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Ruth Gordon Schnapp was California’s first female structural engineer. The daughter of Lithuanian immigrants, she lived at a time when prejudice against women still kept them from many professions that were considered for men.
Ruth Gordon Schnapp was born on September 19, 1926 in Seattle. From a very young age, she demonstrated her academic aptitude, especially in mathematics. It is said she would save her math homework “for dessert” because it was her favorite. Her parents told her: “You never know what is going to happen. You have to study something to earn a living.” Without knowing what an engineer really did, except that it was math, she chose that path.
Ruth was not only a pioneer in the safety of hospitals and schools, she also made a place for herself in the fight for gender equality in her country.
Ruth Gordon Schnapp’s studies and career
She was accepted to Stanford University during World War II. She was the only woman to graduate in 1948 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. She received the license in 1953.
Her first job was in the San Francisco Structural Engineering Office run by engineer Isadore Thompson. After being turned down by several companies who told her “we don’t hire female engineers,” Thompson told her that she didn’t care if she didn’t have enough experience, as long as she could do the job.
Ruth Gordon Schnapp did not disappoint, and in 1959, she obtained her structural engineering license, becoming the first woman to do so. Ruth traveled through seven Southern California counties inspecting schools, hospitals, and other construction projects. It would take 20 years for another woman to get the same license.
Some of her most notable projects include the San Francisco Public Library, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, San Quentin Prison, San Francisco General Hospital, among others. Ruth was named the first female member of the Structural Engineers Association of Northern California in 1953; the first female president of the Bay Area Engineering Council in 1982-83 and the first woman to receive an Eminent Engineer award from Tau Beta Pi in 1995.
Activism for gender equality
Ruth was a staunch supporter of women’s rights. In 1980, Ruth Gordon Schnapp participated in a demonstration at the Pacific Stock Exchange, where she chained herself to the building against the discrimination against women.
After retiring in 2001, she traveled the United States lecturing at schools, universities, charities, hospitals, libraries, and new construction sites, encouraging girls and young women to pursue science-related careers.
On January 1, 2014, Ruth Gordon Schnapp passed away in California at the age of 87, after four decades of pursuing her passion for mathematics through structural engineering, and having made a name for herself in the history of that career, as in the fight for women’s equality in her country.