In "I'm Gonna Be an Engineer," Peggy and Pete Seeger Talk Women in Science

January 26, 2015 | 1:42 pm
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

Tuesday is the anniversary of the death of legendary folk singer and rabble-rouser Pete Seeger, and over the weekend I pulled out my banjo to go over some of the lesser-known songs he once sang. Pete Seeger’s half sister Peggy is a folk musician in her own right, and one of her gems looks at what discourages women from becoming scientists and engineers. Her catchy “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer” tackles societal expectations, overt discrimination, pay disparity, and more. Here’s Peggy’s version from the 1970 studio album with a quirky animation:

And here’s Pete singing the song in the 1970s:

The lyrics speak for themselves:

I’M GONNA BE AN ENGINEER

When I was a little girl I wished I was a boy

I tagged along behind the gang and wore my corduroys.

Everybody said I only did it to annoy

But I was gonna be an engineer.

Mamma said, “Why can’t you be a lady?

Your duty is to make me the mother of a pearl

Wait until you’re older, dear

And maybe you’ll be glad that you’re a girl.

Dainty as a Dresden statue, gentle as a Jersey cow,

Smooth as silk, gives cream and milk

Learn to coo, learn to moo

That’s what you do to be a lady, now.

When I went to school I learned to write and how to read

History, geography and home economy

And typing is a skill that every girl is sure to need

To while away the extra time until the time to breed

And then they had the nerve to ask, what would I like to be?

I says, “I’m gonna be an engineer!”

“No, you only need to learn to be a lady

The duty isn’t yours, for to try to run the world

An engineer could never have a baby

Remember, dear, that you’re a girl”

She’s smart — for a woman.

I wonder how she got that way?

You get no choice, you get no voice

Just stay mum, pretend you’re dumb.

That’s how you come to be a lady, today.

Well, I started as a typist but I studied on the sly

Working out the day and night so I could qualify

And every time the boss came in, he pinched me on the thigh

Said, “I’ve never had an engineer!”

“You owe it to the job to be a lady

The duty of the staff is to give the boss a whirl

The wages that you get are crummy, maybe

But it’s all you get, ’cause you’re a girl”

Then Jimmy came along and we set up a conjugation

We were busy every night with loving recreation

I spent my days at work so he could get an education

And now he’s an engineer!

He said: “I know you’ll always be a lady

The duty of my darling is to love me all her life

Could an engineer look after or obey me?

Remember, dear, that you’re my wife!”

As soon a Jimmy got a job, I studied hard again

Then busy at me turret-lathe a year or two, and then

The morning that the twins were born, Jimmy says to them

“Your mother was an engineer!”

“You owe it to the kids to be a lady

Dainty as a dish-rag, faithful as a chow

Stay at home, you got to mind the baby

Remember you’re a mother now!”

Every time I turn around there’s something else to do

Cook a meal or mend a sock or sweep a floor or two

Listening to Jimmy Young – it makes me want to spew

I was gonna be an engineer.

I only wish that I could be a lady

I’d do the lovely things that a lady’s s’posed to do

I wouldn’t even mind if only they would pay me

Then I could be a person too.

What price for a woman?

You can buy her for a ring of gold,

To love and obey, without any pay,

You get a cook and a nurse for better or worse

You don’t need a purse when a lady is sold.

Oh, but now the times are harder and me Jimmy’s got the sack;

I went down to Vicker’s, they were glad to have me back.

But I’m a third-class citizen, my wages tell me that

But I’m a first-class engineer!

The boss he says “We pay you as a lady,

You only got the job because I can’t afford a man,

With you I keep the profits high as may be,

You’re just a cheaper pair of hands.”

You got one fault, you’re a woman;

You’re not worth the equal pay.

A bitch or a tart, you’re nothing but heart,

Shallow and vain, you’ve got no brain,

Well, I listened to my mother and I joined a typing pool

Listened to my lover and I put him through his school

If I listen to the boss, I’m just a bloody fool

And an underpaid engineer

I been a sucker ever since I was a baby

As a daughter, as a mother, as a lover, as a dear

But I’ll fight them as a woman, not a lady

I’ll fight them as an engineer!

Sexism and sexual harassment is sometimes more subtle these days. And sometimes it’s not. Unfortunately, stories of the marginalization of women scientists and engineers are far too numerous to recount. Here’s a few: sexual  harassment of female science bloggers, attacks on IFLS founder Elise Andrew, and the sexist t-shirt debacle. Again and again and again.

This has consequences; while women now earn Ph.D.s in many science and engineering fields at the same rate as men, they possess a paltry 21 percent of full professorships in science and an abominable 5 percent of full professorships in engineering. Five percent. Another study released just last week found that came out last week that showed that woman are underrepresented in fields where innate ability is valued over experience.

We now have great programs and toys and camps to encourage women to enter and thrive in scientific careers. But it’s not yet enough. So let’s keep singing this song and telling these stories until we come closer to something that resembles true equality.