International Women in Engineering Day: Remembering Elsie MacGill
In honour of International Women in Engineering Day (June 23), the Ingenium Channel sat down with two spirited young women to discuss their research project about Elsie MacGill. Karen Wang (Grade 8) and Gloria Pan (Grade 9) — students at Cedarview Middle School and Colonel By Secondary School respectively — recently presented their project to visitors at the Canadian War Museum. The young women were among students from eight Ottawa-area schools that converged at the museum for a student exposition and conference, “Getting From Here to There,” on May 24, 2019. The event challenged students to address the science and history of the past century, while considering the societal and geo-political changes needed to reach a peaceful and equitable future.
What prompted you to embark on this project in the first place?
For our heritage fair project, we wanted to research stories of women in engineering and contributing to wars. We came across the story of Elsie MacGill, who turned out to be exactly the kind of person we were looking for: a chief aeronautical engineer and a feminist. In addition to that, she was a survivor of polio. We believed she was an excellent role model for young people, and we were inspired by her courage and dedication. Through this project, we wanted to learn valuable lessons and ideas from her, and to share her story with others.
~ Gloria Pan
As young women, why do you think it’s important for people to know about Elsie MacGill?
Elsie MacGill was a woman of many firsts, such as being the first woman in Canada to graduate with a degree in electrical engineering, as well as a female war hero. MacGill had the odds stacked against her; being a woman in the twentieth century seeking education in the field of engineering brought on many hardships, and she was put down time after time by those around her. However, she did not let others discourage her, and went on to design the Hurricane earning her the nickname “Queen of the Hurricanes.”
~ Gloria Pan
The story of Elsie MacGill gives hope to young women who are afraid of pursuing their passion, to put themselves out there and defy the norms of society. Her courage shows the world that resilience is the key to success because if she had quit entirely when the Dean of Faculty for her program told her to leave, she would have never known what she was truly capable of. Elsie MacGill was — and continues to be — an inspiration for many people, especially young women.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in the course of your research?
Elsie MacGill was fired simply because she and her lover worked in the same company! Today, we rarely hear of people getting fired simply because they have a relationship with a co-worker. Of course, it would be a totally different story if the relationship was causing major distractions at work, however in this case, there was no record of that. It is also believed that part of their dismissal was due to the fact that the Helldiver productions weren’t going as fast as the US Navy wanted. Although the Navy had the right to be frustrated at the delays, you must also realize the fact that they gave Elsie MacGill over 800 alterations to be made to the Helldiver. She also spotted a few mistakes of her own, and took the time to fix them. If she had rushed her work, instead of taking the time to complete each task properly, the thousands of soldiers relying on this aircraft could have suffered the consequences. For that much work to be piled on to a single person, the stress would be unimaginable. These days, I doubt anyone would be given as much work to be completed in such a short period of time.
~ Karen Wang
Did your outlook on history change as a result of this project?
After learning about Elsie MacGill’s story, I realized that there is so much more to Canada’s history than what is taught in school. Much of what we learn in school is based on the textbooks we are provided with. There’s nothing wrong with the textbooks, in fact they’re a great learning tool, but they don’t necessarily shed light on absolutely everything that happened in the past. The majority of history textbooks focus on the men that led our country, and how their accomplishments changed our country for the better. While I believe their leadership was a very important part of history, it is also very important that we learn about everything that goes on behind the scenes. There was a lot of work done by people of different colour, nationality and gender. Elsie MacGill was one of those talented women, and her work saved countless lives. After learning about her story, I look forward to discovering more unsung heroes and heroines in our history.
~ Karen Wang
What did it mean to you to be able to present your project at the student exposition and conference at the Canada War Museum?
So much learning can happen outside of the classroom, and I was able to learn so much in the few hours I spent there! The entire room was filled with projects by brilliant students and I was able to learn about science, history, and more. The whole experience was very enjoyable, and it was made all the better by the fact that I was able to share my knowledge about Elsie MacGill with the visitors that were passing by. Many of the visitors had never heard of Elsie MacGill and I was honoured to be able to teach them, whether it was an adult or a student. It was truly an enriching experience.
~ Karen Wang