Saturday, October 31, 2020

Elsie fact #30: Women in STEM

Women in science, technology, engineer and math or STEM have met many challenges. There are a number of blockades that they encountered throughout their education and professional lives, with some disciplines being more problematic than others.

It took Elsie a long time to come to terms with the idea that there was discrimination within engineering, in part because she had never really stopped to assess her own experience. When she did, she realized that she had face discrimination and that she needed to advocated for women in this regard as well. 

One thing that she was completely against was the idea that she was a "woman" engineer. She would make it quite clear to anyone who was surprised that she was an engineer that that was their problem not hers. 

Friday, October 30, 2020

Elsie fact #29: International Women's Day

The United Nations declared 1975 International Women's Year (IWY). Elsie continued her feminist activism and used the momentum of this year to advance a number of her projects. She delivered speeches and encouraged women to seize the potential this year offered for women's advancement. 

It was during this time that she really started to reflect on the challenges for women in engineering. 

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Elsie fact #28: The RCSW Report

The Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women was tabled in 1970. It was considered in one media report to be a "bomb". Assessing the report today, there are many gaps that stand out, but when looking at it within its proper historical context, it was a revolutionary document.

Elsie spent an extensive amount of her time after the report was table to see its recommendations implemented. She gave speeches and worked with existing and new women's groups to advocate for the changes needed. She realized that the report was not the end of the work, only the beginning. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Elsie fact #27: Abortion

One issue that Elsie really championed during The Royal Commission on the Status of Women was a woman's right to abortion. While the RCSW was working abortion was illegal in Canada, and Elsie was against that. In the final report, she supported the recommendations regarding abortion, but took issue with the fact that they did not go far enough. She wanted to see abortion completely decriminalized and made a private matter between a woman and her doctor. 

For more information on the context and issues around abortion in the 1960s see The Abortion Caravan by Karin Wells.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Elsie fact #26: Stop the sex-typing of education

Elsie MacGill was interested in every aspect of The Royal Commission on the Status of Women, even the behind the scenes work required for its administration and coordination. Some of the issues that stood out for her included education. Specifically, she was concerned about women having opportunities to go as far as educationally possible. To do this, she realized that society needed to offer them better support, and provide models for them to emulate in textbooks etc. 

Elsie would continue to advocate for the development of women's full potential throughout her life.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Elsie fact #25: The Royal Commission on the Status of Women (RCSW)

 In 1967, the Government of Canada established The Royal Commission on the Status of Women (RCSW). Elsie MacGill was one of the commissioners selected to serve on this important commission. Why was she chosen? A number of reasons:

-she was a business and professional woman and could represent their voices,

-she was a self-declared feminist (the only one at the start of the commission),

-she had significant leadership experience in business and as a social activist, and

-she was originally from Vancouver, British Columbia providing some important regional representation.

The Report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women was tabled in parliament in 1970, and it was was an extremely important document for its time. While it missed a lot of important aspects from our perspective today, and was even challenged by some of the commissioners who who helped produce it, within its proper historical context it represents an important aspect of Canadian social history.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Elsie fact #24: BPW National President

Elsie Gregory MacGill was elected National President of the Canadian Business and Professional Wome's Clubs in 1962 for a two-year mandate. Her organizing skills as an engineer came into play in a major way and she worked hard to achieve a long list of resolutions from the club members. For instance she led two delegations of members to present their briefs tied to these resolutions in meetings with Canadian prime ministers.

Elsie also completed a cross-country tour giving speeches at a range of different clubs and supporting their efforts to advance the cause of women within the country. This role provided her with extensive media coverage and strategically positioned her for future feminist service.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Elsie fact #23: BPW Ontario President

Elsie MacGill served as the Provincial President of the Business and Professional Women's Clubs of Ontario from 1956-1958. Of her many different objectives, one of the most notable was calling for the recognition and full integration of "womanpower" within Canada. From her perspective, it was a seriously overlooked resource, that if properly engaged could change the province and the country in fundamental ways.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Elsie fact #22: A woman Prime Minister

Elsie did not waste time before reaching out to the larger circles of the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs. Indeed, before long she was attending provincial and national events and participating actively. During the 1954 national convention, she gave a keynote address entitled "A Blueprint for Madame Prime Minister", where she argued for the importance of a woman prime minister and deftly outlined the key points of her agenda. 

This speech demonstrates her ability to have and sustain visions of how she thought the world should be even when no current example existed. Elsie was arguing of the need for a woman Prime Minister 39 years before The Right Honourable Kim Campbell would become the first to hold this position of leadership in 1993! 

Thursday, October 22, 2020

"A 60 Second Flight Plan"

The Canadian Aviation Historical Society asked me to write about the recent Canadian Heritage Minute for their online publication. This opportunity gave me a chance to flesh out what it was like to be a part of this exciting project.

If you are interested in reading about it see the following links:

Elsie fact 21: The Toronto Business and Professional Women's Club

In order to advance her feminist development Elsie sought the company of other women. Her mother had been a "joiner" of women's clubs and organizations, thus it is not surprising that Elsie would seek out a similar organization. 

During her recovery from polio Elsie had interacted with the Vancouver Business and Professional Women's Club where her mother was a member, and in Toronto she found herself at the doors of the Toronto Business and Professional Women's Club. The club was very active, and as a professional woman it would have been in line with her professional development which to date had focused on all-male engineering organizations. 

The decision to join was meant to be and the Toronto club became a spring board for Elsie that would lead to many other feminist activities including those within the larger Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs (now Business and Professional Women)..

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Elsie fact #20: Writing a biography of Judge Helen Gregory MacGill

After Elsie had settled in Toronto, Ontario and her firm was moving along Elsie started to look back to her feminist roots. Given the fact that her mother and grandmother were both suffragettes and her mother was the first woman appointed as a judge in British Columbia she had a very strong feminist basis to draw from. 

Elsie was concerned that her mother's legacy would be forgotten after her death and she wanted someone to write her biography. Due to an unexpected turn of fate, she ended up being that person, and the resulting research and writing fanned the flames of her feminist birthright. 

She worked to promote the biography for the rest of her life and a second printing was achieved after her death. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Elsie fact #19: The Helldivers

Once the work on the Hawker Hurricanes started to wrap up, a new contract was undertaken by Elsie's engineering team and the workers at Canadian Car and Foundry to produce the American Helldivers. This once again required a retooling of the plant, and the work came with many difficulties. In fact, the plane became known as "The Beast". This was not because it was a scary fighter plane, it was scary on the ground as there were so many changes to the blueprints it was hard to get them off the ground!

It was during this contract that Elsie left Canadian Car and Foundry in 1942 and decided to start up her own consulting firm in Toronto, Ontario. It was a contentious time for her and the plant manager E.J. Soulsby.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Elsie fact #18: The Engineering Institute of Canada (EIC)

Elsie was a professional engineer in every sense of the title. In addition to practicing her profession she took an active role in various professional engineering organizations. Of all her commitments, the Engineering Institute of Canada (EIC) received the bulk of her attention and participation. 

She was their first woman member. As a result, there was some concern and confusion as to how to welcome her into the organization before she left Montreal, Quebec for Fort William, Ontario to work at Canadian Car and Foundry. 

Once she arrived in Fort William, she played prominent roles within the organization, and continued to do so throughout her life.  

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Elsie fact #17: Persons Day

In Canada, October 18th is known as Persons Day. On this day in 1929, women in Canada won the right to be legaly recognized as "persons". As a result, they were accorded wider respect in Canadian society both legally and politically. For example, this ruling allowed for women to sit in the Canadian Senate. 

The women associated with this ruling are known as the Famous Five and include: Emily Murphy, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby and Henrietta Muir Edwards.

In 1929, Elsie MacGill graduated with her Masters degree in aeronautical engineering and came down with polio. She was momentarily stopped in her tracks in the midst of her engineering career. But the importance of this victory for Canadian women was not lost on her. She recognized it for the important social change that it represented and she would refer to it and the terminology ascribed to women throughout her actions as a prominent Canadian feminist.  

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Elsie fact #16: Hawker Hurricanes 2

Despite the fact that the main focus was on getting the Hawker Hurricanes mass produced to assist the allied cause in the Second World War, Elsie took part in making design modifications. The key change she made was to winterize some of the planes. 

We take it for granted today that we can fly throughout the year and that waiting in line for deicing is part of the trip in the winter months. During the 1930s and 40s there were still concerns about planes having issues with ice build-up on propellers and wings and how to modify take-off requirements. 

Deicing addressed these issues and on a high speed war plane and made it safe to fly. In addition to these modifications, Elsie also worked on skis for the aircraft instead of wheels. She used the contacts she had established at the NRC to help her make sure that the changes would be fully functional.   

Friday, October 16, 2020

Elsie fact #15: The Hawker Hurricanes I

My book is entitled Queen of the Hurricanes: The Fearless Elsie MacGill. Elsie received the title "Queen of the Hurricanes from an American comic book who featured her within its pages as the Canadian Car and Foundry's Chief Aeronautical Engineer. The title stuck. Why was that?

During the Second World War women played prominent roles when there were not enough men to continue what would be considered non-traditional work for women (for example in factories). The vast majority of these roles were no where near the echelons of leadership - but Elsie's was. 

Elsie did not let this get to her head - she was focused on the work to retool the plant to mass produce airplanes and she considered her role as an engineer as more important than her sex - as noted in the recent Canadian Heritage Minute.

Elsie worked hard with her team and kept her focus on the ultimate goal: peace. She was all too well aware that ironically engineers needed to construct war machines to achieve this goal, but it remained her focus. 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Elsie fact #14: Hawker Hurricanes

 The Hawker Hurricane aircraft earned Elsie the nickname 'Queen of the Hurricanes' as she was the chief aeronautical engineer responsible for the retooling of Canadian Car and Foundry's mass production of this aircraft for the Battle of Britain and other theatres of the Second World War. In fact, an American comic book had a strip featuring her war work where the title featured.

The challenge of mass production of airplanes at the plant was real. Mass production at the time was much easier when the product in question is simple and the pieces are standardized. Airplanes were very complex and various changes in design as needs changed added additional problems.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Elsie fact 13: The Maple Leaf II

The first new project that Elsie MacGill took on at Canadian Car and Foundry was to design the Maple Leaf II. This training prototype was based on the Maple Leaf project which Elsie studied and then decided to basically redesign. The 'II' was added to the name to clearly distinguish between the two designs. 

Elsie's efforts were lauded by her colleagues in the Engineering Institute of Canada as the plane was recognized for its airworthiness and the designer for her efficiency in undertaking the project and completing the work in so timely a fashion. 

Unfortunately, as there were already other trainers being employed by the Royal Canadian Air Force the Maple Leaf II did not rise to any prominence in Canada beyond its prototype status.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Elsie fact #12: Offer at Canadian Car and Foundry

In 1938, Elsie MacGill started work at the Canadian Car and Foundry (currently Bombardier) located in Fort William, Ontario (currently Thunder Bay, Ontario). The position was as the chief aeronautical engineer and it was just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Context is everything, and while Elsie only saw her age, 33-years old, as unique, the fact that she was a woman was notable. 

From Elsie's perspective it was not, she had the training, expertise and knowledge that were very rare at the time even for men. She started in pre-war work and made a name for herself with the Maple Leaf II. 

Monday, October 12, 2020

Elsie fact #11: Connections at the NRC

 As part of Elsie's work at Fairchild she started to develop various networks that facilitated her work and would, in time, assist her with other projects as well. The most important network was at the National Research Council of Canada or NRC (for more information on the important history of the NRC and civil aviation see here)

Elsie personally took models from Fairchild in her car to the NRC in Ottawa. Once onsite she worked with a range of colleagues to conduct the needed wind tunnel tests. It was at the NRC that she once again encountered Professor Parkin. 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Elsie fact #10: First woman practicing engineer

Elsie Gregory MacGill was the first woman in Canada to both obtain an engineering degree and to become a practicing engineer. This is a special distinction as there had been a previous graduate in engineering in Canada, but she had not gone on to work in the field. 

Elsie not only sought employment, she took the designation of Professional Engineer very seriously and played key roles in a range of professional engineering organizations most notable the Engineering Institute of Canada or EIC.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Elsie fact #9: Getting going again

Elsie returned to Vancouver, British Columbia to recover from polio. With the strong support of her family, she was able to get back on her feet again with the support of canes. Throughout her recovery she was determined to get her career prospects back in order. Understanding the fast pace of aeronautics, she knew additional education was required which she started at MIT. 

She did not have to wait long before she was able to launch her career again. Very soon after she restarted her studies an offer came from Fairchild in the province of Qu├ębec and Elsie seized the opportunity. It was an ideal post as there were some important innovations taking place at the plant. 

The future once again looked hopeful!

Friday, October 9, 2020

Elsie fact #8: University of Michigan

Originally, when Elsie decided on the pursuit of engineering she thought she would be an engineer who worked in radio and radio applications. Becoming an electrical engineer seemed the right path to this. But life is a funny thing, and her first job led her work that was mechanical in nature and then on to aviation. Aviation captured her imagination and her electrical engineering skills were very applicable, but she wanted to learn more about aeronautical engineering specifically leading to her studies at the University of Michigan. 

At the university she became likely the first woman to complete a masters in aeronautics, which she achieved in 1929. However, the way forward was not an easy one. When she should have been celebrating her achievement, she was battling polio. While she was able to recover a great degree of her mobility, she dealt with the after affects of the disease throughout her life. Despite these challenges, she refused to give in and be labeled or diminished by the disease.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Elsie fact #7: Graduation

 After dedicated work and the resolution of some roadblocks Elsie Gregory MacGill graduated from the University of Toronto in 1927. She was the first woman to earn a degree in engineering from the university. 

Unfortunately, there were not a lot of prospects for engineering graduates in Canada at the time, so Elsie headed off to the United States to find work, and was willing to take a position that was outside of her direct expertise. 

The prospect of leaving the country to work was probably less of an issue for her as her mother had had to work in the United States before she remarried and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Elsie fact #6: Engineeress

One of the fastest ways to reduce a woman's perceived standing in a professional course of study or within the profession itself is to add the suffix "ess" to the title as was done with engineer by Elsie's student colleagues leading to the title Engineeress in the engineering yearbook. Ironically, the use of it in the engineering publication at the University of Toronto was less negative than some previous historical uses in the United States where it also denoted a different and lower level of status in the training received by the woman in question.

Regardless, as time went on, Elsie would stand very firmly on the point that she was an engineer period. To her, the fact she was a woman was not worth considering by her, her colleagues or the client(s) in question. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Elsie fact #5: A teacher's support

One of Elsie's professors stood out during her time at the University of Toronto: Professor J.H. Parkin. It was in his class that they both had to deal with the challenges of incorporating a woman into a all-male atmosphere. Classroom antics and previously accepted lecture jokes needed to be taken in hand. While Elsie dealt with her classmates "attentions", Professor Parkin ensured that his lecture material would cease to create openings for jokes at her expense. 

Parkin would reappear numerous times in Elsie's life as her studies gave way to her professional development as a practicing engineer.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Elsie fact #4: One of the boys 2

 Elsie avoided participating in some social events that her male colleagues such as those associated with new student initiations. While she was not one hundred percent involved in some of the more questionable activities, she did earn her male colleagues' respect throughout her university years and became an integral part of the class. This fact is supported in her lifelong participation in the alumni activities of the Class of 2T7 and her colleagues' acknowledgement that she played an essential role. 

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Elsie fact #3: One of the boys 1

 Elsie was the only woman to be admitted to electrical engineering at this time, or any other engineering course. The was however one other woman in the School of Practical Science: Betty Lalour who was studying architecture. Despite Betty's presence, there was concern as to how Elsie's presence would affect the class of 1927 (2T7). Elsie quickly demonstrated to her male classmates however that she was there to stay and was willing and able to make important contributions! 

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Elsie fact #2: Arrival at University of Toronto

 Elsie did not stay at the University of British Columbia. She moved on to the University of Toronto's School of Practical Science in 1923. Given her university studies to date at this point, she had hoped to continue at the third-year level - but this was not to be the case. Instead, she was forced to start as a freshman. It took determination and probably a bit of stubbornness to continue, but she did just that.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Elsie fact #1: Starting education

Elsie Gregory MacGill was born in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1905. Her mother, Helen Gregory MacGill was an educational pioneer in her own right and she advocated that her daughters should have a proper education with which they could support themselves. As a result, Elsie was encouraged in her selection to start her university studies at the University of British Columbia and in the non-traditional study of engineering and applied science. 

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Launch of Elsie Gregory MacGill Heritage Minute!

Today, the following Elsie Gregory MacGill Heritage Minute was launched by Hisotrica Canada:


This is an excellent project that I was happy to be a part of! Congratulations to all the dedicated staff at Historica Canada for making this possible!

When I first started working on the history of Elsie Gregory MacGill in 2003, she was barely known in Canada, despite the fact that she had been a wartime celebrity during the Second World War. Usually when I mentioned her name the response was "Elsie who?" even within engineering circles! 

Since that time, a lost has happened to raise her profile from books like The Queen of the Hurricanes to inclusion in a postage stamp collection and standing in the top five for the Canadian ten dollar bill. More information about the various mentions can be found on this blog.

There is more to this work than simply getting her name on the tip of people's tongues. By fleshing out her story the history of Canadian women is enriched and more is known about women in science, technology, engineering and math or the STEM disciplines. 

Elsie's story is one that traces a wide range of different developments in Canadian history during her lifetime from 1905-1980. By learning about her life it is possible to better better understand professional education, the engineering profession, feminism, technological and social development in Canada to name a few. In an effort to paint a picture of these developments, I will be writing Elsie facts for each day of October.

Stay tuned!