“I have received many engineering awards, but I hope I will also be remembered as an advocate for the rights of women and children.” —Elsie MacGill
For some time now, before and since the change of government, the Bank of Canada has been under public pressure to include women (other than the Queen) on our currency. To date, (www.womenonbanknotes.ca),Victoria historian Merna Forster’s online petition, has amassed 72,000-plus names.
Among those proposed for such a distinction is a Vancouver-born woman who’s anything but a household name. In fact, for all of her achievements, for all of the honours bestowed upon her in her lifetime, but for the fact that she’s been in the news because of this campaign to represent women on Canadian currency, I defy readers to identify Elsie MacGill.
I’ll give you a hint: during the Second World War, she became a cult-hero, star of a comic book as the Queen of the Hurricanes. No? Okay, let’s cut to the chase. Elsie MacGill was, in chronological order as we’re informed by Wikipedia, the Royal Aviation Museum and other sources, Canada’s first woman graduate in electrical engineering; the first woman in North America to achieve a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering; the world’s first female aircraft designer; the first woman elected to corporate membership in the Engineering Institute of Canada; the first woman in the world to hold a position such as Chief Aeronautical Engineer; the first woman to serve as technical advisor for the International Civil Aviation Organization; the first woman to chair a UN committee (on aircraft stress analysis).
I’m not done, but I’m getting way ahead of myself, so let’s back up to her birth in Vancouver in 1905 as daughter of a prominent Vancouver journalist and lawyer, Henry MacGill, and journalist and lawyer (later B.C.’s first woman judge), Helen Gregory MacGill. She attended King George Secondary School, took drawing lessons from none other than Emily Carr, and early demonstrated an interest in things mechanical. Encouraged by her mother, an advocate of women’s suffrage, she enrolled for a Bachelor of Applied Sciences at the University of Toronto where she became interested in aeronautical engineering, then in its infancy.
“My presence in the…engineering classes in 1923 certainly turned a few heads,” she recalled in 1940. To pay her way she repaired electrical motors in machine shops until, aged 23, she was stricken by polio and told by her doctors that she’d spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. Not only did she learn to walk again with the aid of metal canes but she graduated as Canada’s first woman aeronautical engineer — the first of a lifetime of professional achievements.
This led to a job with a Michigan aircraft manufacturer while she continued her engineering studies, initially part-time while supplementing her income by writing magazine articles about aircraft and flying, at the University of Michigan. There, in 1929, she “became the first women in North America, and likely the world, to be awarded a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering”.
By 1934 she was working for Fairchild Aviation in Montreal and, as an assistant engineer, helped to design Canada’s first metal-hulled aircraft, the Fairchild Super 71. She’d also been elected to corporate membership in the Engineering Institute of Canada and had presented a paper, well received, to the Royal Aeronaturical Society. All this before being hired — another world first — as chief aeronautical engineer for Cancar (the Canadian Car and Foundry) for whom she designed the Maple Leaf training aircraft. Only two were completed in Canada but eight were shipped for assembly in Mexico where their high-altitude performance proved the Maple Leaf’s capabilities and added another notch to Elsie’s repertoire.
But by this time Canada and the world were at war and Elsie’s company was so busy assembling Hawker Hurricane fighters for the RAF that it had to expand its workforce nine-fold. Most of these new hires were women and their training was part of Elsie’s duties — as was the design, testing and introduction of thousands of dies and tools. In between, she studied means of winterizing aircraft and designing ski landing gear.
Fourteen hundred of the famous fighters rolled off the Cancar assembly lines, earning for Elsie her title role in an American comic book, Queen of the Hurricanes and popular acclaim. When Cancar’s contract to build an American fighter craft experienced serious startup problems, Elsie and company works manager Bill Soulsby lost their jobs; not for reasons of incompetency but because of their personal relationship.
Married in 1943, they started an aeronautical consulting firm and, in 1946, Elsie became the first woman technical advisor for the International Aviation Organization. In this capacity she helped to draft international air worthiness certification regulations for commercial aircraft. The next year, she became the first woman to chair a UN committee, this one on stress analysis.
She changed course in 1953 when, recovering from a broken leg, she wrote her mother’s biography, My Mother the Judge. By the 1960s she was devoting much of her time to women’s rights and serving as president of the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, before co-authoring the report published by the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, in 1970. Contrary to the Commission, she advocated for abortion being removed from the Criminal Code.
For her work as a member of the Ontario Status of Women Committee, she was awarded the Order of Canada in 1971. She received the Amelia Earhart Award in 1975 and the Ontario Association of Professional Engineers’ Gold Medal in 1979. Inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame in 1983, she was honoured posthumously by the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in 1992. Elsie MacGill, aviation pioneer and champion of women’s rights, died in 1980. Is she worthy of having her image on a Canadian banknote? You be the judge. You can vote for her at www.womenon banknotes.ca.