Vice President Kamala Harris, The Notorious RBG, Chancellor Angela Merkel, former IMF Chair Christine Lagarde, and innumerable other women across the world come to mind as a picture of female leadership. Today, it’s not uncommon to see women in positions of power: female generals, doctors, politicians, presidents, biochemists — and the list goes on. Wind back 152 years, however, and the picture you see is one of a well-dressed, high-society lady surrounded by male construction workers helping to finalize what would become one of the most iconic landmarks in NYC: The Brooklyn Bridge. Connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn, as it towers over the East River, it’s forever a reminder of New York’s rich historic past and more interestingly, it tells a compelling narrative of a pioneering woman: Emily Warren Roebling.
Haven’t heard her name? That’s not surprising; it’s often assumed that after the bridge’s architect John Roebling passed, his son, Washington Roebling, took over. Frequently omitted from this narrative, though, is how much Emily Roebling (Washington’s wife) contributed to the construction of the bridge, both before and after her husband became too ill to work. As a woman ahead of her times, her great great grandson, Kristian Roebling, explained to me that she had “[an] ability to break through the social barriers which were imposed on women at the time.” Kristian, who currently lives in New York and gives tours of the bridge, evokes a perfect description of his great great grandmother; in an era when women were just begging to attend universities (indeed, just a couple years following Ada Kepley being the first female to graduate from law school), Emily Roebling was in fact an anomaly.
While for some, the bridge may pale in comparison to Calatrava’s suspended masterpieces or Europe’s Chunnel, at the time of its completion, it was not only the tallest structure in North America, but also afforded a safe crossing for thousands of New Yorkers — a feat effectuated by none other than a 19th century woman. Despite the gender inequities present at the time, Emily Roebling was able to persist, paving the way for women in STEM as she took command of the engineering process while her husband’s health deteriorated. One can say that their marriage was a “modern” partnership of both heart and mind, with Washington inviting Emily’s opinion throughout the building process, even prior to the onset of his sickness.
In addition to her intellectual gifts, Emily’s political savvy and personable demeanor helped her move the project along to its completion. Kristian attests to her ability to navigate the “male dominated society of the late 19th century,” commenting that she was a “warm, humorous, and loving person.” These traits, in his opinion, helped his great great grandmother gain respect amongst the men she worked with. Kristian also adds that aside from the “occasional ceremonial recognition such as the unveiling of the Emily Warren Roebling plaque on the Brooklyn tower in the 1950’s,” he feels that Emily did not “receive anywhere near the recognition she deserved.” Despite the lack of acknowledgement she was given during her lifetime, Kristian has begun to notice that more recently “there has been a groundswell of interest in the numerous glass ceilings that Emily broke through.” Even some books have been written documenting her story including The Great Bridge by David McCullough, his particular favorite.
Today, as women are climbing (or building) their way to the top of engineering, architecture, and construction fields, perhaps they need a word of encouragement from Emily Roebling herself. When asked what advice Kristian Roebling thinks Emily would have for girls today, he responds: “To be patient yet creatively persistent when facing the naïveté of men who have known none other than the ‘upper hand’ throughout the entire history of modern civilization, and to never give up until your dreams are realized.” Certainly, that’s much easier said than done, especially since the climb for women in STEM continues to be an arduous one.