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Alabama Power’s first female engineer blazed a trail nearly a century ago

Women at Alabama Power since its earliest days have been making history as pioneers in their field. Among those early trailblazers was Maria Rogan Whitson, who paved the way nearly a century ago as Alabama Power’s first female electrical engineer. Female engineers now work in many areas of the company, 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 his 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 pioneer during her college days and beyond.

Maria Whitson’s graduate photo from Randolph Macon Women’s College. (contributed)

Slotkin is expected to release the book this fall, which tells the story of the women who broke into what was more commonly a “man’s world” by pursuing an education in technology at the university during the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. It has been written solely for use by Auburn’s 100+ Women Strong alumni organization.

Slotkin provided his impressions of Whitson and her determination to overcome obstacles in a recent interview with Alabama NewsCenter. He said according to the fall 1926 issue of the university’s student magazine, the Auburn Engineer, Whitson had almost singlehandedly drawn the diagrams and developed the estimates for a long transmission line in southern Alabama while at the company and later worked in its department dealing with the domestic use of electricity. The Auburn Engineer pointed to Whitson’s achievements as a challenge to the male students, saying, “so much success in the technical field should be a lash to drive men students to study more that they might equal her record.”

Whitson shared her Alabama Power experiences during a return visit to Auburn’s 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?’” said Slotkin, an Auburn University historian who worked in the computer services industry for 32 years before his retirement in 2002.

During the mid-1920s, Whitson gave presentations at schools and civic clubs about electricity and safety, according to Powergrams, Alabama Power’s employee magazine.

Sources say she worked at Alabama Power until 1939 when she began teaching school, said Slotkin.

Maria Whitson’s photo and caption from the Glomerata, Auburn’s yearbook. (contributed)

Whitson graduated from Randolph Macon Women’s College in 1920 with a physics degree. In 1923, she became the first woman to receive an engineering degree at Auburn University, then known as Alabama Polytechnic Institute. Whitson continued her education at Auburn, earning her Electrical Engineer degree (a professional designation no longer offered) in 1929.

When Whitson enrolled at Auburn in 1921, a larger number of women were beginning to attend the university, Slotkin said.

In an October 1921 column of the Orange and Blue, Auburn’s student newspaper now called The Plainsman, Whitson said her first impression of the university was “pep, noise and more boys than I had ever before seen in my life.”

Whitson was heavily involved in campus life. She was co-ed 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 Phi Kappa Phi national honorary scholastic society. Whitson wrote a poem about electrical engineering that was published in the Glomerata, the Auburn University yearbook.

“Clearly, Maria Whitson was very interested in being involved in lots of different things, very intelligent and way before her time,” Slotkin said. “After her, the next woman to get an electrical engineering degree was in 1944, 21 years later. And today, only about 20% of Auburn’s engineering students are women.”

Whitson continued to break ground throughout her lifetime, as seen in her obituary published in the June 28, 1974, issue of the Montgomery Advertiser and the book, “Auburn, A Pictorial History of the Loveliest Village” by Mickey Logue and Jack Simms.

Maria Whitson

Maria Whitson’s baby photo was used as part of a Powergrams contest in 1927. (Powergrams file)

Whitson taught auto mechanics, electronics, sheet-metal work and embalming at Talladega Vocational School after moving on from Alabama Power, and was on the Talladega Board of Education from 1938 to 1958.

In 1943, Whitson joined the war effort when she became assistant state 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 teaching in Talladega until her retirement in 1964.

Whitson’s obituary describes her as a leader in the community. She served one term on the Alabama Republican Executive Committee and was vice chairman of the county committee.

Whitson continued her pioneering ways long after retirement, becoming Talladega’s first councilwoman in 1971. She was then elected president of the city council.

Slotkin said it’s no surprise that Alabama Power was anxious to hire Whitson.

“Just like today, big companies, like Alabama Power, wanted to be progressive and at the forefront,” he said. “As a woman electrical engineer, she was 20 years ahead of her time in Alabama. You can imagine if the company wanted to promote the use of electricity, having a woman with brains to talk about it and explain how it worked to men would have been very progressive.”

Whitson set an example for Yvonne Essix and many other Alabama Power women engineers who have followed in her footsteps. As of Feb. 28, more than 130 women at the company work in engineering roles or have engineering degrees.

“Like Maria Whitson, I’ve allowed my passion for serving others and learning new things drive my decision to remain in the engineering field,” said Essix, Power Delivery construction and contract services general manager. “I hope that other women, despite the challenges, will not be deterred from following their dreams and fulfilling their destinies.”