The women of Alabama Power since its inception have made history as pioneers in their field. Among those pioneers was Maria Rogan Whitson, who blazed the trail nearly a century ago as Alabama Power’s first female electrical engineer. Women engineers now work in many areas of business, from power delivery and generation to environmental affairs and marketing.
Whitson was hired at Alabama Power in 1923. The Talladega native (1900-1974) turned down offers from General Electric and Westinghouse in favor of Alabama Power.
Little is known about Whitson’s career at Alabama Power. But in her soon-to-be-released book, “Across Three Centuries: The History of Women, and Women in Engineering, at Auburn University,” Art Slotkin reveals that Whitson was a trailblazer during college and beyond.
Slotkin is slated to publish the book this fall, which tells the story of the women who broke into what was more commonly a “man’s world” by pursuing a college tech education during the 19and20and and 21st centuries. It was written solely for use by the 100+ Women Strong alumni organization of Auburn.
Slotkin provided his thoughts on Whitson and his determination to overcome obstacles in a recent interview with Alabama NewsCenter. He said that, according to the fall 1926 issue of the university’s student magazine, the Auburn engineer, Whitson almost single-handedly drew the schematics and developed the estimates for a long transmission line in southern Utah. Alabama while working in the company and later working in its department dealing with the domestic use of electricity. The Auburn engineer pointed to Whitson’s accomplishments as a challenge for male students, saying: “So much success in the technical field should be a boost to inspire male students to study more so that they can equal his record.
Whitson shared his Alabama Power experiences during a return visit to the Auburn campus to give a short presentation to senior electrical engineering students.
“They were amazed. They thought, “How can a woman be so smart and be an engineer?”
In the mid-1920s, Whitson gave presentations to schools and civic clubs on electricity and safety, according to Powergrams, Alabama Power’s employee magazine.
Sources say she worked at Alabama Power until 1939 when she began teaching, Slotkin said.
Whitson graduated from Randolph Macon Women’s College in 1920 with a degree in physics. In 1923, she became the first woman to receive an engineering degree from Auburn University, then known as Alabama Polytechnic Institute. Whitson continued his education at Auburn, earning his degree in electrical engineering (a professional title no longer offered) in 1929.
When Whitson enrolled at Auburn in 1921, more women were beginning to attend college, Slotkin said.
In an October 1921 column in the Orange and Blue, Auburn’s student newspaper now called The Plainsman, Whitson said his first impression of college was “bush, noise, and more boys than I knew.” I had never seen them before in my life”.
Whitson was heavily involved in campus life. She was co-editor of The Plainsman and the first president of the Women’s Student Government Association, was voted most studious by her senior class, and was elected to the National Honorary School Society Phi Kappa Phi. Whitson wrote a poem about electrical engineering that was published in Glomerata, Auburn University’s yearbook.
“Obviously Maria Whitson was very interested in getting involved in a lot of different things, very smart and way ahead of her time,” Slotkin said. “After her, the next woman to graduate in electrical engineering was in 1944, 21 years later. And today, only about 20 percent of engineering students at Auburn are women.
Whitson continued to innovate throughout his life, as evidenced by his obituary published in the June 28, 1974, issue of the Montgomery Advertiser and the book “Auburn, A Pictorial History of the Lovelyliest Village” by Mickey Logue and Jack Simms.
Whitson taught auto mechanics, electronics, sheet metal work, and embalming at Talladega Vocational School after leaving Alabama Power, and served on the Talladega Board of Education from 1938 to 1958.
In 1943, Whitson joined the war effort when she became the state’s assistant supervisor of war production training, teaching women riveting, welding, and mechanics. She joined the Navy in 1944, where she was an officer in the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in Washington.
After the war, Whitson returned to teach at Talladega until her retirement in 1964.
Whitson’s obituary describes her as a leader in the community. She served one term on the Republican Executive Committee of Alabama and served as Vice Chairman of the County Committee.
Whitson continued in her pioneering ways long after her retirement, becoming Talladega’s first councilwoman in 1971. She was later elected president of the city council.
Slotkin said it’s no surprise Alabama Power is eager to hire Whitson.
“Just like today, big corporations, like Alabama Power, wanted to be progressive and forward-thinking,” he said. “As a female electrical engineer, she was 20 years ahead of her time in Alabama. You can imagine that if the company wanted to promote the use of electricity, having a smart woman to talk about it and explain to men how it worked would have been very progressive.
Whitson set an example for Yvonne Essix and many other female engineers at Alabama Power who followed in her footsteps. As of February 28, more than 130 women in the company held engineering positions or held engineering degrees.
“Like Maria Whitson, I allowed my passion for serving others and learning new things to drive my decision to stay in the engineering field,” said Essix, general manager of construction and services. Power Delivery contractors. “I hope other women, despite the challenges, will not be deterred from pursuing their dreams and fulfilling their destiny.”