...” Wagner, a New Yorker by birth, has been fascinated by Washington Roebling since she first stepped on the Bridge as a teenager; she is willing to admit that was a while ago. Her biography The Chief Engineer will be published by Bloomsbury in May 2017.

Other features of the Great Morph are deeply embedded in a dozen or more popular websites. Although linking a real person into an internet hoax might be cited as something grossly disrespectful, the energy and creativity pouring forth from this strange meme are breathtaking. The GFK non-fact about Emily being the first woman to address the ASCE gets lots of playtime. People who know very little about the ASCE and its meetings use the internet to proclaim the GFK myth as if it was a significant historic occasion. Most of those who believe it do so because they want to believe it.

Nina Levy

The best myth of all is the one about the rooster. McCullough noted an item in the Trenton newspapers indicating Washington and Emily had a stuffed rooster displayed in their Trenton home, as a conversation piece. It was said she had carried it with her when she was the first person to cross the bridge. The symbolic connection with the poultry isn’t very clear. Nina Levy, a gifted artist and mother in Brooklyn, has created the Napkin Collection. Each day for more than ten years she added artwork to her two sons’ lunchpails. Her work is wonderfully unique and lots of fun: http://dailynapkins.net.† In May 2015 her theme was the Brooklyn Bridge - plus Kraken, Godzilla, the ghost of John Roebling, and a host of others. On the 24th she featured a beautiful image of Emily with a rowdy Rhode Island Red.

Nina says: “My son’s school’s second grade researches, writes, and stages a play about the history of the fabrication of the Brooklyn Bridge every year, so it is a popular topic there. And there is a new performance of Emily and the rooster every year...Slipped inside the story of the struggle to get the bridge completed is a feminist message...Emily was grudgingly accepted as...the de facto chief engineer. On opening day, she was the first person to ride across the bridge. According to the second grade play script, she did this 'with a rooster in her lap. It is a sign of victory’...It seemed to me ironic and sadly appropriate that Emily would carry a symbol of distracting chicken-brained male virility during her moment of triumph.

Conclusion

When attempting to summarize this morph, some background music is appropriate. Artie Garfunkel singing Paul Simon’s “For Emily” or “Bridge Over Troubled Water” will do it. Try to picture, if you can, an organdy dress supported by crinolines swirling about at a construction site. The primary intent of The Great Morph, in the Second Wave of the feminist movement, was to motivate more women to launch professional careers as engineers. As Marlene LeGates expressed it in her 2001 history of feminism: “The point was to elevate women’s role within the home and protect them when necessity demanded they work outside it.” That goal has been achieved, as have many other goals of the ERA, without amending the Constitution and without exposing females to mandatory military service.

In 1982, the National Science Foundation began to document employment data about women and minorities at work in science and engineering reported in the Census. The percentage of female S&E workers was lowest of all in the discipline of engineering. According to Katherine Hale, a senior analyst at the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, in 1993 women constituted only 9% of the engineering workforce. Twenty years later, this number had risen but was still only 15%. The disparity was greatest among the mechanical engineers where women accounted for only 7% of the workforce. Nonetheless, thirty years later, in 2003, the elected presidents of all the major societies of professional engineers, such as ASCE and ASME, were females.

For 2016, if we wanted to make some comparisons, we’d note three of nine Supreme Court Justices are not males, and the American Bar Association reports one-third of its members now are female. Other similar contrasts are readily available by studying the 488 occupations analyzed by the Census Bureau’s on-line statistical reports in the American FactFinder database. As of the most recent census, 50% of the veterinarians, 47% of the bus drivers, and 23% of the dentists were female.

But listen, guys and gals, here’s the main emphasis of the essay you’re reading: in 2016 more women are employed as secretaries and administrative assistants than any other single occupation, and it has been that way on a steady basis since 1970. The real world issues we should be facing are the pay, power, and prestige delegated to private secretaries. In retrospect, the Great Morph of CinderEmily into an unpaid unrecognized engineering role seems to be simply preposterous, but no more so than a few of the other harmless memes.

Although the internet is the world’s greatest source of misinformation, it is also much easier to repair than print media and film media. To decommission non-facts from a website, one doesn’t need to acquire expertise to know the difference between server code “404 Not Found” and “410 Gone”. It can be done easily, and thousands of experts are available to make erasures of that kind in a matter of minutes. The rule for any genuine website ought to be: if we can’t verify it, we should not post it.

Emily Warren Roebling was a spectacular woman. She doesn’t deserve to have her memoir pasted over with anonymous letters to the editor and news media speculations and concocted engineering portrayals. Judge H.R. Selden, the man who defended Susan B. Anthony at the time the bridge was being built, said: “Those who succeed in obtaining power... with rare exceptions, use it for their exclusive benefit. Often, perhaps generally, this is done in the honest belief that such use is for the best of all who are affected by it.” The exclusive benefit of the Great Morph has been obtained. The iconic status of the bridge is permanent no matter who built it. Let’s stop perpetuating the Great Morph. Let’s begin by recognizing what a superb private secretary and personal nurse Emily Warren Roebling was while she was busy being a wife, mother and homemaker.

Read more about The Great Morph series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

 
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