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Articles > Great Morph series

Great Morph
Part 3 - Riding the Second Wave

In 1872, the same year Washington Roebling’s health was destroyed in a caisson under the East River, the philosopher F. W. Nietsche published his first treatise. He wrote: “...it is the fate of every myth to creep by degrees into the narrow limits of some alleged historical reality, and to be treated by some later generation as a unique fact with historical claims...” Replication of non-facts via the internet provides a case study in memetics, a new science perhaps conceived by Richard Dawkins in the 1970s, for which there is no good definition as yet.

By Don Sayenga

Published in Wire Rope News & Sling Technology April 2016

In 1999, Susan Blackmore explored the proliferation of internet non-facts in her book “The Meme Machine”. She introduced what she called “the altruism trick” as a way to explain why well-meaning people tend to repeat persistent myths without verifying them: “We should expect them to be most common in societies in which people have plenty of resources to spare and plenty of opportunities for picking up new memes...” She suggested they do this because they think it is the right thing to do.

The Great Morph gets dressed in her smartest outfit

Steinman’s fable was exciting and interesting. It impressed many people. Librarians added it to bookshelves all over America. As for Francis Browin’s teenager novel, it probably didn’t influence many adults. One other person who was motivated by Steinman’s fable was a history writer named Kathryn Mason. (Her name also appears as Kathryn Harrod, Kathryn Brown and Kathryn Harrison). Kathryn came from Columbus, Ohio but she attended college at Stanford and Claremont in California. As a specialist in what the intellectuals sometimes call rhetorical historiography, she decided to enhance the fable. Kathryn added lots of embroidery, starting with an assertion that “few people knew anything of the human drama” until Steinman’s book came out in 1945. Referring to his version as “invaluable”, she published her own retelling of the story in her book “Master Bridge Builders” (1958). The creativity she displayed in it is startling.

Like Francis Browin’s fiction, Kathryn added purported conversations. She depicted the public appearance at an ASCE meeting as one of Washington Roebling’s ideas which Emily resists at first by saying “Why me?” Her husband then insists “When word gets around that a woman will make a speech, everyone will sit up and take notice.” At his urging, Emily next “dressed in her smartest outfit” to attend the meeting “even though people of that day” thought of engineering as something “impossible for a woman to learn.” She gets “a standing ovation” from the ASCE engineers. With the addition of several other realistic details, Mason helped convert Steinman’s fable into The Great Morph.

If a female historian writes a history book including a story about a woman who manages to learn something which people think is impossible for a woman to learn, bells begin to ring in the suffrage boxing arena. In 1872, the same year Washington Roebling’s health was destroyed, Susan B. Anthony was arrested for asserting her personal right to cast a vote in the federal election at Rochester, NY. Her state had ratified the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1867. She argued that a sentence in Section 1 (“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States”) gave her the right to vote. Although she was subjected to a trial by jury, the male judge announced she was guilty without even asking the jury.

As of 2016, the suffrage movement is largely a triumphant success in the United States. Nonetheless, for a full century 1872-1972, its progress was either extremely slow or very sporadic. When Steinman proclaimed Emily Roebling had “...grasped her husband’s views and she learned to speak the language of the engineers...” he more or less endorsed her into a special status in the ecosystem of civil engineering education during the era immediately following the arrest of Susan Anthony. By repeating the GFK recollection about the first woman to address the ASCE, he boosted her status. He won a round for suffrage with those words, whether he knew it or not.

Rosie the Riviter

Mystiques and Mistakes

While Belzner and Steinman in Brooklyn were creating their bronze tablet for the bridge, theatre audiences in Manhattan were humming Irving Berlin’s hit songs performed by Ethel Merman in the musical Annie Get Your Gun . The lyrics written by Dorothy Field (“ ...anything you can do I can do better...”) created underlayment for a new social structure during the 1950s. The suffrage movement progressively became known as the feminist movement. Sometimes this is called the Second Wave of feminism. During wartime, women had replaced men who were called into military service. They demonstrated readiness and capability for almost any job. Their poster girl was Rosie the Riveter [see illustration on right].

A primary goal of the Second Wave was to open the barricaded frontiers of employment. The traditional role of stay-at-home wife and mother was deemed inadequate by the feminists. During Emily Warren’s lifetime, an Americanism 'co-ed’ acquired a definition meaning 'an educated female’ (or sometimes in derision 'poorly educated female’) but activists saw it as a rectifiable mistake if the USA continued associating gender with social roles. Male job descriptions from 'attorney’ to 'zoologist’ were targets for invasion. Any discipline like civil engineering (especially one associated with an icon like the bridge) became a focal point. The stage was set to move Washington Roebling and his staff completely off the playing field and into the dugout.

As the Second Wave of feminism gathered force in the 1960s, Emily Warren Roebling’s mystique occupied a very special crossroad on the frontier. She was a click or two above the level of a co-ed. One of the 1963 quotes attributable to a clever New York magazine writer named Betty Friedan evoked an unusual resonance within The Great Morph: “It is easier to live through someone else than to become complete yourself”. Friedan and others preached the desirability of striving for individual gender-neutral achievements. It’s understandable why Emily would be chosen as one of the poster girls for becoming 'complete’ which might be called a euphemism for pushing a less-qualified man out of a job.

Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol by Alan Trachtenberg

A clashing of cymbals for the symbol

Before The Great Morph entered its final stage of development, a Yale professor attempted to add some broader brush strokes to the black-and-white picture of the bridge as an engineering marvel. Dr. Alan Trachtenberg, who taught English and American Studies, wrote an elegant treatise depicting the bridge as a realization of John Roebling’s personal philosophical aspirations. As a cultural history, his book Brooklyn Bridge - Fact and Symbol (1965) explains why the bridge became an icon when the Manhattan Bridge (erected parallel to it in 1909) did not. Viewed as support for the Second Wave and The Great Morph, his book was not very cooperative.

After studying the available archived documents, Trachtenberg concluded Washington Roebling had feared he would die before the bridge was built, because “...the father left few specific plans for the actual construction...” In response to his worsening condition, "...In the winter of 1873...he spent all his energy writing out in detail minute directions for the remaining tasks, which included making of the cables and the complicated assemblage of the superstructure...” By citing documented facts to establish the symbolic value of the icon, Dr. Trachtenberg next explored the many ways photographers, artists, authors, and poets had seized the bridge itself as inspiration. He mentioned Emily in only one sentence in his entire book when he referred to her as a “courier”.

Confronting persisting legends and historical claims

The Great Bridge by David McCullough

Ten years after Kathryn Mason’s history book was published, David McCullough took his first whack toward becoming America’s greatest writer of popular history. His book about “The Johnstown Flood” was a big hit and he began researching a follow-up act. He was drawn toward the epic of the Brooklyn Bridge. His initial assessment of the subject was motivated because, as he put it: “...a good deal of legend about the Roeblings - father, son, and daughter-in-law - still persisted, along with considerable confusion.” As of 1972, when The Great Bridge went to the publisher, it wasn’t as yet common for many women to be trained and employed as civil engineers in the USA, although individual women had been members of A.S.C.E. for almost half a century.

McCullough wasn’t burdened with a day-to-day engineering practice like Steinman and Belzner. He wasn’t side-tracked by direct input from the wealthy Roebling family in the same way Schuyler must have been. He didn’t have teaching obligations like Trachtenberg. His skills for comprehensive archival researching are exceeded only by his unusual talents as a storyteller. In short, he emerged as a perfect person to tie up all of the many loose ends, suppressing legends, and clarifying the records of the icon. Boxes and boxes of documents, correspondence, scrapbooks and other memorabilia, retained by the various Roebling family members over the years, were accessible at the Trenton Public Library and at two college archives - (RPI - Troy, NY and Rutgers - New Brunswick, NJ). McCullough went through all of it.

In the words of Bruce Catton, The Great Bridge illuminated “...a dramatic and colorful episode out of the American past and described it in such a way that he sheds fresh light on a whole era in American history...” As for the great rumor about Emily’s engineering acumen, he did the best he could to stifle it. He wrote: “She did not, however, secretly take over as engineer of the bridge as some accounts suggest and as was the gossip at the time”. As for all of the other colorful enhancements he spotted in Steinman’s fable, McCullough mentioned Steinman’s book in his Bibliography but he added a note: “The author was a famous bridgebuilder and was long considered the authority on John A Roebling. His book, however, was based on superficial research and contains many inaccuracies.” The presentations of meticulous, scholarly research by Alan Trachtenberg and David McCullough provided tidiness to the tale.

Steinman’s fable was suppressed. The seedlings of The Great Morph were put back into the same imaginary storage locker where the original great rumor had been kept. Some scholars hoped they had been consigned to the dust bin or the fireplace. Unfortunately, they were still lurking there awaiting revival, in June 1982, when Alice Paul’s logical plan to expand the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. constitution finally ran out of gas. Her hope to have the nation agree “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged ... on account of sex” came to an end three states short of the number required for ratification when the designated time period had expired. Although Paul had been working hard since 1923 hoping to get legislators to recognize a major shortcoming of the 19th Amendment, she died in 1977 without being able to see her hopes for an Equal Rights Amendment adopted. Her followers have continued lobbying at every session of Congress.

CinderEmmie in 1983

We could say Rosie the Riveter entered retirement in June 1982 when the ERA ratification period halted. What the ERA lobbyists needed were some new poster girls. Frederick Kohner’s famous Gidget The Little Girl with Big Ideas was the subject of many popular books and films in the 1960s but like Emily in Browin’s novel, she was marketed to teenagers. A boyish teen female riding a surfboard on the Second Wave wasn’t going to get it done. After all, day labor in a factory isn’t much different than day labor as a homemaker. Activists in the Second Wave of feminism scanned the job market in science and engineering to accrue adequate statistics purporting to explain why women were employed less and paid less than men.

By coincidence a new device for rapid communication had been adopted in American culture. In Washington, DC in the same year McCullough’s comprehensive history was published, a hands-on demonstration during the first International Conference on Computer Communication established the reliability of e-mail as a tool for the general public. The startup of e-communication quickly diverted away from a linear path. It began growing exponentially into the electronic activity now commonplace all over the world. The machine which made this possible was featured on the cover of Time in January 1983 instead of the traditional “man”of the year.

Brooklyn Bridge stamp

During the days when McCullough’s book (and Ken Burns’ PBS video based on it) got merged into American culture, TV-addicts were captivated by repetitions of Rodgers & Hammerstine’s 1965 musical Cinderella. The Great Morph was abruptly re-awakened like magic when New York City began elaborate preparations to celebrate the centennial of the Great Bridge. Mayor Edward Koch announced he had formed a commission to conduct a six month series of centennial events. It featured a parade, 4000 slices of birthday cake, a special postage stamp, a brochure with a cover by Andy Warhol, lots of fireworks, and attendance by more than 150 Roebling family members from all over the world.

Dr. Alva T. Matthews Solomon

As the 1983 centennial got underway, two Fairy Godmothers appeared out of nowhere to add their dreams to revival and enhancement of The Great Morph. The magic wands of the two experts dusted off all the ashes, evoking entirely new interpretations, both of which supported Alice Paul’s ERA campaign. The scholarly studies were published by qualified educators, Dr. Alva T. Matthews Solomon and Dr. Marilyn Weigold. Even though “CinderEmmie” herself doesn’t seem to have been caught up in the suffrage campaign, at the time of the bridge centennial fewer than 10% of all the engineers in the USA were females. To some, this smelled very much like denial or abridgement in the hiring practices of the profession.

Civil engineering (despite being outdoor dirtyhands work in many cases) suddenly was a very visible target of opportunity. Dr. Solomon came at the mystery from a direction which might be called the wishful thinking stance. Her 1984 essay appeared in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. She was an experienced engineer herself, with several scientific innovations to her credit, plus she was a member of ASCE and was a booster of the Society of Women Engineers. Identifying Emily as One of the Builders of the Bridge, she opened by repeating the rumor about the bridge being built by a woman. Next she quoted the text of the Belzner/Steinman tablet, adding: “I cannot help wishing it had been a bit different, to give the idea that she was indeed one of the builders...more than a noble support”.

In her conclusion, Dr. Solomon acknowledged Emily didn’t have any engineering credentials. She admitted it is not clear Emily ever did any engineering work on the bridge. Despite all of the above, she suggested we ought to adopt her as a role model for female engineers. Poof! The Great Morph was out and about before anyone could utter bibbidiboppidi or whatever other magic words were needed. Dr. Solomon’s account was based upon selected excerpts from McCullough’s work. In 2009, it was reprinted in Margaret E. Layne’s history book Women In Engineering: Pioneers and Trailblazers, and it was cited in a 2012 panel discussion by Patricia Pyke of Boise State University. In the academic arena, peer-reviewed pitches by PhDs are presumed perfect until they are disproved by peer-reviewed disputes.

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

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