What’s Past Is Prologue: The Future Is Ours To Write

A variation of Shakespeare’s quote is etched on Robert Aiken’s monument, Future, outside the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The monument depicts a youthful woman holding a book with blank pages, symbolizing a future yet to be written. CREDIT: U.S. National Archives at College Park

Key moments in SWE’s history of diversity, equity, and inclusion shed light on today’s issues. Exploring these accounts illuminates the way forward.

By Troy Eller English, SWE Archivist

“Whereof what’s past is prologue,” the treacherous Antonio declares in Act 2, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, “what to come, in yours and my discharge.” Uttered with fatalism and murderous intent when the play was first published in 1611, in more recent decades the phrase has been embraced by the archival community to emphasize the importance of studying history. In this modern interpretation, the events of the past set the stage for the present and influence the story yet to come.

The foundations of historical research are built with primary source documents: the letters, meeting minutes, publications, photographs, interviews, and other recorded information that provide contemporary, firsthand evidence of an event, person, place, or time. The primary documents in the Society of Women Engineers’ archives, housed at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit, are vast in size and robust in informational content and historical context. By perusing those documents, reflecting on the issues past leaders and members faced, considering how they responded, and studying the outcomes, the Society can learn from its past to more clearly chart its path forward into the future.

The current discussions and debates within SWE about diversity, equity, and inclusion are echoes of its past. In reviewing the Society’s history, there are times when the organization lived up to its ideals and times when it fell short; times when the path forward was clear, and times when it was complicated. Ultimately, the primary documents SWE leaders and members created and left behind, from decades ago and just last year, provide counsel and guidance to the leaders and members of today and of years to come as the Society contends with social change.

Aileen Fong Shane, SWE’s first Asian American member, sits with other founding members on the ground in the second row at the far left at The Cooper Union’s “Camp Green” on May 27, 1950.

Back to the beginning

SWE’s path toward improved diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) has been described as a journey. That journey began at the Society’s founding meeting on May 27, 1950. Among those present was Aileen Fong Shane, a test engineer in the Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical Division and a first-generation Chinese American. Although she never particularly thought of or represented herself as a trailblazer, Shane was SWE’s first Asian American member and became the first to sit on its board of directors.

Two years later, in 1952, SWE welcomed its first Black member. Yvonne Young Clark graduated from Howard University in 1951, becoming the first woman there to receive a mechanical engineering degree. She completed an application for SWE membership on Feb. 10, 1952, and, as her son Milton Clark explained in a 2022 episode of the “Lost Women of Science” podcast, attached her portrait to the application to ensure SWE understood that she was Black.

Portrait of Yvonne Young Clark

The same day, Clark wrote a letter to SWE’s treasurer, Hilda Edgecomb, explaining, “Miss Doris M. McNulty – publication com[mittee] of S.W.E. – in Philadelphia gave me your address and she also sent me an application. I’m a graduate of Howard University and I finished the Eng[ineering] and Arch[itecture] school in December.” She also enclosed one dollar for a subscription to the Journal of the Society of Women Engineers, predecessor to the current SWE Magazine. Given that membership included a subscription to the Journal, why did she send additional funds to Edgecomb? One possible answer is that she misunderstood the application process. However, there are signs — the photograph with her application and signaling her race by mentioning Howard University, well-known as one of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities — that suggest she was not confident that SWE would welcome her application. If that were the case, she may have paid for a subscription to the journal so she could read it even if her application was denied because of her race.

SWE leaders were concerned the Society would be viewed as a women’s social club, however, and so concentrated on establishing a professional image within the larger engineering community. As such, the membership committee was singularly focused on applicants’ engineering qualifications. Clark’s membership was approved on March 30, 1952, and she joined the Philadelphia Section.

Five years later, in March 1957, SWE’s national convention was held at the Shamrock Hilton hotel in Houston, a city with many Jim Crow-era laws enforcing racial segregation. Clark’s story is well-known within a certain generation of SWE members. Accordingly, the hotel managers had been informed that SWE was racially integrated but refused to honor her room reservation when she arrived. President Miriam “Mickey” Gerla threatened to cancel the convention, but Clark was adamant that she didn’t want to disrupt the convention for everyone else. Instead, SWE reached a compromise with the hotel management. Clark still had to find alternate sleeping accommodations – she stayed with an aunt and uncle who lived in the city – but she was allowed to attend convention activities provided she was accompanied at all times by another SWE member. In essence, hotel management wanted her to be seen by the other, white hotel guests as little as possible.

In response, SWE technically met the hotel’s demands while ignoring management’s intent. Clark recalled the incident in a 2001 SWE oral history interview, explaining:

“I was met at the front door every day to go to the convention, and I was let out at the front door every night. And I got picked up by my aunt and uncle. But we had a ball. Anytime somebody wanted some cigarettes, they came and found me and we walked. Because as long as I had a person with me I could move around the hotel, but I had to be accompanied at all times, from the front door and back. So I’d been to the newsstand and coffee shop. We went everywhere that one week. We had a ball!”

Wearing a yellow dress, Yvonne Clark stands with other 1957 SWE conventioneers in front of a bank marquee welcoming them to Houston.
1957 SWE Houston Convention program

Although Clark’s story is fairly well-known within a certain generation of SWE members, the experience of another member has been much less recognized. Inez “Bambi” Bellamy Hazel, a junior engineer at Raytheon, became SWE’s second Black member in 1952, having joined the Society just a few weeks after Clark. In 1957 Hazel represented the Boston Section on the Society’s board of directors.

In a 2017 oral history interview with Kimberly Wynne, early Boston Section member Mary Pottle shared a story explaining how several Boston Section members had planned to attend the convention in Houston. But Pottle worried that the segregation laws would prevent Hazel from attending:

“So I called the hotel, and they said, ‘No, we don’t have any rooms for Black people,’” she recalled in the interview. “And I said, ‘Look, she’s with us. She’s with the group.’

He said, ‘Well, we can fix her up in another hotel. And then what you can do is, when she comes to a meeting, we have someone meet her at the door and take her to the meeting and back. But she cannot roam around the hotel.’

He said, ‘What’s your name again?’

I said, ‘It doesn’t matter, because we’re not coming.’ So I called to get a hold of National and I said, ‘Boston will not participate this year, thank you. We will not, as long as you’re going to places that discriminate. We want no part of it.’”

Hotel reservation card for the 1957 Convention

SWE’s archives do not include a list of attendees for the 1957 convention, so it is impossible to confirm that no one from the Boston Section attended. However, we do know that Hazel could not attend the convention, and that Pottle, at least, chose not to attend in solidarity.

In the months following the Houston convention, SWE leaders did not explicitly reference the hotel incident in the board minutes or correspondence. However, there are signs that these events did not sit well with them, either. In her final report, 1959 Convention Chairman Beulah Loomis wrote that shortly after returning from Houston, the St. Louis Section chose the 1959 host hotel because of, among other reasons, “the assurance that there would be no embarrassment to any of our members registering there.”

Inez “Bambi” Hazel stands in the center row, third from right, with other Boston Section members, circa 1957. Seated in the center of the front row are Society President Miriam “Mickey” Gerla and future president Aileen Cavanagh.

On Aug. 9, 1958, the board formally voted to shield members from what it euphemistically called “embarrassment” when it passed a convention policy reading, in keeping with the language of the time: “Segregation – The southern sections should be allowed to have the national convention. The sections must provide equal accommodations for colored members; and ensure that no colored member is subjected to unpleasantness or embarrassment in attending meetings.” It was possibly the first, but certainly not the last time that the board worked to protect members’ dignity and safety while still reaching out to those living in states with antagonistic laws. At the same meeting, the board also approved motions requiring convention meals to meet religious dietary restrictions and that any prayers or convocations be nondenominational.

On Aug. 9, 1958, the board ruled that the national convention must be held in locations where Black members could participate equally. Note: To preserve the integrity of the documents, SWE is retaining the language of the time, which by today’s standards is unacceptable.

Testing SWE’s commitment to civil rights

One of the people who voted on SWE’s anti-segregation policy in August 1958 was Society Vice President Virginia Tucker. At the time, she was an engineer at Northrop in California. Earlier in her career, however, she had been one of the very first women “computers” – mathematicians – at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia. From 1940 until her departure in 1948, she supervised more than 400 women computers at Langley, including the Black women in West Area Computing, the segregated computer pool made famous in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book and movie adaptation, Hidden Figures. Tucker had been trying to recruit Langley’s women computers into SWE throughout 1958, but wrote in a November 12 letter to Membership Committee Chairman Elizabeth “Pete” Plunkett that, “It may become awkward to organize a section, since there are several negro women within the NASA. Of course, the Virginia Laws are such that they could not assemble for dinner meetings.”

The law Tucker refers to is most likely Virginia’s Public Assemblages Act, one of a series of so-called racial integrity laws passed in Virginia between 1924 and 1930 to prevent the mixing of races. The Public Assemblages Act required public spaces in Virginia to be strictly segregated, meaning that if the women of Langley created a racially integrated SWE section, they would not be allowed to meet together in public. Some SWE sections around the country did hold integrated meetings in the 1950s, but in certain jurisdictions, doing so put them in jeopardy. “Many who were white stood their ground to support our black members by housing them in their homes and hotel rooms, and by dining with them at their public and private tables,” recalled Past President Aileen Cavanagh in a Feb. 3, 1977 letter to President Arminta Harness, continuing, “We were all in equal danger in those dark days.”

Because of laws in the state of Virginia, in a Nov. 12, 1958 letter to Elizabeth (Pete) Plunkett, SWE Vice President Virginia Tucker considered having racially segregated sections. NOTE: To preserve the integrity of the documents, SWE is retaining the language of the time, which by today’s standards is unacceptable.

While they likely would not have faced the same level of legal or physical aggression as SWE’s Black members, white members who stood up against segregation also stood out against the status quo.

Contemplating the viable options available to Langley’s women computers in Virginia, Tucker continued in her 1958 letter, “I hope that you can talk some of them into joining and I feel that the negro section there would understand and possibly organize another group [section]. This group was under my jurisdiction when I was there and if Dorothy [Dorothy Vaughan, head of West Area Computing] still heads this West Computers I feel that she would understand that handicap.”

In other words, Tucker suggested the creation of segregated SWE sections to abide by Virginia laws: one for white women, and one for Black women. Ultimately, they did not form a SWE section of any racial composition at that time. But the timing of the letter is interesting, written just a few months after the board passed the Society’s anti-segregation policy. Clark’s experience at the hotel in 1957 was still fresh as Tucker weighed the difficulty of engaging diverse members in segregated states.

SWE’s commitment to its anti-segregation convention policy was tested in 1961. On June 1 of that year, SWE Vice President Patricia Brown sent a letter to the Council of Section Representatives, predecessor to today’s Senate, explaining that while the 1962 convention was to be hosted in Atlanta, “recent interracial incidents in the deep South have caused the Atlanta Section to suggest that the SWE reconsider the advisability of meeting there.” There’s no indication of what specifically prompted the Atlanta Section’s concerns, but the city lay at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. Students had been holding sit-ins at segregated businesses and lunch counters throughout the city for a year, and in January 1961 riots broke out when the Supreme Court ordered the University of Georgia, in nearby Athens, to admit two Black students.

A June 1, 1961 letter from Vice President Patricia Brown to the Council of Section Representatives asks for guidance after the Atlanta Section expressed concerns about accommodating Black members at the 1962 national convention in the city. NOTE: To preserve the integrity of the documents, SWE is retaining the language of the time, which by today’s standards is unacceptable.

Brown explained the Atlanta Section’s concerns in her letter, continuing: “As you know, the SWE membership is open to persons of any race, creed, or color. We have several Negro members, one of whom attended the convention in Houston a few years ago. The Atlanta Section does not mean to imply that they fear discrimination problems in the hotel and meeting areas. What they mistrust is a possible attempt by overzealous partisans (of any faction) to exploit the openness of our group meeting to their own ends.” Both the Atlanta Section and Society leadership feared drawing attention in a time and place where both peaceful and violent protests were distinct possibilities. Additionally, having just successfully defended its tax-exempt status after a two-year debate with the IRS, leaders were particularly wary about being seen as political. Regardless of their intentions, having an integrated convention in Atlanta in 1962 might be viewed as a political statement.

Based on her remembrance of the 1957 national convention, Houston Section representative Pat Chappelear predicted in a June 9, 1961 letter to Vice President Patricia Brown that a racially integrated convention in Atlanta could lead to racist incidents and draw public attention. NOTE: To preserve the integrity of the documents, SWE is retaining the language of the time, which by today’s standards is unacceptable.

After considering the situation in Atlanta, Pat Chappelear, the Houston Section representative and one of the women who escorted Clark through the hotel in 1957, replied in a June 9 letter:

  1. “…we did have some incidents which were most embarrassing to us as members and to the negro SWEM [SWE member] who attended the sessions. These incidents were not foreseen by us and we certainly regret that they happened. We are very glad that they were not exploited or publicized in any way. BUT today in Houston it is our opinion that such simple incidents would be picked up by the National Wire Service.
  2. Therefore, if an integrated meeting should be held in Atlanta in 1962, we believe that the same thing would happen, only more so. Therefore the only way for the Convention to be held in Atlanta would be for the negro SWEM not to attend. We realize that the thought of such action is galling to a professional organization.
  3. Before making any decision, the negro SWEM should be consulted and their opinion should greatly influence whatever decision is reached.”
In a June 9, 1961 letter, Vice President Patricia Brown concluded that due to social unrest, public scrutiny, and safety concerns, SWE could not hold conventions in states with racial segregation laws. NOTE: To preserve the integrity of the documents, SWE is retaining the language of the time, which by today’s standards is unacceptable.

Brown replied a few days later, agreeing with Chappelear’s overall assessment. She noted the impossibility of polling SWE’s Black members, however, writing:

“…we don’t know which of our members are negro. If they are Section members and have attended meetings, some of the SWEM naturally know their race. We don’t have any separate records of this, however, and have no way of consulting these members as you suggest. Furthermore, because we do not close our meetings to members only, anyone can attend our conventions if the registration fee is paid. For these reasons we cannot ‘protect’ the SWE from possible incidents.

I deeply regret that Southern progress in race relations has been subjected to so much pressure, resulting in lost ground rather than advancement. Under the present circumstances I feel that the SWE has no choice but to forego national meetings in the South.”

The Atlanta Section formally withdrew its invitation to host the 1962 convention on June 16, 1961, and a few weeks later the Council of Section Representatives accepted a proposal to move the convention to Chicago. The national convention did not return to the South until 1974, a full decade after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forced the repeal of some of the country’s most explicit racial segregation laws.

NOTE: To preserve the integrity of the documents, SWE is retaining the language of the time, which by today’s standards is unacceptable.

The post-civil rights era brings new challenges

The Civil Rights Act was passed at the very end of Aileen Cavanagh’s term as Society president. A decade later, as SWE debated a boycott of states that had not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment in 1977, Cavanagh explained in her letter to President Arminta Harness why she supported SWE’s boycott of segregated states in the 1950s and 1960s, but did not support a boycott of non-ratified states in the 1970s. In her letter, Cavanagh suggested that the experience at the 1957 hotel had been far more threatening than the “ruckus” Clark described in her SWE oral history interview decades later, while also acknowledging the toll the boycott of segregated states took on SWE generally, and on members in boycotted states specifically. She wrote:

“While the wisdom of avoiding the repetition of the hostile confrontation between SWE leaders and hotel management that occurred in Houston was evident, the Atlanta section suffered a cancellation at that time based on the Georgia public assembly laws. We had protected those of our members who were then subject to violence, and none would criticize that, but we did so at the expense of the maturation and professional development and support of the women thus denied the chance to grow as persons and as engineers which the rest of us have enjoyed without limit in SWE.”

Deborah Winbush, center, holds the North Carolina A&T Student Section charter certificate at the section's 1973 charter banquet, joined by SWE President Naomi McAfee, left, and university faculty and administrators.

Meanwhile, SWE showed uneven growth in its understanding of the issues surrounding discrimination, of what today we would consider both social justice concerns and the importance of establishing an inclusive environment. Sometime between March 1960 when the procedures manual was written, and 1963 when it appears to have been photocopied with additional policies appended, someone smudged out “colored” and replaced it with “all,” demonstrating a growing recognition within SWE that discrimination extended to women engineers from a variety of backgrounds. Yet at the same time that SWE proudly claimed Mary Golda Ross, the great-great granddaughter of Cherokee Nation Principal Chief John Ross, as one of its earliest members, we also find photographs from several 1960s conventions showing members wearing paper feather headdresses. Most likely, they viewed this as a nod to the location of the conventions and as honoring American Indian heritage, but today we recognize it as offensive.

SWE made a concerted effort to reach out to Black women in the early 1970s, chartering the student section at North Carolina A&T in June 1973, the first section at a historic Black college or university (HBCU). Without a professional section nearby at the time, it is not clear how the students learned about SWE, but it probably was not a coincidence that Yvonne Clark served on the Society’s executive committee from 1969 until 1974. Five more HBCU student sections were chartered by the end of 1980.

To better serve the growing number of members from diverse backgrounds, a minority concerns workshop was added to the convention program in 1978. The archives do not share much information about that first workshop, but planning for the 1980 workshop was mishandled. In a June 26, 1981 memo, Theresa Abney recalled that, “I was requested on the evening before the workshop session to run the minority workshop. At the workshop I encountered a very disappointed group of people who were expecting a well-developed program. (I was given no agenda, there were no speakers and consequently no program). The course of action decided upon resulted in the development on the attached petition.”

The charges leveled in the petition included SWE’s lack of formal programming to address the concerns of its minority members and failure to work with them in convention planning, as well as assertions that such things were necessary because of historical social inequities in training opportunities, workplace experiences, and professional advancement. The end of the petition called for minority concerns workshops to become a permanent part of the professional and student conventions, and that a task force or committee be created to study and address the concerns of SWE’s minority members.

The following year, the minority concerns workshop was given more intentional attention, and included speakers, a hospitality suite, and a planning session for a minority concerns committee. The committee struggled to maintain its membership and define its goals during the early and mid-1980s, but by the end of the decade was working toward the establishment of awards and scholarships, improving outreach and recruitment to underrepresented women, regularly holding workshops and sessions for minority members at SWE conventions, and building relationships with the National Society of Black Engineers and other diversity-focused professional associations.

A June 26, 1981 memo from Theresa Abney explains that disaffected members created a resolution after someone failed to plan the minority concerns workshop at the 1980 national convention.
A resolution passed by participants at the 1980 minority concerns workshop called for SWE to offer regular programming for underrepresented minorities.

Moving toward diversity as a core value

SWE’s original Articles of Incorporation, filed in February 1952, defined the Society’s purpose as informing the public about engineering as a career for women and encouraging young women to pursue the profession. Soon afterward, SWE added to its aims and purposes helping women return to the workforce and encouraging them to reach high levels of professional achievement.

Corporate mission statements became popularized in the 1980s. As SWE’s board of directors worked to implement better business practices and tools, it developed the Society’s first mission statement during a 1985 board workshop. The statement professed, “The Society of Women Engineers stimulates women to achieve full potential in careers as engineers and leaders, expands the image of the engineering profession as a positive force in improving the quality of life, and demonstrates the value of diversity.” (The statement has been amended slightly in the years since.)

While the behaviors encompassed in the first two points of the mission statement were not new, the inclusion of diversity as a core value and function of the Society was. Personal ideals and professional ethics, coupled with current events, had led SWE’s early members to activism, but the concept of diversity as it is discussed today did not exist when SWE was founded in 1950.

To create a more inviting culture within SWE, the renamed multicultural committee set out in 1996 to develop a diversity plan for the Society based on parameters set by the board and input gathered from members at section meetings, regional conferences, and the national convention. In 1998 the committee presented to the Council of Section Representatives a series of diversity principles outlining the Society’s beliefs about and commitments to diversity, as well as a five-year implementation plan. The preamble for the original Statement of SWE’s Diversity Principles noted that, “SWE recognizes that the scope of diversity includes race/ethnicity, family status, age, physical abilities, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and occupational focus. SWE will maintain an environment that is supportive of these elements. We will promote inclusion within our organization and the engineering community.”

In a 1998 FAQ document, the multicultural committee explains why religion and gender were not included in the original diversity principles.

The diversity principles were forward thinking when considered within the context of the times, but there were nevertheless intentional omissions in SWE’s defined scope of diversity. The first was religion. Members of both the committee and the larger Society recognized that religion was certainly an aspect of diversity in a broader social context, but could not see how one’s religion, or lack of religion, might impact members’ experiences within SWE or in their careers.

The second intentional omission was gender. In the explanatory documents submitted with the draft diversity principles and implementation strategies, K’Andrea Bickerstaff explained that:

“Simply put, ‘gender’ is a very divisive issue within SWE. In the feedback given to the subcommittee, there are roughly equal numbers of members for and against the inclusion of gender. After much heated debate within the subcommittee, the MCC [multicultural committee], and the BOD [board of directors], the current position is to not include gender at this time. It seems that the Society is not ready to address this issue in both the Principles and the Strategies.”

After much debate, the Council of Section Representatives passed a Statement of SWE’s Diversity Principles at its June 19, 1998 meeting. One representative at the meeting noted that, while not perfect, it was a good first step and should be considered a living document to be revised in the future.

1990 SWE Achievement Award recipient Lynn Conway

A few months later, at the end of 1998, computer scientist, professor, and 1990 SWE Achievement Award recipient Lynn Conway realized that a professor researching the history of superscalar computer architecture would likely connect her groundbreaking work on VLSI circuits in the 1970s and 1980s with the work she had done under an earlier identity on IBM’s Advanced Computing Systems project in the 1960s. Wishing to take control of the narrative, she revealed her story to colleagues and the public over the next few years, explaining that she had been fired from IBM in 1968 after informing her supervisors of her upcoming transition from male to female. She had rebuilt her entire career as a woman in what she called “stealth mode.”

SWE did not know Conway was transgender in 1990 when she received the Achievement Award. While her technical achievements are undeniable, the Society’s conflicted stance toward gender when developing its Diversity Principles eight years later make one question whether SWE would have considered her for the award in 1990 if they had known her story. If SWE leaders had any official discussions about transgender women’s eligibility for awards after Conway publicly shared her experience, those conversations have not been recorded in the archives.

While the title of 1990 SWE Achievement Award recipient Lynn Conway’s acceptance address, printed in the September/October 1990 issue of U.S. Woman Engineer, refers to her pioneering work in VLSI circuits, in hindsight it is also indicative of the social change yet to come.

Moving toward a fuller understanding of diversity

In recent years, SWE has worked toward a more nuanced understanding of diversity and the intersectionality of members’ lives. In the 2000s, members created spaces for themselves in the SWE Communities online discussion board. Institutionally, the multicultural committee formally launched affinity groups at the WE11 annual conference to provide a more supportive environment for its members. At the request of the board of directors, Executive Director Betty Shanahan expanded the Society’s Diversity Principles in 2013 to include, “sexual and affectional orientation, actual or perceived gender, gender identity and expression,” reflecting growing recognition in the general public and within SWE of the broad spectrum of sexual and gender identity and expression.

That conversation has continued in recent years, particularly as the corporate and nonprofit world has sought to strengthen their organizations by supporting their people through intentional diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) practices.

In FY20, diversity and inclusion became one of the Senate’s primary strategic initiatives. As part of those discussions, leaders specifically considered whether and how to broaden SWE’s mission and core identity to include underrepresented gender identities. In the same fiscal year, SWE opened its scholarships to anyone identifying as a woman. In 2021, the Society updated its awards eligibility criteria, explicitly opening some awards to individuals of any gender, and other awards to individuals identifying as women.

A presentation to the Senate in FY20 considered a spectrum of ways SWE could become more gender inclusive.

Continuing from those discussions in the Senate, the board of directors passed a new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Statement in June 2021, extending the Society’s view of diversity in multiple directions and explicitly welcoming nonbinary and gender-expansive individuals, while still defining SWE as a woman-oriented space. In part, the new DEI statement reads:

“SWE recognizes and values the intersections of our members’ unique characteristics including, but not limited to: ethnicity, race, culture; sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, gender expression; age; differences in ability; immigration status, nationality, national origin; education; socioeconomic status; family structure; military/veteran status; religious/non-religious beliefs. SWE respects that gender is a continuum. Everyone is welcome to join SWE as a member. Our programs are focused on those who want to be in a woman-oriented space, and we welcome individuals who identify as nonbinary or gender expansive who are comfortable in such an environment.”

SWE and the Equal Rights Amendment

First introduced in 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment passed both the U.S. House and Senate in 1972. The first section and primary provision of the amendment reads: “Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” To be added to the U.S. Constitution, 38 states needed to ratify the amendment. Initially met with broad public approval, 22 ratified it within the first year. However, the ERA’s progress began to slow in 1973, as some constituencies questioned whether the amendment was necessary, and whether it might have unintended effects such as negating labor laws protecting women in the workplace.

USAF Lt. Colonel (Ret.) Arminta Harness, SWE president from 1976-1978, was appointed by U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1977 to serve as delegate-at-large to the National Women’s Conference.

Since its founding, SWE had conservatively avoided commenting on public policy, afraid of violating its tax-exempt status. Nevertheless, the Council of Section Representatives, predecessor to today’s Senate, passed a resolution in June 1973 endorsing the ERA. Although the resolution soundly passed the Council by a margin of 15 to 1, support among SWE’s wider membership was far more complicated. In a 1974 goals survey to identify what kind of organization members wanted the Society to be, many respondents worried that both SWE and its members would be taken less seriously in the engineering community if they were associated with the women’s liberation movement.

By 1977 the ERA had stalled, with ratification achieved in only 35 states. In response, several SWE sections brought a motion to the Council to launch a boycott to place economic pressure on states that had not ratified the amendment. This was highly controversial for a number of reasons. Some within SWE did not want to snub members of the Atlanta Section, who had already committed to hosting the national convention the following year in Georgia, a state that had not ratified the ERA. Some people in SWE simply did not support the amendment. Among those who did, many believed that SWE would have far more impact by holding conferences and public events for women in non-ratified states than by avoiding those states entirely.

Contrasting the ERA debate with the Society’s earlier decision to avoid hosting events in states enforcing racial segregation, Past President Aileen Cavanagh explained in a Feb. 3, 1977 letter to President Arminta Harness that, “Here the dangers are not those of physical violence and overt hostility. The issue now is self-determination, but not basic personal security. The women most in need of support in their bid for self-determination are those who now live in the states which have not passed the amendment. Following SWE’s prior precedents, in fact SWE’s long-term strategy of providing group support to the victims of discriminatory injustices, we should convene where the victims will receive the most benefit and support by our presence.” After further discussion at the 1977 convention, the Council approved a boycott of non-ratified states, with an exception carved out for the 1978 convention in Atlanta.

The debate continued well after the passage of the boycott, with members arguing their viewpoints in letters to the editor printed in the SWE Newsletter. In the end, SWE’s boycott effectively ended in 1982, when the Equal Rights Amendment was not ratified by enough states by the established deadline. Facing significant structural and financial challenges in the 1980s, the Society moved on and moved away from public policy for the next decade.

In announcing the adoption of the new DEI Statement in July 2021, FY21 President Heather Doty explained in the All Together newsletter, “This latest version of the DEI Statement, below, will certainly not be the last, but rather reflects a moment in an ongoing process. We refer to our work in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion as a journey rather than a destination.”

SWE’s commitment to its values was tested once again in 2022, when Texas Governor Greg Abbott sent a letter to the state’s health departments, requiring them to investigate and report gender-affirming medical care of minors as child abuse. In response, the LGBTQ+ Affinity Group and others within SWE concerned about the state’s laws impacting the lives of transgender people and current and (at the time) anticipated restrictions to women’s health care lobbied the Society to move the WE22 annual conference out of Houston. Although the Society’s contracts with the conference vendors made such an action impossible, the board sent a letter to Abbott on March 21 reading, in part, “The unwelcoming environment in your state for women, transgender, and gender nonconforming individuals created through these policies makes the state of Texas untenable as a location for any future events. The Houston conference will be SWE’s last event in Texas while these policies and legislation remain in effect.”

A March 21, 2022 letter from the SWE board of directors informs Texas Governor Greg Abbott that the Society will not plan future events in the state because of the unwelcoming environment created by recent legislation regulating transgender and women’s health care.

Legislation continues to be proposed and passed in numerous states and countries viewed as hostile or dangerous to women, transgender, and gender non-conforming individuals, as well as to migrants, racial minorities, and persons identifying with many other dimensions of diversity as recognized and affirmed by SWE. The Society is a large and increasingly diverse organization, and as such its members have equally diverse opinions about that legislation and whether and how the Society should respond.

But SWE’s past is its prologue. Prior generations in SWE navigated the tumult of social change, trying to achieve a delicate balance between respecting the divergent viewpoints of the organization’s members while also protecting and supporting those living under laws challenging their dignity and safety.

They became unintentional social activists, although they advocated their beliefs with intention. The historical records they left behind chart SWE’s journey to this current moment in time and illuminate the path forward, leaving, as Shakespeare’s Antonio averred, “what to come, in yours and my discharge.”

Editor’s Note: As we approached the close of this issue of the magazine, the Society joined with other professional associations in sending letters to state senators in Florida and Texas, expressing concern on pending state-level legislation that would harm diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. See “SWE Sends DEI Statement to State Legislators” in this issue.