Kate Gleason was the first female member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Even though she did not have any thorough engineering training, she made a name for herself as one of the few accomplished women engineers of her era. She was also a successful businesswoman who became a role model for many other aspiring career women in the 19th century America. Intelligent and curious from a young age, she was first exposed to the concepts of engineering at the age of 12 when she began helping out her father in his machine tool company, later named Gleason Works. She decided to get formally trained in this field and became the first female to be admitted to study engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She then continued her studies at the Mechanics Institute, later renamed Rochester Institute of Technology. Over the years, she became increasingly involved in the family business and played a pivotal role in its considerable expansion and growth. She never let her gender hinder her professional aspirations and toured Europe extensively, looking to expand the company’s business. In 1918 she was appointed the president of First National Bank of East Rochester, the first woman to serve as president of a national bank. In addition to her successful career, she was also well known for her charitable activities.
Childhood & Early Life
Catherine Anselm "Kate" Gleason was born on November 25, 1865, in Rochester, New York, to William and Ellen McDermott Gleason. Her father was the owner of a machine tool company, later named Gleason Works.
When she was 11, her stepbrother Tom who helped their father at the company, died of typhoid fever. This caused considerable problems to her father as he lost a valuable helper. She started helping out her father when she was 12 and realized that she had the aptitude for engineering work. By the time she was 14, she had become the company book-keeper.
In 1884, she became the first woman to be admitted to study engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. But, she was unable to complete her studies at Cornell due to her obligations towards the family business. She then continued her studies at the Mechanics Institute, later renamed Rochester Institute of Technology.
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Kate Gleason had become the Secretary-Treasurer of the family business by 1890. Working alongside her father, she designed and perfected a machine that could produce bevelled gears quickly and cheaply.
In 1893 she strived for international expansion and travelled to Europe on a business tour. Over a two month voyage she was able to secure orders from England, Scotland, France, and Germany. This trip is counted amongst the first attempts by an American manufacturer to globalize their business.
The business continued to flourish mainly due to Kate’s hard work and steely determination and became the leading U.S. producer of gear cutting machinery prior to World War I.
Kate resigned from Gleason Works in 1913 due to some family conflicts. Then she took up appointment as Receiver in Bankruptcy for the Ingle Machine Company in East Rochester.
In another first for an American woman, she was made the President of the First National Bank of East Rochester, in 1918. She had always been interested in humanitarian causes and this position helped her in furthering her efforts in this direction.
She started eight companies, including a construction company that sold low-cost concrete box houses in East Rochester. This work led to her becoming the first female member of the American Concrete Institute.
During her later years she travelled extensively and purchased real estate in France, where she helped a town recover from the destruction and devastation of World War I.
The epitome of the modern career woman in late 19th and early 20th century America, Kate Gleason was the first woman to become a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the American Concrete Institute. She was also the first woman to serve as president of a national bank.
Kate Gleason left much of her $1.4 million estate to charitable and educational causes. Her beneficiaries include libraries, parks, and the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). The Kate Gleason College of Engineering at RIT is named in her honor.
Awards & Achievements
In 1914 Kate Gleason was elected to full membership in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers as its first woman member.
Personal Life & Legacy
She viewed marriage as a hindrance to her professional life and thus never married. She died of pneumonia on January 9, 1933, at the age of 67.
In 2011, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers' Foundation established the Kate Gleason Award in her honor.