Celebrating the First Native American Female Engineer
With March being Women’s History Month, it’s a good time to remember an important Cherokee woman: Mary Golda Ross.
Born on August 9, 1908 in Oklahoma, Ross was the first female and the only Native American engineer at Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in Burbank, California during the Space Race.
Early in her education, she was interested in math and science and was often the only girl in the class.
“Math was more fun than anything else. It was always a game to me,” Ross explained in Laurel M. Sheppard’s profile “Aerospace Pioneer Returns to her Native American Roots.” “I was the only female in my class. I sat on one side of the room and the guys on the other side of the room. I guess they didn’t want to associate with me. But I could hold my own with them and sometimes did better.”
She graduated from Northeastern State Teacher’s College—now Northeastern State University—in Tahlequah, Oklahoma in 1928. She then taught math and science in public schools.
Her journey then took her to Washington, D.C. where she worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which then sent her to Santa Fe, New Mexico to serve as an advisor at a Native American school, which later became the Institute of American Indian Arts.
In 1938, she earned her master’s degree from the Colorado State Teachers College in Greeley. When World War II broke out her father encouraged her to look for work in California. That’s how she ended up at Lockheed as one of its first 40 employees.
Her work centered on the performance of ballistic missiles and other defense systems, reports Amsterdam News.
“Often at night, there were four of us working until 11 p.m.,” Ross recalled in a 1994 San Jose Mercury News article about her work there. “I was the pencil pusher, doing a lot of research. My state-of-the-art tools were a slide rule and a Frieden computer.”
Her retirement from Lockheed in 1973 didn’t slow her down. She became an advocate for education in math and engineering, especially for women and Native Americans. She became involved with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes.
“To function efficiently, you need math,” she said. “The world is so technical; if you plan to work in it, a math background will let you go farther and faster.”
In 1992, she was named to the Silicon Valley Engineering Council’s Hall of Fame. In 2004, at age 96, she was in D.C. for the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
“The accomplishments of Mary Golda Ross epitomize the Cherokee spirit,” said Chad Smith, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, in a press release when Ross walked on in 2008. “This exceptional woman was and will continue to be a great example to each of us. Her ambition and successes exemplify the importance of education and are evidence of the doors that can be opened through higher learning.”
“She was a strong-willed, independent woman who was ahead of her time," said her Oneida friend Norbert Hill in 2008, “and a proud woman who never forgot where she was from.”