In today’s America, campaigns to inspire young women into the STEM fields—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—line hallways of schools and colleges. Back in Edith Early’s day, however, women were rarely welcome in the scientific fields. Edith broke boundaries as a pioneer in STEM without realizing it. She traded fancy skirts for jeans and cooking sit-down dinners for experimenting with chemicals long before it was acceptable to do so. She doesn’t see herself as a pioneer, just as a woman who lived a life she loved—which makes her accomplishments all the more admirable.
Edith grew up with a father who defied gender barriers. “My dad never really knew his father, who was killed when my dad was two years old,” Edith explains. “He was literally raised by his mother and an older sister. I don’t know whether that influenced his attitude, but as a father of three girls, he never told us there was something we couldn’t do because we were girls.” Edith continues, “He had a workshop in the basement, and if we wanted to use any of his tools, we were allowed to go down there, as long as we put them back where they belonged. In fact, one Christmas, all I wanted was a football, and I went down Christmas morning and there it was, and nobody ever said, ‘Why do you want that?’”
Edith’s great-grandfather, the founding president of Clemson College, instilled a love of education in his family members. “I come from a family where the women were all educated —which was ahead of its time,” Edith admits, “We were just lucky.” After graduating third in her class from high school, Edith attended Randolph Macon Women’s College. During her sophomore year, she had to make a decision about her major, and found herself torn between Latin and Chemistry. Practically, she decided on Chemistry because she thought it would offer her more chances to make a good living.
In 1944, a recruiter from Armstrong World Industries came to Randolph Macon and, impressed with her abilities, offered Edith a summer job working in the paint section of the Armstrong laboratory. “I went in the summer of 1944,” Edith explains, “and I really loved Lancaster. Lancaster is just one of those ideal places to live, so I thought, ‘That’s where I want to go.’” When her summer job was over, Edith was offered a full-time job working in the floor division of Armstrong. “It was at the time that plastic flooring was just coming on the market, and they were still in the process of being able to produce it in the factory,” Edith says. “So, that’s what I did. I worked on the plastic, developing the formula and taking it up in the factory to run on the big presses.”
“It was an interesting thing to be the only woman in the factory with all these guys around,” Edith continues. “The boss of the group that was working in the factory told one of the guys that knew me, ‘Tell Edith to go down to the army/navy store and get some jeans and a work shirt, and not to wear those fancy skirts and sweaters to work at the factory.’ And I thought that was a fairly decent thing to do, so that’s what I did,” she laughs.
Edith not only held her own with her male coworkers, but helped develop groundbreaking new ways to mass-produce plastic flooring tiles. Her chemistry career came to an end when she met her husband while singing with her church choir. The pair married and had three children, and Edith left Armstrong to be a full-time mother. “It was one of those love at first sight things,” she chuckles. “We became engaged about two weeks after we met!” The pair were married for 67 years before her husband’s death. Always a leader, however, Edith traveled Europe, served on the board of trustees for her church, and served as both a treasurer and auditor for the League of Women Voters. Now a resident of Homestead Village, she loves to record people’s life stories and write letters: “I have a very large and varied family, and I stay in touch with them. I’m the matriarch. I’m the oldest member… the oldest living member of my mother’s family,” she adds.
When asked if she has any advice for young women interested in science or technology, Edith replies, “Follow what you’re really interested in… and I guess the main thing is when you start something new like that, not to be afraid to do it. Because when you try anything new, it doesn’t work right away, and you have to be forgiving of yourself if it doesn’t work. You have to overcome your fear.”