New engineering fund honours trail-blazing women at Dalhousie
By: Emma Sutro
A former Faculty of Engineering staff member keeps history alive by establishing a fund to empower female engineers.
In 2005, Leigh Beauchamp Day received a call that would impact her life. She was working as the communications manager in Dalhousie’s Faculty of Engineering when Status of Women Canada (now known as Women and Gender Equality Canada) contacted her looking for a photograph of May Best Sexton, who they had recently designated as a “foremother of Nova Scotia.”
“In looking for the picture and researching more about May, I realized that here was this amazing person who had, essentially, been lost to history, yet she had campaigned for technical training, equal pay, and the right to vote for women,” says Beauchamp Day.
Social activist, scientist, and war worker
Edna May Williston Best was born in Shediac, New Brunswick, in 1880. After the death of her parents, she moved to live with relatives in Boston and went on to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1902 with a degree in chemistry. Upon graduation, she worked in a laboratory for the General Electric Company, where she met her future husband, Frederic Sexton, who would go on to be the founding principal of the Nova Scotia Technical College (now Dalhousie’s Faculty of Engineering).
While living in Halifax in the early 20th century, Best Sexton campaigned across the province to increase representation and opportunities for women in the workforce, as well as in local government and elected positions on regional school boards.
With the outbreak of WWI and with the devastation caused by the Halifax Explosion, Best Sexton played a critical role in several community organizations, including the Red Cross, where she raised over a million dollars, plus supplies for soldiers and those who had been afflicted by the explosion. Best Sexton died in 1923, at the age of 43. And her legacy faded over time.
Creating a lasting legacy at Dal
While searching for the picture and subsequently learning more about Best Sexton’s life, Beauchamp Day felt inspired to write about her in the Faculty of Engineering’s magazine. After reading that article, Canadian author Merna Forster reached out to Beauchamp Day to get more information about Best Sexton, with the goal of featuring her in Forster’s upcoming book, 100 More Canadian Heroines. It was through Forster and Beauchamp Day’s conversations that the idea emerged to establish what would go on to become the May Best Sexton Memorial Fund for Women in Engineering at Dalhousie.
“I thought it was wonderful that articles were finally telling May’s story, but I wanted to do something more permanent,” says Beauchamp Day. “I reached out to the Dean [Dr. Joshua Leon] and to some of the students I had known and worked with in engineering. These were women I really admired, as along with their engineering workload, they were deeply involved in the community. I wanted the proceeds to support people like these inspiring women.”
After making a personal contribution to establish the May Best Sexton Fund for Women in Engineering, Beauchamp Day embarked on a decade-long fundraising mission. Alumni, friends, and partners like Engineers Nova Scotia and the Faculty of Engineering all contributed, and, much to Beauchamp Day’s delight, the fund to reach $10,000 in 2021.
Inspiring the next generation of female engineers
The inaugural May Best Sexton Fund recipient was the Faculty of Engineering’s Women in Engineering Society (WiE). WiE aims to create gender parity within the profession by providing professional development opportunities to current students, and by promoting engineering as a career to local high school students. Receiving support from the May Best Sexton Memorial Fund will allow WiE to increase their outreach.
“This year, WiE’s primary goal is to introduce more outreach events targeted toward both grade-school students and high school students,” says Teo Milos, fourth-year Electrical Engineering student and current WiE President. “We are most excited for our events partnered with Dal’s MakerSpace, where students will create a project using the design processes and the various tools in the makerspace. We hope to host multiple maker nights this year.”
Beauchamp Day, who has also made a legacy commitment to the fund, says the decision to award funding to WiE is “better than I could have ever imagined,” and notes that the Best Sexton’s spirit and legacy can be found in the outreach work being done by WiE.
“I am excited that there is a lot of momentum for the fund now, and I hope that seeing the wonderful work that the WiE Society are able to do with this funding will inspire others to give,” she says. “It was a long road to get here, but this is just the start.”