NYU Alumni Changemaker of the Year
First Woman Aeronautical Engineer in the United States
Champion diver and swimmer. Expert rifle shooter. Animal advocate. Isabel Ebel was many things throughout her life. But one achievement stands out as particularly noteworthy: becoming the first American woman to earn an aeronautical engineering degree in the United States. “She was very much for busting norms,” says Isabel Ebel’s nephew, Rick Ebel. Her niece, Sue Mehringer, adds, “She was very humble about it and never spoke about being a trailblazer.” Yet, publications such as The New York Times and Evening Journal took notice, with the latter hailing Isabel Ebel and aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart as “two of the best known airwomen in the country.”
Mehringer and Rick Ebel credit Isabel Ebel’s parents for encouraging their daughter to pursue her engineering dreams during a time when there was widespread resistance to women entering the field. “When Isabel had a fight, her mother was 100 percent behind her,” says Rick Ebel. Although engineering schools in New York weren’t open to women, that didn’t stop Isabel Ebel from applying to NYU’s all-male University Heights campus. She was rejected six times before being admitted as the sole woman among a class of more than 3,000 students. Isabel Ebel’s doggedness was bolstered by the intervention of her friend Amelia Earhart, who, Mehringer says, was incensed upon learning the school refused to admit female engineers. “She had the help of other strong women to help her achieve what she wanted to achieve.”
Despite the obstacles she faced, Isabel Ebel excelled during her studies at NYU. As part of her thesis, she designed an experimental aircraft that could reach speeds of up to 250 miles per hour. In 1933, she chartered the course of Earhart’s transcontinental flight from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. After she graduated, Isabel Ebel continued to face discrimination from employers who refused to hire her due to her gender. But she persevered in the end. Her talents eventually found a home at United Airlines and Point Mugu Naval Air Station, where she retired in 1974.
In a Brooklyn Eagle article dated the year of her graduation, Isabel Ebel hinted at her job prospects, stating, “...I know I’ll be handicapped as a woman. And I can’t change the world.” However, by the time Isabel Ebel left NYU, 50 more women would be admitted to the University. “Despite her denial, she really did blaze a lot of trails,” remarks Mehringer. “If there’s one thing I learned from her, it was not to give up.” Rick Ebel agrees that their NYU Alumni Changemaker aunt was a force to be reckoned with. “She believed in herself and had a lot of self-worth,” he says. “She understood her own value, and that is rare to find.”