Immediately following World War II and as the Cold War was beginning, Marian “Smitty” Smith became the first female mechanical engineering graduate at Michigan Tech. The year was 1948.
Seventy-five years later, Marian Smith Scott is 95 years old living in Gaylord, MI.
After completing junior college in 1946, Marian chose to continue her education at Michigan Tech. Given her strength in math, she thought engineering was a good path for her. “I understood that engineering required a lot of math, so I decided on mechanical,” she said. “I have to admit… I really didn’t know what engineering was!”
When Marian Smith started at Tech, she recalls there being around 400 students—only 20 of whom were women. Enrollment blossomed after World War II bringing the total to 1,789 students at the Houghton branch (and 384 in Sault Ste. Marie). While there were few women before her who graduated with different degrees, only three others were pursuing mechanical engineering. Since they were younger than her, Marian, who was well known by the nickname “Smitty”, rarely had any other women in her classes. Despite facing challenges and discrimination during her time as a student, Marian never lost sight of her goal.
One professor was particularly challenging, believing that women didn’t belong in engineering. As Marian explained, “I distinctly remember our professor giving us a quiz with three questions. I got the final answer correct but forgot to do the last step on the third question. The guy next to me didn’t even answer it, and he got a better score than me. That really irked me! I still ended up with a B in the class. I should have had an A, but he couldn’t do anything to give me less than a B and that made me happy.”
Having 40 hours of class each week and homework didn’t leave much time for hobbies, but “Smitty” still managed to have some fun. A member of Alpha Phi Omega, there were many formal parties and dances, so she was always busy sewing another new dress. She fondly recalls watching a young man sprint towards her from across campus to ask her to go on a date with him to a dance that was a month away. “There weren’t many women there. You had to get your dates early!” She also met her future husband Bill Scott at Tech, who graduated at the same time with the same degree. Three months after graduation, the two were engaged.
After graduating from Tech, Scott started her career at General Motors. She later became an editor for Design News—a technical magazine. After Design News moved to Denver, Scott secured a job at Bendix (now known as Allied Signal, Inc.) where she became the first female to have a supervisor role outside of the factory. “It might have been a big deal,” she said, “but nobody made anything of it. They didn’t give me much more money!”
“When I got out of school, people didn’t really believe that I had an engineering degree,” Scott said when asked about the public perception of a woman in engineering at the time. “People would still ask me silly questions like what you would get in 12th grade physics. Many of the employers were skeptical, which wasn’t very fair.” She continued, “I think some people thought I had two heads. But I got a job, and I did the job.”
Marian “Smitty” Scott encourages all women in engineering to be confident and know that they are as good and as capable as the men in the same field.
“I’ve always felt my decision to go to Michigan Tech was a good one,” she said. “I went back for my 50th reunion in 1998, and I saw the improvements they made. I wished I were going to school then! It was, and is, a very good school.”