A Woman Unbound

January/February 2002

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A Woman Unbound

Associated Press

When Ruth Gordon chained herself to the Pacific Stock Exchange on August 26, 1980, she was a bit concerned. Not that she’d be arrested or labeled an upstart; as California’s first female structural engineer, she’d heard that kind of name-calling before.

No, her anxiety sprang from a banner her fellow protesters had hung on the building’s façade, a banner that read, “Dow Jones Up, Women’s Rights Down. ERA Now.” It wasn’t the wording that disturbed her—to the contrary, it perfectly stated her support for the Equal Rights Amendment and equitable pay in the workplace. But the 80-foot-long bunting was blocking both of the building’s exits. “I wanted to be arrested for trespassing,” she explains, “not for violating fire codes.”

Once an engineer, always an engineer.

Gordon, now retired and living in San Francisco, was one of just two female engineers in her Stanford class and the only woman to graduate in civil engineering and earn a master’s in structures. She soon discovered how little room there was for women in the profession. After numerous rejections, she learned to list only her initials in her résumé. That much usually won her an interview. But when a hirer discovered that R.V. Gordon was a woman, he’d dismiss her on the spot. In those days, “they weren’t forced to offer explanations,” she recalls.

It was not until her credentials caught the eye of the late Isador Thompson—a San Francisco structural engineer who “didn’t care if you were green,” Gordon says—that her career began. That was in 1950. Over the next 35 years, she served as the first woman president of the Bay Area Engineering Council, was the first female to receive Tau Beta Pi’s Eminent Engineer Award, lectured to hundreds of teenage girls on the importance of studying science and math, and was profiled in The Women’s Book of World Records and Achievements.

But her proudest accomplishment—which dates back half a century—was one in which she didn’t rise to the top.

An avid sailor, Gordon purchased a 26-foot sloop in 1950 with her late husband, Michael Schnapp. When Schnapp was called to duty in the Korean War, the Madeleine lost her skipper. So Gordon and three friends formed the Bay Area’s first all-female racing team. It was difficult getting anyone to take them seriously. A story in the San Francisco Chronicle accused Gordon of telling “her all-girl crew to wear shorts and low-cut blouses so they’d distract their men rivals during the race.”

“That was appalling,” Gordon says. “I expected to face discrimination as a structural engineer, but not when I wanted to play.” So she silenced her critics the best way she knew how: by proving herself as worthy as the competition. The Madeleine didn’t win the first race, but did sail past two all-male crews.

Now, at age 75, Gordon has received the highest honor of the Pacific Inter-Club Yachting Association: the Distinguished Yachtsman of the Year trophy. Yes, that’s right—yachtsman.

Andrew Hinderaker, ’01

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