SWE Starts Here

In loving memory of Doris M. McNulty, SWE founder and charter member,  1927-2009.

These days, a new year for the SWE Philadelphia Section usually begins with a casual happy hour or dinner at a local restaurant.  But back in the early days, it started with tea. 

The Society of Women Engineers recognizes the day of its founding as May 27, 1950, the day that the national organization finally coalesced, when more than 60 women gathered at Cooper Union in New Jersey to establish ground rules and elect their leaders.  But in a way, SWE’s true beginning, and indeed the beginning of our section, was already brewing in the late 1940’s.   

The advent of World War II had called many of our country’s young men into the armed forces, so who would step up to fill the void in the technical workforce?  Why, the ladies, of course!  Colleges and universities began to open their science and engineering schools to women, and along the eastern seaboard, female engineering students found strength in their fledgling numbers.  In 1945, Dorothy Young, Dean of Women at the Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia, hosted a tea for the incoming class of women engineering students.  As the girls began to socialize and support each other in their coursework, they formed a chapter of the Society of Women Engineers and
were officially recognized on campus in 1949.   

As founding member Alma Kuppinger Forman recalls, in the fall of 1948, several of the students were talking about a freshmen English term paper assignment.  Phyllis Diamond stated the topic of her paper was women in engineering.  A discourse about women engineering students at other institutions followed, resulting [in] the desire of making contact with them. Soon the Drexel students were organizing a regional conference to be held on their campus in April 1949, and the Drexel chapter morphed into the Philadelphia District of SWE.  The regional conference laid the foundation for that first national convention the following year, and SWE at last was born.  As Alma puts it, “Phyllis’ term paper proved to be the catalyst for the forming of what today is an international organization.”

From its roots as a sisterhood of less than 100 pioneering young women in technical fields (with $5 annual dues!) the Society has grown to 20,000 students and professionals with $100 annual dues.  On a local level, the Philadelphia Section has evolved as well.  The story of its past 60 years is
a rich one.   

The 1950’s, as one might expect, were marked by the shaping of the new society’s identity.  Members took that identity seriously.  A national committee set out to refine the emblem of SWE, originally designed by the Drexel students, while the Philadelphia Section later publicized a warning: “Any member who attended a meeting without her SWE pin would have to pay a fine!”  Meanwhile, with the ladies thus occupied, their neglected husbands and boyfriends sought companionship via their own SWE support group of sorts, the “Men’s Artillery.”  (Men were able to join SWE as voting members when the SWE bylaws were amended in 1976.) 

Newsletters for the new group were also seeking an identity. The first issues of NO NAME and NO NAME — YET! solicited suggestions for a name from students at the six schools represented in the organization.  At the time student engineers often referred to a slide rule as a “slip stick”  – and some used the term “Slip Stick Sally” to refer to a woman engineer.   SLIP STICK SALLY was adopted for the newsletter.  However, she quickly “graduated” to SWE OUTLOOK in the spring of 1950 when the Philadelphia District was officially recognized as an organization with both student and graduated women engineers.  In those days engineering drawings were all hand lettered; these days they are computer generated – but they still have “title blocks” to provide the dates and name of the engineers who prepared or reviewed the work, as stylized in these SWE MEMOIRS. 

In 1959, the legitimacy of our section was recognized by an outside party: As noted in the May 1959 newsletter, “The PHILADELPHIA SECTION proudly announces it was accepted as an affiliate of the Engineers Club of Philadelphia at their Board of Directors’ meeting on April 23. This feat is second only to breaking the sound barrier inasmuch as the Club still has a ladies entrance, ladies lounge and “no ladies permitted” sign over the bar door. Much of the credit for the breakthru goes to Anne Johnson and Gertrude Guers for their activities in their respective technical societies and to Helen Smith who prepared SWE’s presentation to the Admissions Committee.”  Hardly a decade old, SWE Philadelphia was already making strides.  Another coup for the section came in 1964, when a former Philadelphia officer, Isabelle French, became a national SWE President. For most of the Philadelphia Section’s existence until the 1990’s, outreach was focused toward the Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS) and the Engineering and Technical Societies Council (ETSCO).  Philadelphia SWE member Carolyn Buggy and her husband Rodman introduced the Society to the JETS program in the Philadelphia area, and conducted the annual student competitions.  Many SWE members at the time were also active in ETSCO, whose meetings were held at the Engineers Club of Philadelphia.  ETSCO consisted of delegates from technical and professional organizations such as SWE, the Pennsylvania Society of Professional Engineers (PSPE), the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), and others; allowing them to pool their resources in conducting seminars and workshops about engineering for students, teachers, and guidance counselors. Usually these programs were held in conjunction with Engineers’ Week. SWE Philadelphia routinely gave one or more workshops for high school students and would sometimes supply panelists for the teacher / guidance counselor programs.

The section hit a rough patch in the late 1970’s and early 80’s.  Leadership burnout was setting in, and the section officers were having a hard time finding new members to step up.  Barbara Faust, the Section Representative at the time, indicated in her September 1980 CSR report that “The Philadelphia Section at this time is facing the critical decision of whether or not to disband.  An attempt is in progress to get new people active but no one seems to want to take on responsibility for organizing and running the section.”  The officers hoped to attract more participation by
shifting the focus of section meetings and events more toward ‘self-development’.  Holding meetings on different days of the week in a variety of locations across the section’s geographical area also seemed to help reach more members. 

Around the same time, the Philadelphia Section gave rise to the Lehigh Valley Section.  By November 1979, members working or residing in the Lehigh Valley area had formed a subsection and started their own newsletter.  Soon they were actively working to produce a petition for charter.  Nominations were solicited in March 1980 for officers for the new section, and the bylaws were finalized in April.  Anticipating charter approval at the national convention in June, Lehigh Valley founding president Wendy Anne Stocker wrote in the newsletter, “We are bringing out the champagne!!!”  And so they did.  Lehigh Valley continues to have joint meetings with us on occasion and we participate in each other’s outreach events.  They joined with us and the Twin Tiers Section to plan and coordinate the weekend  Engineering Your Way into Management Career Conference that became known as the Pocono Conference and was open to all SWE members. 

One of the few times when the Philadelphia Section expressed some disagreement with Society policy was also in June 1980.  Dorothy “Dottie” Hoffman and Barbara Faust put together a CSR proposal to remove the membership category of Senior Member.  They argued that the title conveyed little meaning beyond ‘advancing age’ and that senior membership status should not be a prerequisite for candidacy for national SWE positions such as President, Vice President, or Fellow.  Although the Senior Member grade still exists in the national SWE bylaws, a compromise on Fellow requirements was reached, in which applicants for Fellow must be either a member or a senior member for a specified number of years. 

The 1990’s and early 2000’s brought several new endeavors that substantially shaped the section we have today.  For one, this new thing called the Internet was sweeping the nation; the 1995 Region E conference organized by the Philadelphia Section included workshop topics like “How to Buy a Computer” and “Surfing the Internet.”  Our own section website debuted around 1996 and went on to win national awards in 2007 and 2008.  Meanwhile, one of our most significant outreach programs was initiated in the mid-1990’s.  Our first collegiate scholarship was awarded to Gretchen Walz of the University of Pennsylvania in 1995 when Rodney D. Chipp Memorial Award recipient Ralph Klesius generously donated his award money.  Since then, our section has evaluated as many as 49 applications in a year and awarded up to ten $1000 scholarships annually to female students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering and computer science. 

Mr. Klesius’s generosity continued when, upon his retirement from Conectiv, he encouraged well-wishers to donate money to SWE Philadelphia for a scholarship fund in his name.  The fund was later transferred to the new DelMar Peninsula Section as part of the treasury split agreement when that section ‘spun off’ from Philadelphia in 1999.  A number of active members and leaders of the Philadelphia Section who lived in Delaware were understandably growing weary of traveling long distances to section meetings.  They began holding subsection meetings in 1997 and 1998, and put together a petition for forming a new section, starting with 20-30 members transferring from Philadelphia.  They also hoped to serve Members-at-Large in Maryland and acquire new members from the numerous local companies that employed engineers.  Vicki Land, who had held several positions in the Philadelphia Section over the years, including President, became the first President of the DelMar Peninsula Section.    

February 2009 marked the 10-year anniversary of our annual Engineering Girls Camp, also known as ‘mini-camp’, a one-day event  hosted by the Widener University School of Engineering, which allows high school girls to explore engineering careers in a supportive environment.  The girls
interact with volunteers from SWE Philadelphia and other nearby sections plus Widener faculty and students as they participate in hands-on laboratory workshops representing the various engineering fields.  The camp has evolved dramatically since its inception in 2000, growing an event just for students in the pilot program to also include workshops for parents of prospective students.  Participation has increased from less than 100 students and 50-65 parents to nearly 150 students and 100 parents.  

The Philadelphia section co-hosted the Region E Conference along with the University of Pennsylvania in March 2010.  Coincidentally, the section also hosted the regional conference at school’s Houston Hall on the very same weekend in March in 1955.  

Philadelphia SWE looks forward to continuing its rich history.