Skip to main content
  • Mon - Fri 9:00 am to 6:00 pm
First Woman Structural Engineer in the U.S|First Woman Structural Engineer in the U.S.|Ruth Gordon|San Francisco Public Library

First Woman Structural Engineer in the U.S

Recognizing the Legacy of Ruth Gordon Schnapp

Have you heard of, icon of the structural engineering world, Ruth Gordon Schnapp?! Less known today than she deserves for her brilliant professional career, the amazing American woman, Ruth Gordon Schnapp marked, without a doubt, an imperishable milestone in the history of structural engineering in the United States. A recent investigation carried out by the president of our company, Raissa López, brought to light her remarkable performance in this industry during the second half of the 20th century. Her legacy must be spread among the new generations of engineers and architects, in order to continue her deserved recognition in an industry she helped build. After all, she was the first woman structural engineer in the U.S.! Let’s dive a little deeper and learn more about this historic icon. 

Persevering in the Face of Rejection

Daughter of Lithuanian migrants, Ruth Gordon Schnapp faced prejudice, underestimation and rejection in many areas of the business sector dedicated to construction. Unfortunately, many did not accept a woman engineer among their workers. Nor did they offer them the chance or respect they deserved. But that wasn’t deterring Schnapp from pursuing her dreams. With great will and perseverance, Ms. Shnapp broke down all the discriminatory barriers that tried to stand in her way! She has now become an essential name in the history of structural engineering in the United States; and is credited as the first woman structural engineer in the U.S.**Finger snaps!**

Passion for Mathematics

Born on September 19, 1926, in Washington State, Ruth Gordon Schnapp showed from a young age an outstanding capacity for learning, and a special interest in mathematics. In the first grade, she excelled at mastering more knowledge than the rest of her classmates; simultaneously showing impeccable writing and diction in reading. Schanpp would say she, “saved her math homework for dessert because it was the most fun.” Her strong preference for numbers, counting, and calculation led the young woman to enroll in Structural Engineering at Stanford University. She would later explain in life how she chose that specific career after learning it was closely linked to mathematics. And what a match made in engineering-heaven it was!

Ruth Gordon

Image By

First Structural Engineer in California

Schnapp initially graduated from Civil Engineering in 1948. Afterwards, she completed her master’s degree in structural engineering at Stanford University in 1950. Schnapp was notably the only woman to achieve such a degree, in the U.S. in that year! The initial post-grad life wasn’t what Schnapp had hoped for at first. Employers could turn away women without real reason or explanation. But this wouldn’t deter Schnapp from joining the industry her eyes set on. After being rejected by several construction companies that didn’t accept women engineers in their workforce, she managed to start working in a San Francisco structural engineering office. Finally, an opportunity to shine! Isadore Thompson was her ticket of opportunity! 

Given the Chance

Thompson was the engineer directing the hiring company. Thompson wasn’t concerned about Schnapp’s gender, or whether she had enough experience yet. He would explain that “he didn’t care if she was green, just as long as she could do the job“. Passionately devoted to the profession, Schnapp knew how to quickly win the admiration of her boss. She originally was hired by Thompson to oversee the construction of a hospital in Southern California. Additionally, her first works were focused on the design and construction of school buildings being more resistant to earthquakes. Subsequently, this opened the door for her to later obtain a structural engineering license in 1959. In that moment, she became the first woman to obtain a structural engineering license in the state of California! Ruth Gordon Schnapp had made history! It would be another 20 years before any other woman would hold the same license. 

San Francisco Public Library

Image By SFWeekly

Most significant projects

Schnapp practiced her career for more than four decades; prioritizing the improvement of structural security and resistance of hospitals, schools and other public buildings. Surpassing beyond her high professional qualification and affable character, the vehemence with which she defended her ideas and projects, led to her name gradually gaining notoriety in the world of the construction across the nation. Among the long list of projects that Schnapp directed, the San Francisco Public Library, Asian Art Museum, and the San Francisco General Hospital are significant works that admirably stand out. Which is aside from the fact that she already stands out naturally, paving the way for others to follow her lead as the first woman structural engineer in the U.S.! She was influencing the entire industry, while proving she was more than capable of working on projects of all sizes and statures. You go girl!

Social activist

Schnapp was named the first female member of the Northern California Association of Structural Engineers in 1953; yet again breaking the mold. Additionally, she was also the first female representative to serve as chair of the Bay Area Engineering Council in 1982-83. In recognition of this, Schnapp received a Tau Beta Pi Eminent Engineer Award in 1995; America’s second oldest collegiate honor society! 

A passionate defender of women’s rights; in 1980 she took part in a demonstration in favor of gender equality at the Pacific Stock Exchange. The Pacific Stock exchange was created in 1957 when the San Francisco Stock and Bond Exchange merged with the Los Petroleum Exchange. Schnapp actually chained herself to the building for several hours in protest, fearlessly defending her position for equality! Can you imagine voluntarily chaining yourself to a building?! Would you have done the same to defend your beliefs?

Engineer to Her Core

Funny enough, Schnapp wasn’t worried about potentially being arrested for trespassing at the time. She was more concerned with the large 80 ft. banner blocking both exits that read, “Dow Jones Up, Women’s Rights Down. ERA Now”, that was hung from the building by her fellow protestors. “I wanted to be arrested for trespassing,” she explains, “not for violating fire codes.” A true engineer to her core.

From there on out, there was no longer public forum where it did not firmly denounce discrimination against women in the most dissimilar spheres of society; especially regarding the right to exercise the same jobs as men. It was about time.

Epilogue of a fruitful life

Schnapp also worked for engineering firms Bechtel and Western Knapp before she started her 29-year career for the State of California. In addition to this, she even tested her hand out in the world of entrepreneurship. In 1984, Schnapp opened her own business, Pegasus Engineering, and retired in 2001. After retiring at the ripe old age of 75, Schnapp toured nearly the entire country; lecturing, visiting schools, universities, charities, hospitals, libraries, and new construction sites.

Continued Inspiration

 In her long journey and despite her busy schedule, she took time to meet with groups of girls and young people, whom she encouraged to study careers of their interest. “I became very much interested in helping women and encouraging women to be sure to study math and science.”, Schnapp would state. She not only helped build buildings, but she also helped shape dreams. Her compassion for the community was yet another of her admirable traits to recognize. The Women’s Book of World Records and Achievements fittingly honors Ruth Gordon Schnapp, just to add to her list of accomplishments. 

Leaving Behind a Legacy

Passing away on January 14, 2014, in her beloved state of California, Ruth Gordon Schnapp left behind a legacy that occupies a prominent place among women. Not only did she influence the construction of incredible projects, Schnapp undoubtedly helped pave the path of other women to follow her footsteps. Her fearless loyalty and dedication to her beliefs is a true inspiration in and outside of the engineering world.  

Additional Notable Names to Honor

It would behoove us to take the time to mention some additional figures who have helped write history for women. For instance, Emily Roebling, a field engineer, who with her technical knowledge and uplifting work made a decisive contribution to the completion of the famous Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. Equally notable is Edith Clarke; the first woman to pursue the career of Electrical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and creator of the famous Clarke calculator. (The calculator in which is extremely useful for the efficient operation of electrical transmission lines.) Although spread among different fields of the industry, these women all had one thing in common. Dedication to their dreams and passion, and an unwillingness to simply take “no“, for an answer. 

Moment of Gratitude

We want to graciously take this moment to thank these women. Whether is be the first woman structural engineer in the U.S, or the first future woman president, resilience, determination, strength, and dedication are just a few of the qualities, necessary to possess. Along with an unwillingness to simply take “no” for an answer of course. Standing in the face of adversity, and defying the expected odds takes courage not all possess. Thankfully for women in the structural engineering industry, Ruth Gordon Schnapp displayed all of these characteristics and more, and has helped shape the industry we know today. Our gratitude for her, as well as for all women who help pave the way for the next, is endless. Thank you, heroes.

© 2022 This article was written and published by Eastern Engineering Group. All rights reserved.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Recent Posts

Eastern Engineering Group is firmly set on delivering high quality services and products, while constantly improving them further. With this in mind, we strive to identify and meet prevailing quality standards among customers, considering their priorities.

Follow Us

Engineering Consulting Services in Miami

Our Structural Engineers of Miami at Eastern Engineering Group will provide you with the highest level of customer service, from administrative assistance, to the complex interpretation of the Florida Building Code, and the specific requirements of the Building Inspections Process.

building moments