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The past century has harbored a host of firsts for women. In sports, science, and everything in between, women have earned their titles right alongside men. Some of these powerful leaders, like Kitty O’Brien Joyner, get to claim more than one first.
Born in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1916, Joyner’s life began four years before a hallmark of female firsts—the right to vote. By the time she graduated from Sweet Briar College in 1937, Joyner was poised to join the growing ranks of women who defined themselves as the first of their kind. The ’30’s were a renaissance for these women: first woman elected to the U.S. Senate (Hattie Caraway, 1932); first female Secretary of Labor (Francis Perkins, 1933); first woman director of a major company (Lettie Pate Whitehead for Coca-Cola, 1934).
Joyner’s first “first” hinged on this growing voice of women. The talented and headstrong mathematician sought admittance to the University of Virginia’s all-male engineering program. She sued the college for admittance and won, and in 1939 she became the first female graduate of the program. In her time at the college, Joyner stood out amongst her male peers, even earning the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award for excellence of character and service to humanity.
It was in that same year, 1939, that Joyner achieved her second groundbreaking first. In September she was hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA)—the precursor to NASA—as the organization’s first female engineer.
She entered the organization with impeccable timing. With a second world war on the horizon, the NACA had expanded its programs in the ’30’s, developing and testing new aircraft to use in combat. As war loomed and more and more women stepped into traditionally masculine roles, Joyner led the charge in aeronautics.
Joyner worked primarily with wind tunnels, especially supersonic wind tunnels, which proved imperative to the organization’s latest cause. Wind tunnels are crucial in testing the effectiveness of new aircraft before putting them in the sky. Joyner’s work in wind tunnels helped pave the way for new military and commercial aircraft and eventually even space shuttles.
Joyner remained with the NACA (and then NASA) for decades, contributing to the explosive growth of the aeronautics industry. Joyner and her husband Upshur T. Joyner, a physicist for NASA, helped reshape the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory before they both retired in 1971 with a combined seventy years’ experience with the organization.
One might expect a female engineer for NASA to have her hands full, but Joyner supported a robust social life outside of work. The mother of two was active in both the Daughters of the American Revolution and, as a true Southerner, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, for which she won the Winnie Davis Award.
Regardless of her gender, Joyner was an accomplished and talented engineer. She was a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and served as an Honorary Life Member of the Engineers Club of the Virginia Peninsula. As the list of female firsts continues to grow, it’s those early groundbreakers like Kitty O’Brien Joyner we have to thank.