Feminist Songs for Women’s History Month: Day 2, Yes, Alison, There Really Are Women Engineers

During the month of March, we have a short-running series of feminist songs inspired by the 7 Songs in Seven Days challenge that makes its way around social media every so often. Today, the Director of the SIUE Women’s Studies Program, Dr. Alison Reiheld, reflects on Peggy Seeger’s “Gonna Be An Engineer.”

When I was a little girl I wished I was a boy
I tagged along behind the gang and wore my corduroys.
Everybody said I only did it to annoy
But I was gonna be an engineer

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be an astronaut.

And to have the best chance at being an astronaut, I found, you should be one of two things: a military pilot or an aerospace engineer.

Neither of these were jobs for girls, and somehow I knew it. But I grew up in the age of Sally Ride and so being an astronaut was not off limits for girls.

reiheld on rover

The author in the 1980’s (can you tell? check out that visor!) with her brother at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a mockup of the moon rover used by Apollo missions to roam far from the landing module.

And thus, I went to Space Camp. Each team of campers was assigned the name of a famous aerospace company. Mine was Northrop-Grumman (now long since gobbled up and pieced out to other companies). I nerded out. And mostly, the teams were evenly matched of boys and girls. The first time I went. By the second time, a few years later, it was mostly boys. A hint was starting to form.

For my middle school career report, I wrote on aerospace engineering. I requested blueprints of the shuttle from NASA.

space shuttle.jpg

I researched income, high school and college preparation, subfields within aerospace engineering. My ideal plan was to go Naval Academy for college, choose naval aviation for post-graduation service, and study aerospace engineering while there.  In middle school, the boys in the hall—though not just them, because Mean Girls had it timelessly right—would mock me for being a nerd. They couldn’t decide whether I could never be found attractive for being a nerd, or whether I was worthy of mockery because I was good at shotput and thus strong, or whether I was worthy of mockery because I’d started puberty when I was 9 and it showed.  Being a smart girl then wasn’t as fun as Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls makes it now.

My grandfather was an engineer, an electrical engineer. His name is on the patent for the first man-portable radio, AKA the walkie talkie, but more like those big backpack ones you see in Saving Private Ryan.  He encouraged me to follow the sciences, sending me articles about women in engineering and in space. Years after his death, cleaning out my room as an adult, I found them with his brief encouraging notes in the same handwriting that I found on circuit diagrams tucked carefully into the back of the old vacuum tube radio I inherited from him when he died.

I didn’t change my plans away from being an astronaut until high school when my doctor told me I had long since finished growing and would never be tall enough to fly military aviation. I could have done aerospace engineering, and was at a school with good math and science programs by then.  But precisely because of that, I had discovered the biosciences and the prospect of medical research drew me on, eventually leading to an undergraduate degree in biology, then graduate school in medical ethics and philosophy.

It wasn’t until I found feminist theory in college and graduate school that I learned about Peggy Seeger’s song, “Gonna Be An Engineer”. And when I did, I wished I had it for walking the middle school hallways.

I wished my grandfather had known about it and told me. I thought perhaps my mother had actually played it for me and I was just too young to remember; she liked folk music, after all.

 

I wished every girl who had ever wanted to be an engineer had it in her back pocket to drown out everything else.

And then they had the nerve to ask, what would I like to be?
I says, “I’m gonna be an engineer!”

I wished it because it tells the tale of both how women can be engineers, and what happens when they put men’s careers and their own family ahead of their desires.

Every time I turn around there’s something else to do
Cook a meal or mend a sock or sweep a floor or two
Listening to Jimmy Young – it makes me want to spew
I was gonna be an engineer.

I only wish that I could be a lady
I’d do the lovely things that a lady’s s’posed to do
I wouldn’t even mind if only they would pay me
Then I could be a person too.

What price for a woman?
You can buy her for a ring of gold,
To love and obey, without any pay,
You get a cook and a nurse for better or worse
You don’t need a purse when a lady is sold.

I wish it because you don’t have to be stuck in gender roles, even if you have been.

Well, I listened to my mother and I joined a typing pool
Listened to my lover and I put him through his school
If I listen to the boss, I’m just a bloody fool
And an underpaid engineer
I been a sucker ever since I was a baby
As a daughter, as a mother, as a lover, as a dear
But I’ll fight them as a woman, not a lady
I’ll fight them as an engineer!

I wish it still.

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