By Anna M. Lewis – Ruth Gordon Schnapp, the first female structural engineer in the state California, died on January 1, 2014, at the age of 87, in Los Banos, CA. She is survived by her three children, Madeline, Marcia and Michael, and several grandchildren.
Mrs. Schnapp, who had a passion for math, that led her to a 41-year structural engineering career, played a pioneering role in increasing the number of women in engineering fields, as well as improving the safety of hundreds of hospitals, schools, and other buildings.
Schnapp was told on many occasions – “We don’t hire women engineers.” Her first job was with the San Francisco structural engineering office of Isadore Thompson. After being rejected by several companies who told her, “We don’t hire women engineers,” Thompson told Schnapp that he didn’t care if she was green, just as long as she could do the job.
Schnapp also worked for engineering firms Bechtel and Western Knapp before she began her 29-year career for the State of California. In 1984, Schnapp opened her own business, Pegasus Engineering, and retired in 2001.
Schnapp’s parents, Solomon and Lea Gordon, were Lithuanian immigrants who first settled in Dallas, TX where her sister, Clara, was born. Following the birth of her sister, the family moved to Seattle, WA where Schnapp was born on September 19, 1926.
Excelling in school, Schnapp said she often saved her math homework for dessert because it was the most fun. She dreamed of becoming a concert pianist, but her parents cautioned her against following her dream, stating: “You never can tell what’s going to happen. You have to study something for which you can make a living.” This was in the early 1940’s when most parents were encouraging their daughters to marry and have children.
Not knowing what an engineer did, except that it involved math, Schnapp chose that path. She applied and was accepted to Stanford. During her summer breaks, she worked for Boeing in Seattle, one summer participating in structural engineering changes to the B-17 bomber. When World War II ended, she was forced to take a typing job with the company at a lower pay. According to Schnapp, just to spite Boeing and its sexism, she was the slowest typist they ever had.
Schnapp was the only woman to graduate from Stanford in 1948 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. With the support of her male professors, she went on to earn her master’s degree in structural engineering in 1950.
In 1953, after receiving her civil engineer state license, Schnapp went to work for the state of California, designing and constructing school buildings to make them more earthquake resistant.
In 1959, Schnapp passed the test for her structural engineering license – 20 years before any other woman would earn that license. Schnapp loved structural engineering, and she especially loved being out in the field. She traveled a seven-county area of Southern California, checking schools, hospitals and other construction projects. Some of Schnapp’s more high-profile projects include the San Francisco Public Library, San Francisco Asian Art Museum, San Quentin Prison, Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco General Hospital, and the Marin General Hospital.
She married Michael Schnapp in 1950. With their mutual love of boats, the Schnapps bought a 26-foot-long sailboat and started racing. In 2001, she received the Yachtsman of the Year Award from the Pacific Inter-Club Yacht Association. For many years, the Golden Gate Yacht Club has held the Ruth Gordon Schnapp Regatta.
Schnapp’s daughter Madeline explained, “One of the reasons my mother was able to do the things she did was because she had a wonderful support system at home and didn’t have to worry about how her children were faring while she was away at work.”
Some of Schnapp’s many accolades include being named the first woman member of Structural Engineers Association of Northern California in 1953; the first woman president of the Bay Area Engineering Council in 1982-83; and the first woman to receive a Tau Beta Pi’s Eminent Engineer Award in 1995. A staunch advocate of women’s rights, in 1980, Schnapp took part in a public demonstration at the Pacific Stock Exchange, during which she chained herself to the building for five hours to protest gender discrimination.
After retiring in 2001, Schnapp traveled throughout the U.S., lecturing students about her career. She said, “I became very much interested in helping women and encouraging women to be sure to study math and science.”
Ruth Schnapp will continue to serve as a role model in my new book for young adults released January 2014, Women of Steel and Stone. Schnapp is one of 22 inspirational women architects, engineers, and landscape architects that I profiled in the book.
Thank you, Ruth, for all the girl engineers that have followed your lead and for the young girls you will inspire to build great things.
About The Contributor
Anna M. Lewis is an award-winning toy inventor, author, and creativity advocate. In addition to WOMEN OF STEEL AND STONE: 22 Inspirational Architects, Engineers, and Landscape Designers (Chicago Review Press 2014), Anna has also authored, CITY DOODLES – CHICAGO (Gibbs Smith 2013), and several children’s magazines.
Through her company Ideasplash, Anna offers presentations and classes in schools in cartooning, game design, and monster imaginations.
Anna currently lives in Illinois with her wildly creative family and Lucy, an Old English Sheepdog, who patiently piles tennis balls at Anna’s feet while she writes.