Elsie MacGill: Queen of the Hurricanes
World War One caused a profound shift in societal expectations for women. Traditionally, women were restricted to jobs such as servants, teachers, seamstresses, and other “feminine” work. As men were recruited into the military, women were required to bolster the workforce on the home front. This meant women were employed in factories – about 35,000 Canadian women worked in munitions factories during World War One – and other industries crucial to both the war effort and domestic economy. Women who were close family relatives of a soldier or serving in the military were granted the right to vote in 1917 under the Wartime Elections Act (some 500,000 Canadian women voted for the first time in the December 1917 election). After the war, there was significant pressure for society to “return to normal.” While women’s suffrage would be enshrined in 1918, women were pushed out of factories and other higher paying “male” jobs and legislated out of the public service roles they had filled during the war. By the end of World War Two however, the important contributions made by incredible Canadian women, such as Elsie MacGill, could no longer be ignored.
Born March 27, 1905, in Vancouver, BC, MacGill was blessed with an environment ideal for her early development. Her mother, Helen Gregory MacGill, was the first female undergraduate at Toronto’s Trinity College (now part of University of Toronto) and the first woman to earn a degree in music in the British Empire. Helen was also one of BC’s most vocal proponents for women’s suffrage, a lawyer, and in 1917 became the first female judge in BC (the third in Canada). The MacGills highly valued education, converting the top floor of their house to a classroom. Here Elsie and her sister learned French, reading and writing, math, science and even took drawing/painting lessons from the legendary Emily Carr. As a result of all this, Elsie MacGill developed a strong passion for science and decided to pursue engineering – unheard of for women at the time.
Elsie initially enrolled at the University of British Columbia but was asked to leave after only a single term by the Dean of the Applied Sciences faculty because he did not want women in engineering studies. Undeterred, she transferred to the University of Toronto. Graduating in 1927, Elsie MacGill was the first women in Canada to complete an electrical engineering degree. Following graduation, she moved to the US after taking a job with the Austin Automobile Company in Michigan. Austin began to manufacture airplanes shortly after hiring her and that sparked her fascination with aeronautical engineering. She would graduate from the University of Michigan in 1929 with a master’s degree in the field. That same year, Elsie MacGill contracted polio and is told she will never walk again.
MacGill overcame the odds and, with the aid of two metals canes, regained the ability to walk. In 1932, she began her doctoral studies at MIT, but a job offer from Fairchild Aircraft enticed her to leave the program and return to Canada. At Fairchild, Elsie MacGill specialized in stress analysis and developed a reputation for bravery for her insistence on going up in the test flights of all the planes she designed. In 1938 she became the first female member of the Engineering Institute of Canada in 1938 and she is hired as the chief aeronautical engineer at Can Car to oversee its transition from railcar to aircraft manufacturing. Here Elsie would engineer the Maple Leaf II trainer, making it the first aircraft designed and built by a woman.
After the War broke out in Europe, Can Car began to manufacture Hawker Hurricane fighters and Elsie MacGill pioneers a new, modular construction system where parts are machined separately before the plane is assembled in the final steps. This approach has two massive benefits. First, it reduces production time significantly, allowing the first order of 40 Hurricanes to arrive in-time for the Battle of Britan. Second, this ensures that part xyz on one plane is identical to part xyz on a different plane. This allows mechanics to swap parts between planes and thereby increases the number of flyable aircraft. Of the 14,000 Hurricanes produced during the War, a staggering 1,500 are built at the Can Car factory alone. MacGill also designed and built a winterized version of the Hurricane – the first winterized high-speed attack aircraft – which were invaluable to the Russian war effort in the frigid conditions of the Eastern Front. The sheer scale of her success earned her the title “Queen of the Hurricanes,” popularized in a 1942 issue of True Comics, an American publication.
Following the war, MacGill moved to Toronto and started her own engineering consulting firm. She also served as the Canadian representative to the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization. Outside of engineering, MacGill followed in her mother’s footsteps as a prominent Canadian feminist and supporter of women’s equality. She served as the provincial president for the Canadian Federation of Business and Professional Women’s club from 1956-1958, and as its national president from 1962-1964. From 1967-1970 MacGill served on the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada and spent the rest of her life working to see as many of the report’s 167 recommendations implemented as possible. Her work as both an engineer and feminist would see MacGill awarded the Order of Canada in 1971.
Elsie MacGill passed in 1980, at the age of 75. She is remembered as a trailblazer, engineer, and a fierce feminist whose achievements, contributions, and willingness to preserve were instrumental in both defeating Nazi Germany and advancing women’s equality through the latter half of the 20th century.
Additional Information & Further Reading:
Heritage Minute: Elsie MacGill
Women in the Labour Force: A history and exploration of Women in the Labour Force.
Women’s Suffrage in Canada: An in-depth look at Women’s Suffrage and the many Women who dedicated themselves to the movement.
Main photo: A modern stylization of the famous “Queen of the Hurricane” comic (Credit: Hackaday)
CBC. 2017. “Canadian Elsie MacGill was the first female aeronautical engineer in the world.” Canada: The Story of Us. Accessed July 2023. https://www.cbc.ca/2017/canadathestoryofus/canadian-elsie-macgill-was-the-first-female-aeronautical-engineer-in-the-world-1.4099967.
McAleer, Brendan. 2020. “The Queen of the Hurricanes drove a Model A Roadster.” Hagerty. Accessed August 2023. https://www.hagerty.com/media/people/the-ford-roadster-and-the-queen-of-the-hurricanes/.
Sissons, Crystal. 2007. “Elsie MacGill.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Accessed July 2023. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/elizabeth-muriel-gregory-macgill.
Thunder Bay. n.d. “Elizabeth “Elsie” Muriel Gregory MacGill.” Historical Web Exhibits. Accessed July 2023. https://www.thunderbay.ca/en/city-hall/elsie-macgill.aspx.