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Women’s History Month: One Small Step for Women…

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Aerospace industry veteran Christine Bertero Landis ’69 received an engineering degree from Loyola University in an era when the school was almost “all” male

By Jeremy Rosenberg

1969 yearbook picture of Christine Bertero Landis, the first woman to graduate from Loyola University with an engineering degree.

1969 yearbook picture of Christine Bertero Landis, the first woman to graduate from Loyola University with an engineering degree.

In the autumn of 1965, a Loyola University chemistry professor asked if a certain first-year student wanted to sit over in a corner, apart from the rest of her laboratory classmates.

The student, more proud iconoclast than contrarian rabble-rouser, said, “No.”

Though she couldn’t have known it at the time, Christine Bertero Landis ’69 was setting an early tone for her pioneering, distinguished engineering education and her subsequent professional career.

“You have to realize that at that time, this was 1965, women’s lib hadn’t even started,” Landis says. “There was no National Organization of Women, or anything like that. So this was just on my own. It was probably just because I was young and ignorant. I wasn’t trying to make any political statement. I just thought it would be interesting to take engineering.”

A Family Legacy

When Landis enrolled at Loyola, she was the only female student in engineering. And while female graduate students at Loyola date back to 1924, when Anne G. O’Keefe commenced from Loyola Law School, undergraduate female Loyolans, historically speaking, were rare.

Landis and her family were longtime Angelenos. Her mother left school after the eighth grade, but she always urged Christine, the youngest of her six children, to earn a degree. Landis attended Notre Dame Academy, an all-girls high school in West Los Angeles, but her family’s history was entwined with Loyola’s. Her father, Anthony Robert Bertero, went to St. Vincent’s College, Loyola’s precursor. Her uncle, John Bertero, was on the Loyola Board of Regents. Her brother, Jules Bertero, attended Loyola for a while after World War II, and another, Anthony Robert “Bob” Bertero, graduated in 1967.

Landis took co-ed summer school courses at Loyola as a high school student. Although Loyola was known as an all-male university, a logic professor told Landis that she could attend Loyola if she chose a major that wasn’t offered in the nearby Catholic women’s colleges. If he hadn’t suggested that, Landis’ life path might have been different. “I probably would have gone to UCLA and majored in math,” Landis says. “But I probably would have gotten bored with it and quit.”

At Loyola, Landis encountered a campus that looked and felt significantly different from today’s LMU. For one thing, Landis wore conservative skirts and blouses. She also recalls that the women’s bathrooms were located on buildings’ first floors, where secretaries and administrators — not students and professors — could best access them. “The buildings were built for men,” she says. “Now, it’s not that way.”

In 1969, 37 Loyolans graduated with engineering degrees, 36 of them men. Landis’ future husband, Dwight Landis ’69, was among them, a mechanical engineer. The pair began dating during school, and they married in 1973. Dwight Landis says his future wife stood out as the only woman in engineering but her peers didn’t treat her differently. “Nobody really at that time thought anything of it,” he says. “I think she was accepted very well as a fellow student.”

Joseph Callinan, now a retired LMU professor of engineering, taught Landis in several mechanical engineering courses and has kept in touch with her since. He remembers her as a top student in a demanding, serious discipline, and a helpful and nice person. “If I recall,” Callinan says, “Christine fit very nicely and comfortably with the predominately male engineering students.”

The Times They Were A-Changing

As Landis neared the end of her college career, life on campus was changing. Loyola University and Marymount College had begun sharing facilities in fall 1968. More and more women were appearing on campus. “It was interesting to watch the culture of the males change; all of a sudden they’re all flirting with us,” Landis says. “‘Women! Women!’ Radars going, you know?”

Nationwide, there were turbulent stirrings everywhere. The Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War protests, Chicano empowerment, the women’s movement and the youth-oriented counterculture and sexual revolution were all reshaping work and home.

Although U.S. society was changing, Landis had prepared herself for a career in a profession that remained a male province. In 1969, women received 0.76 percent (312) of all the bachelor’s degrees awarded in engineering (41,582) in the United States. (In contrast, in 2001, they received 20 percent — 11,914 of 59,258). Nevertheless, Landis’ future was bright.

Landis accepted a position at Rocketdyne, the aerospace company now known as Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne. After 37 years with the company, she is a prestigious associate technical fellow — a guru of sorts. Landis analyzes so-called “high-frequency” data, which determines how much a rocket shakes. She also developed space shuttle rocket engines and the Delta disposable launch vehicle program. For a time Landis’ duties included hiring, and she brought in a greater percentage of women engineers than was the then-industry standard. And, with the company’s blessings, she taught math classes at UCLA to first-year engineering students mostly hailing from underprivileged backgrounds. In 2003 she was honored by LMU when her name was added to the College of Science and Engineering Wall of Fame.

Although Landis did not set out to be a political trailblazer, she defied attitudes and expectations of an era. Her choices presaged the women’s rights movement and, in her own way, helped set a tone for the merger between Loyola University and Marymount College. She has done all this by following her own internal compass — one that didn’t point toward a chem lab corner.

Landis knows first-hand how hard someone has to work who doesn’t fit the industry — or scholastic — stereotype of a successful engineer.

“My main objective was to show that it’s not necessarily a man’s area; a woman can do it,” Landis says. “My only concern is, why does a woman have to be the best to be allowed to do it? And I wanted to see the doors open, so even a woman, if she was interested in engineering, could go in but didn’t have to be the top of the class to prove anything, but would be in because [she] wanted to be in it, and [was] interested in it.”

(This article first appeared in the spring 2007 issue of Vistas, which was then the magazine of Loyola Marymount University and later was superseded by LMU Magazine.)

Jeremy Rosenberg is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. He is the author of “No Man Is An Island: A Memoir of Family and Haïtian Cuisine” and “Under Spring: Voices + Art + Los Angeles.”