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Pioneering Women

Inaugural SWE meeting attendees at Green Camp. Society of Women Engineers/Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

On May 27, 1950, a group of women engineers and engineering students traveled from New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, D.C., to Ringwood, New Jersey. They were off to the first national meeting of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), hosted at Cooper Union’s Green Camp retreat. More than 60 members and 30 guests attended the two-day meeting, which is considered the founding event for the now 35,000-member professional society. Since this occasion, SWE has empowered women to succeed and advance in engineering fields across the country. The Cooper Union has retained strong ties to SWE to this day.

According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, approximately 18 percent of students and 14 percent of professionals in all engineering fields are female. For this minority in the classroom and workforce, an organization such as SWE provides resources and benefits unique for women in various stages of their education and careers. While there is still room for closing the present-day gender gap, improvement since the era of SWE’s founding has been made. A survey conducted in 1919 showed there were only 139 known women engineering or architecture students in U.S. history. Women did fill engineering jobs during the labor shortage of World War II, but this short-term trend did not change the industry, much less the public’s perception that this was a masculine profession.

In the late 1940s, small groups of trailblazing women met on college campuses and in Northeastern cities, laying the groundwork for a larger organization to support females in the engineering and architecture professions, who at the time made up less than one percent of those fields. “These different groups were vaguely aware of each other, but operated completely independently of each other,” says Troy Eller English, the archivist of the SWE collection, housed at Wayne State University.

Here in New York City, women gathered from City College, Pratt, and Cooper Union, among others. One participant was Mary Blade, professor of mechanical engineering at Cooper. Blade was the only female full-time faculty member in the engineering school at the time of her appointment in 1946; she remained on the faculty until 1978.

In 1949, the separately operating districts decided to unify as a national organization for both students and working engineers. “Each of us had a voice on our own, but we realized the more people came together, the more we could do,” recalls Elizabeth Reiman Simons ChE’50. Simons was the only female chemical engineer in her class at Cooper. She remembers always being able to talk to Blade and admiring her as someone truly making it in her field.

With the help of Blade, the SWE members secured space for their first meeting at Green Camp. In addition to Blade, seven members from The Cooper Union attended, including four who served on the convention-organizing committee: Ruth Bowden Gardner CE’50, Phyllis Hicks ChE’52, Evelyn Jetter EE’50, and Simons. That year, Bowden, Jetter, and Simons were the only three women engineers to graduate from Cooper. Numerous other Cooper Union faculty and administrators attended as guests.

Participants enjoyed a rural retreat with time to socialize and meet fellow female engineers. There was also professional development. A panel discussion, “Open Your Own Door to an Engineering Career,” preceded an address by Clara Savage Littledale, then editor of Parents Magazine: “Being a Woman as Well as an Engineer.”

This was a primary topic of concern for many attendees. Ms. Simons, who would go on to receive her Ph.D. in chemistry at Yale University and teach at Harvard Medical School for 14 years and then at Boston University for 40 years, struggled with the balance of professional and personal life, as did women in any career. Because it was difficult to find her own female role models, she has spent much of her life as a mentor.

The opportunity to share experiences and receive support from women in similar positions in 1950 was the greatest takeaway from the weekend. Official business was also conducted, including setting membership standards and electing Beatrice Hicks, who would become the first woman engineer hired by Western Electric, as president for the coming year.

More than six decades later, this weekend country retreat holds a significant place in history. While various districts of SWE predated this 1950 meeting—even the convention program referred to the meeting as the “second annual” one—the SWE board later decided that the Green Camp convention was in fact the founding of the organization.

The Cooper Union’s relationship with SWE remains strong; it’s one of the largest student groups on campus, with well over 100 members. When professor Andrea Newmark arrived at Cooper in 1987, she was the only female faculty member in the engineering school. She became the faculty advisor for SWE and has stayed involved since, even after passing the reins to professor Melody Baglione. “I encourage young students to get involved with SWE because females make up only about 20 to 25 percent of our student body,” Newmark says. “It helps to have a supportive network of other young women around to get you through some of the more difficult times.”

The Cooper chapter hosts networking and professional development events throughout the year, as well as an annual community outreach project called Kids in Engineering. It was after this event during her junior year that past Cooper chapter president Sara Wong ChE’17 decided she wanted to take on a leadership role in the organization. “I enjoyed seeing the children’s energy and excitement for STEM activities,” she says. “I saw potential in the SWE events and how much members could grow professionally and personally; I became president of SWE to grow myself and Cooper SWE together.”

Wong finished her presidential term and graduated in May with a degree in chemical engineering. She plans to pursue her graduate degree in the field at U.C. Berkeley this fall. While the structured events and programs have long been useful for SWE members on all campuses, Wong sought to encourage informal discussions among members about what it is like to be a female engineer at Cooper. “Previously there hadn’t been a place where female engineering students could congregate and discuss any issues they had encountered,” she says. “The plan is that these talks and discussions will include faculty later on, and I’m excited to see their future.” This environment of support is also what the early members of SWE were looking for 60 years ago. The challenges for female engineers have changed over the years, but the advice Simons offers still rings true for any student concerned about balance. “You make it work for you, not for what you think the custom ought to be.”