There is a tired cliche that "behind every great man is a great woman". This has always seemed to me to be a way to shoehorn women into the mostly-male narrative of history as we learn it. The wives of presidents and inventors are rarely given their own space in history, and are usually seen as appendages of the men they married. When researching prominent women in history, it is very likely that you will at first find more information about their husbands.
The same is not true for Emily Warren Roebling.
I was first drawn to her when researching news coverage of her husband's illness, contracted during the building of the caissons for the Brooklyn Bridge. As I searched the name Washington Roebling in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle online archive, I was shocked to find that most of the articles on the first page were about his wife, and not even about her in direct relation to him. The articles all concern her involvement with charities, political affairs and the Daughters of the American Revolution.
By all accounts, Mrs. Roebling was a force to be reckoned with. She was an educated young woman when she met and married Washington Roebling, and the couple were only one year into their marriage when Washington took his father's place as Chief Engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1869. Three years later, he was incapacitated by the Bends (then known as Caisson Disease) while working on the bridge foundations. With Washington Roebling unable to oversee the construction in person, the Roebling family might have had to dissociate itself from the Bridge, had it not been for Emily, who was all of 29 years old.
It is immediately clear that Mrs. Roebling was not simply her husband's secretary--relaying notes with no input of her own. Her own education and interest in engineering (their honeymoon involved studying caisson technology in Europe) meant that she was far more involved in the project than people at the time might have expected. This is the moment when any article about the Bridge or Washington Roebling begins to mention his wife. He was bedridden and inactive, while she became the face of the project and the family, even giving a statement to the American Civil Society of Engineers defending her husband's ability to remain in the role of Chief Engineer. To give credit where it is due, Mr. Roebling recognized his wife's contributions: "At first I thought I would succumb but I had a strong tower to lean on, my wife--a woman of infinite tact and wisest council (sic)." (Zink, 2011, p.vi)
While all of this is interesting (and well-documented) there is a lot more to Mrs. Roebling than the work she did with and for her husband. I mentioned her involvement in politics and charitable work above; but without context one might think that she was simply fulfilling the role of a high society woman who attended lunch meetings and organized charity dinners. This is simply not the case. She was heavily involved in various civic institutions, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, of which she was vice president, but not president, as evidenced by this snippet from the Sunday, February 17, 1901 Daily Eagle.
The Chiropean Society, the Relief Society, the Society for the Aid of Friendless Women and Children and the State Federation of Women's Clubs also commanded her attention. In addition, she was well-travelled, so much so that she was present at the Coronation of Tsar Nicholas II, as reported on Friday, April 30, 1897 by the Eagle. She is described as having a "Keen discriminating and investigating turn of mind", with nary a mention of her appearance or dress.
Mrs. Roebling also never ceased to further her education, graduating from the NYU law program on March 31, 1899, at the age of 56. This is a stunning accomplishment for any 56- year old, much less for a woman in the Victorian era.
Mrs. Roebling's accomplishments did not go unnoticed. There is a handsome placard commemorating her on the Brooklyn Bridge, in recognition of all her efforts. At the dedication ceremony for the bridge, Mr. Abram S. Hewitt stated, "It is thus an everlasting monument to the self-sacrificing devotion of woman, and of her capacity for that higher education from which she had been too long debarred. The name of Mrs. Emily Warren Roebling will thus be inseparably associated with all that is admirable in human nature, and with all that is wonderful in the constructive world of art." (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 25, 1883)
Emily Warren Roebling embodied a powerful intellectual spirit and set an inspiring example. As a teacher, I feel that she is the kind of person my students should learn about-- someone who worked hard and continued to learn throughout her lifetime, achieving great recognition for her intelligence and abilities.