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Nora Stanton Barney

Nora Stanton Barney

civil engineer

Expertise

Construction, Structural

Location

USA
My highlights

Became the first female member of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1905

Became the first US woman to graduate with an engineering degree from Cornell University

Had a tunnel-boring machine named after her by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection in 2017

Why you might have heard of Nora Stanton Barney

Nora Stanton Barney (1883-1971) was an English-born American civil engineer and women’s rights activist.

She made history by becoming the first female member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

She made a significant contribution to the civil engineering industry and played a crucial role in advancing the status of women in engineering.

Despite her impressive impact on the industry and contributions to some key civil engineering projects, Nora wasn’t a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

As an individual who paved the way for future generations of women, she deserves recognition as an influential feminist and a pivotal figure among female civil engineers of the 20th century.

“Nora Stanton Blatch Barney was a talented engineer, architect and mathematician who paved the way for other women to employ their talents in these fields.” — New York City Department of Environmental Protection

More about Nora

Early life and education

Nora was born on 30 September 1883, in Basingstoke, Hampshire, England to William Blatch and Harriot Eaton Stanton.

Her grandmother was the groundbreaking activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a prominent figure in the women’s suffrage movement, which likely influenced Nora’s activism. Her mother, Harriot Eaton Stanton Blatch, was also a suffragist.

Nora began to set history in motion when she enrolled at Cornell University, where she studied for a degree in civil engineering.

She was one of the first female students ever to be admitted to the Sibley School of Engineering, now known as the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

In 1905, she made history when she became the first woman to earn a degree in engineering from Cornell University.

Despite facing gender-based discrimination, she excelled academically and demonstrated an aptitude and passion for civil engineering.

Her achievements at Cornell marked an incredible milestone in her life and helped demonstrate that civil engineering is a career that women can – and should – aspire to.

Civil engineering career and significant projects

Although Nora was an engineer when female visibility in the industry was unusual, her determination and expertise earned her recognition and respect within the engineering community.

Nora started her career in the industry by gaining hands-on experience building bridges with the American Bridge Company and subway tunnels with the New York City Board of Water Supply.

She also took courses in mathematics and electronics at Columbia so she could become the assistant of Lee De Forest, inventor and engineer, who would later become her first husband.

Forest later asked her to abandon her career to become a traditional housewife.

Steadfast in her convictions, Nora chose to continue pursuing her civil engineering career. The two divorced in 1912.

Nora worked as an assistant engineer and chief draughtsman for the Radley Steel Construction Company from 1909 to 1912.

She then began a career with the New York Public Service Commission as an assistant engineer.

Later, she worked for the Public Works Administration in Connecticut and Rhode Island as an architect, engineering inspector and structural steel designer.

NORA 

“While she worked on the city’s landmark water supply facilities in the Catskills, Nora also led the fight for women’s rights at the voting booth and in the workplace.

“Her achievements will provide considerable inspiration as we forge ahead with the largest repair in the history of New York City’s water supply,” says Vincent Sapienza, New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) CEO.

In 2017, the New York City DEP named a tunnel-boring machine after Nora in recognition of her work on the early water supply projects in the Catskill Mountains.

NORA was created to repair the Delaware Aqueduct – the world’s longest tunnel.

The process involved excavating a 2.5-mile bypass tunnel to fix a leaking section.

The boring machine honours Nora’s inspiring legacy.

Image credit: Jenkins.sahlin.e/public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Nora's family

Nora went on to marry her second husband, Morgan Barney, a marine architect, in 1919 and raised two children: Rhoda (pictured) and John.

Nora died on 18 January 1971, leaving behind an incredible legacy in championing women’s rights in civil engineering and beyond.

Image credit: Stanton Family Collection/public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Women’s suffrage

Beyond her work in civil engineering, Nora is perhaps best remembered for her work as a women’s suffragist.

Her mother and grandmother’s activism likely encouraged a young Nora to appreciate the value of equality and social justice.

She became president of the Women’s Political Union in 1915, succeeding her mother.

Nora aligned herself with the National Woman’s Party.

She supported the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment – a proposed amendment to the US Constitution that, if passed, would explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sex.

ASCE membership

Despite being the first woman to be admitted into ASCE, gender discrimination dominated the industry, which meant Nora was only granted junior membership.

When she was 32, the age at which members would typically ascend to associate status, the ASCE refused to advance her or renew her membership.

In another demonstration of her tenacity, she sued them in 1916 but was unsuccessful. It took another decade for a woman to become a full ASCE member.

Elsie Eaves, founding member of the American Association of Cost Engineers, was the first woman to be granted full membership. 

The ASCE posthumously honoured Nora with Fellow status in 2015. A plaque honouring her fellowship hangs on the second floor of Hollister Hall.