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Podcast: SWE Stories – Tales from the Archives Episode #2

In episode #2 of the SWE Stories: Tales from the Archives podcast, Society of Women Engineers Archivist Troy Eller English and Director of Publications Anne Perusek discuss how members experience SWE’s annual conference.
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Getting Energized at WE17

In this episode of SWE Stories: Tales from the Archives, Society of Women Engineers archivist Troy Eller English and director of editorial and publications Anne Perusek discuss how members have used the social connections and intergenerational conversations at each year’s conference to carry themselves through the hectic conference schedule. Eller English and Perusek share SWE Magazine articles written by Fellows Margaret “Pritch” Pritchard, Peggy Layne (also a past president), and Jan Williams about the value they find in making those connections at the annual conference. They also share audio excerpts from oral history interviews with Pritch and Arminta Harness (also a Fellow and past president), who talk about one popular location for making such intergenerational connections: the Over-The-Hill Suite.


Troy Eller English:

Hello, welcome to SWE Stories: Tales from the Archives episode 2: “Getting Energized at WE17.” I am Troy Eller English, the archivist for the Society of Women Engineers, based at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University.

Anne Perusek:

And I’m Anne Perusek, SWE’s director of editorial and publications

Troy Eller English:

So it’s conference time! WE17 in Austin, with apparently 12,000 people. That’s crazy! So, I was looking through the old SWE magazines and I came across this great description that past president Peggy Layne wrote in the September/October 1993 issue of SWE Magazine, when there were just a thousand people at the conference and she was so excited. Anne, can you read the description of the conference

Anne Perusek:

Sure. Peggy wrote:

Anne Perusek (reading from Peggy Layne’s “Having It All” article)

“The weeks leading up to SWE’s annual National Convention and Student Conference are especially hectic for anyone involved in planning for this event. We find ourselves burning the midnight oil as we race to complete preparation for technical presentations, professional development programs, and Society business. Meanwhile, our normal commitments to job and family continue. Understanding bosses, colleagues, and spouses make the difference between total chaos and our normally hectic lives.

“Why do we take as much as a week out of summer to spend time with 1000 other women who are just as harried as we are? How else would we find out how other women deal with the challenges in their lives, share their frustrations, learn from their disappointments, and celebrate their successes? Where else would we have the opportunity to meet women like. Dr. Elsa Reichmanis, this year’s Achievement Award recipient, Mary Jones, the Upward Mobility Award recipient, and Resnik Challenger Medal recipient Yvonne Brill? Participation in SWE activities is worth the effort for the chance to find out how other women are dealing with their attempts to have it all!”

(End of excerpt)Anne Perusek:

And I’d also like to point out that at the time Peggy wrote this our conference was held in June. That’s the reference to the week out of summer.

Troy Eller English:

Thanks for that clarification. So, Anne, I was warned when I first joined SWE in 2008 that the conference is a marathon, and that you really have to work hard to conserve your energy for the SWE conference. But I have found that in talking to SWE members, I get energized. What were your first impressions from your first conference?

Anne Perusek:

The first time I went to a SWE conference I was totally amazed at the cross-generational support between women. Normally in our world you don’t see mid-career or retired women interacting very much with women who are many years their junior. So, my first conference, which was in San Diego, I was just so impressed that such senior women took the time to nurture and mentor younger women, and that the younger women were so receptive to that. Granted, the conference was much smaller then. This was back in 1991. But that same spirit has continued in the Society, which is one of the things that makes it so unique. Now granted, you know, there are 7:30 breakfast meetings and late night talk sessions and socializing, so you don’t necessarily get a lot of sleep when you’re there, but the interactions really do boost your energy level and it’s like you’re riding this great wave of excitement and connection.

Troy Eller English:

Sure. I love an article that your published the magazine, in the Conference 2009 issue. It was an article written by Margaret Pritchard, better known as Pritch. The article was called, “Intergenerational Inspirations,” and in the article she wrote:

Troy Eller English (reading from Margaret Pritchard’s “Intergenerational Inspiration” article)“We ‘old-timers’ have had our challenges and successes, and are pleased to have been able to pass along the wisdom and professional expertise we gained in the process of living our lives as women engineers. If you were to ask me what best exemplifies SWE, I would say that it is women of different backgrounds, ages, and experiences coming together, either with the desire to become an engineer (if you are a collegiate) or, from the perspective of a professional, to be a better engineer. In one sense, it is a story of intergenerational support, of one generation inspiring the next to move forward with their dreams and aspirations.”

(End of excerpt)

Anne Perusek:

That is so true, and I was particularly fond of that article as well. The Over-the-Hill Suite a tradition at the annual conference that really provided a great place for those types of interactions and the different generations to come together. And it had an interesting history because, much like SWE in its early days, it was a completely volunteer-driven kind of grassroots effort. And back in the ’60s until the early ’70s, whenever there was a SWE convention, as they called them at the time, there would be a hospitality room that was provided by the hotel. And that was a natural place for people.

This was phased out and instead, Margaret Pritchard, whom we dearly love as Pritch, and Arminta Harness decided to take their suite and become sort of proprietors of this Over-the-Hill club, which then became the Over-the-Hill Suite. They did the bartending, they collected donations from people—sometimes people’s shoes were hidden and they had to pay a ransom to get them back, and that was another way of funding this. So, the tradition has continued in different variations over the years. The hosting and bartending has been done by Fellows and Trustees, people like Elaine Pitts and Dorothy Morris, and more recently by Fellows and Past Presidents Carolyn Phillips and Pat Brown.

Troy Eller English:

In 2009 in Long Beach, California, I got a chance to sit down with Margaret Pritchard for an oral history interview and I asked her about the Over-the-Hill Suite. Let’s listen to that interview:

(Audio excerpt from interview)

Troy Eller English:

Can you tell me about the Over-the-Hill suite?

Margaret Pritchard:

(laughs) We were just talking to the sales manager here down in the lobby for the

hotel that we’re in right now, and one of my colleagues was saying, “Saturday

night I hope you have a sound barrier on the 17th floor.” He wanted to

know why, so we had to tell him about the Over-the-Hill suite.

“Cherry Hill [1980 SWE National Convention in Cherry Hill, New Jersey], we had five white-haired ladies, including the two Parker sisters and Winnie White, etcetera. And they had gone across the street to the shopping mall to get their hair done before the banquet. Anyway, when they got back to my suite—they had come to my suite for some reason, maybe just to give me a bad time. But anyway, they brought a bottle of scotch and a bottle of seltzer, and we had the Over-the-Hill Gang. I was the only one in the gang that wasn’t white-haired. Anyway, that was Cherry Hill. Next year was Seattle, and Minta and I were rooming together and the hotel had screwed up our reservation. And so, it we ended up we had a very lovely suite which included a wet bar. So that became the Over-the-Hill Suite. Last year it was Over-the-Hill Gang, then it was Over-the-Hill Suite.

“And the idea is—Minta has documented this in the magazine. And the idea was it was a place to just come kick off your shoes. In fact, that was the game—I won’t give you her name, but we had one of our senior members who is now an Achievement Award recipient—everybody would step out of their shoes and be comfortable when they came into the suite. One of our dear Achievement Awards [recipients] discovered that it was more fun than a barrel of monkeys to take that pile of shoes, particularly after the banquet when ninety-five percent of the shoes were black, stir them up. (laughs) So when it came time for you to get your shoes, you had to go through the whole—a. Anyway, that was the first Over-the-Hill suite, and that happened by accident because Minta and I were housing together and we ended up with a wet bar.

“We discovered that the suite served a very, very important purpose. And that was—in fact, this word that I invented with the story in the current magazine—intergenerational support. Because, as a student, you can walk in and talk to anybody who was recognized in the industry that you want—the discipline that you wanted to participate in. As a student, you could talk to the number one [person] on a one-on-one basis. And, whether a student or a young woman engineer, you had the opportunity to meet the peers of your profession. And that’s very important to our younger engineers.”

(End of excerpt)

Troy Eller English:

So the Over-the-Hill Suite first originated at the 1980 annual—or national convention, in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The year after, Pritch and Arminta Harness—who was a past president of the Society—they outlined a few rules and Arminta Harness spoke about them in the September/October 1999 issue of SWE Magazine. Amongst the rules were that anyone old enough to remember the old hospitality suites was automatically invited. Also invited were current board members, the award recipients, and their guests. It was a secret location, but it was a poorly-kept secret, so you would just have to wander around and ask and hope that you came across someone who knew the official location of the Over-the-Hill Suite. Another rule was that while the proprietors of the suite offered up snacks and alcoholic libations, you were asked to throw some money in the kitty to help to pay for the costs. And lastly, you were supposed to come in and talk to each other and have a great time, and get to know everyone, and share your story.

Lauren Kata, a former SWE archivist, also asked past president Arminta Harness about the Over-the-Hill Suite during a 2003 oral history interview.

(Audio excerpt from interview)

Lauren Kata:

Well, let me ask you this: What’s the dynamic between young people and old people when you come to the Over-the-Hill Suite?

Arminta Harness:

Well, that’s what was so great. We loved to have the students come, because they, you know, juiced things up a little bit, and we got a different viewpoint. In the very beginning there was a great deal of awe on the part of the students. They were a little bit intimidated by all of the old—because we had all the past presidents. All the old—you know, everybody—the people who were in the Over-the-Hill Suite were people who had been dynamic in the society, and it was intimidating to the younger ones.

Lauren Kata:

That’s still true today. (Laughter)

Arminta Harness:

It probably is. It probably is. But I don’t know, it just evolved. We didn’t start out to build something; it just evolved, because we loved to have the students there and the younger members of our society. That’s what the society is all about, the future.

(End of excerpt)

Troy Eller English

In her “Intergenerational Inspirations” article, Pritch shared some stories from old hospitality suite and Over-the-Hill suite. She wrote:

Troy Eller English (reading from Margaret Pritchard’s “Intergenerational Inspirations article):

“In fact, listening to stories in such a setting is one of the most delightful ways to share in the process of intergenerational inspiration. In 1970, for example, Irmard Flügge-Lotz received the Achievement Award for her “significant contributions to the field of fluid mechanics, in particular Wing Theory and Boundary Layer Throry,” to quote her citation. I remember sitting on the floor in a jam-packed suite as young Alva Matthews listed with rapt attention to the senior Flügge-Lotz, taking it all in. In front of me were two highly accomplished women of equal expertise, each with admiration for the other’s work, totally absorbed in discussion. At the time, how could we have known Matthews would become an Achievement Award recipient, too?

Though considerably younger, Matthews received the Achievement Award the following year, in 1971. Her citation read: ‘in recognition of her significant contributions to engineering mechanics and applied mathematics in the areas of shock analysis, elasticity, and structural design.’

Another exchange I’ll never forget took place when Bonnie Dunbar, Ph.D., at the time a member of the astronaut corps, described her experience re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. A number of us were relaxing together – all ages, ranging from collegiates to retired professionals. As Bonnie described her observations of the metal particulates she saw from the shuttle window while in flight, she and Esther Williams drew diagrams of their construction. Esther Williams, now deceased, was an expert metallurgist and many years Bonnie’s senior. Based on the diagrams and descriptions, Esther identified the materials in the particles. As the two of them spoke, the rest of us sat captivated. By this time, Bonnie had received SWE’s Resnik Challneger Medal, in 1992. In 2005, she went on to receive the Achievement Award.”

Anne Perusek:

I was present for that last conversation, and I can tell you the entire room was silent. You could have heard a pin drop, because Esther Williams drawing out and identifying, and drawing out the composition of the particles was an amazing thing to watch. And how many times do you get to listen to an astronaut describe their experience re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. These things just don’t happen every day, and I think all of us were awestruck. And I’m sure many, many times over the years that type of special interaction created just the energy of the conference. I think it infused the spirit of the conference. Truly an amazing thing to experience.

Troy Eller English:

I can’t imagine being in that room.

Anne Perusek:

I have to say it’s one of my favorite SWE memories. Back in September/October 2000 edition of SWE magazine, Jan Williams wrote an article called, “The Sisterhood of SWE,” that also captures much of the conference experience. She wrote:

Anne Perusek (Reading from Jan Williams’ “The Sisterhood of SWE” article):

“After attending the SWE 2000 conference in Washington, D.C., and before being consumed by the whirlwind of activity at the office, I took a few moments to reflect on my conference experience. It occurred to me that the energy and enthusiasm I share with my SWE friends results in personal renewal and revitalization. I love the sensation of genuine, unabashed joy in greeting colleagues I haven’t seen since the last conference. We chat about family and work, getting caught up on the latest crisis or accomplishment. We laugh and empathize as we share the 15-minute version of what has transpired over the last year.

“It is during these moments that I am most in tune with the sisterhood of SWE, and truly appreciate what the organization brings to my life. It is an extraordinary network of extraordinary women, in which one can’t help but feel awed. But there is also a sense of comfort, like flopping down in a favorite old easy chair and being completely relaxed. We can be ourselves, because SWE is a safe, supportive environment for sharing and learning about our careers, ourselves, and each other.…

“This is the kind of camaraderie I have come to rely on within SWE. We are as diverse a group as ever came together at a conference – but we are united by our comparable education and profession, as well as our tenacity and personal fortitude. Those commonalities are enough to create and foster the sisterhood through which we support one another. Some of my dearest colleagues are those I have met at SWE conventions and conferences and may only see once or twice a year. Despite the limited contact, these are friends I can trust and rely on for support. I can travel to just about any major city in the U.S., and the SWE friends I have made through the years would offer a friendly visit and a place to stay. And I feel the same warmth and friendship toward them.”

Troy Eller English:

That warmth and friendship really comes through at the conference when you’re talking to people. I am not an engineer, but I feel when I go to the conference and I start talking to SWE members, I feel swept up with them. I’d like to share one last observation from Pritch, from her article about “Intergenerational Inspirations.” She wrote:

Troy Eller English (reading from Margaret Pritchard’s “Intergenerational Inspirations” article):

“The notion and experience of intergenerational inspirations has caused me to become aware of my obligations to the future engineers. As someone who has thoroughly enjoyed her career, I believe in helping subsequent generational of engineers determine their niche in life. Being involved in such a process has been a very happy part of my giving back to the profession I love. It is the reason why I am convinced that history, especially SWE history and the history of women in engineering, is so much more than a collection of dates and facts. It is the story of those who came before us, it is my story, and your story, and the stories of those who follow us.”

Troy Eller English:

I love that quote, perhaps because I am an archivist, but I also feel that it is very true, and it is what, I think, makes SWE “SWE.” It is a little bittersweet. Pritch’s last conference that she attended was in 2009 during her declared swan song. And sadly she passed away just this past July. We will miss her. She was quite a character. But I am glad that she shared her story with us, and I hope that everyone else will share their stories, too, and make those intergenerational connections.

Anne Perusek: I’d just like to say about Pritch, although this is very bittersweet, she left us a wonderful legacy, as did all of those early SWE members, all those pioneers, and we’re so fortunate to be able to take that legacy and take that energy, and really infuse today’s SWE members and young women engineers with that type of spirit. So I encourage you to make those intergenerational connections this year. You can do it through the many activities at the conference, the Pathfinders Lounge, the Ice Cream Social, Keynote Breakfast, Awards Banquet, and everything that happens between those things.

Troy Eller English:

And that’s a lot. (laughs) So that’s all for today. Check out the full text of the interviews and speeches and magazines articles featured today by searching for “podcasts” on On behalf of Anne, I would like to thank you all for listening.


Harness, Arminta, interviewed by Lauren Kata, Profiles of SWE Pioneers Oral History Project, Walter P. Reuther Library and Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, [May 1, 2003].

Layne, Peggy. (1993, September/October). “Having It All,” SWE Magazine, p. 59.


Pritchard, Margaret, interviewed by Troy Eller, Profiles of SWE Pioneers Oral History Project, WalterP. Reuther Library and Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, [October 15, 2009].

Pritchard, Margaret. (2009, Conference). “Intergenerational Inspirations.” SWE Magazine, p. 52-52.

Williams, Jan. (2000, September/October). “The Sisterhood of SWE,” SWE Magazine, p. 89.



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