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SWE Stories, Tales from the Founders’ Families

Creating a unified Society of Women Engineers meant bringing together women engineers and engineering students who had been meeting and organizing separately in the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas. These efforts toward a unified, single Society would result in an infrastructure that supported the mission beyond the East Coast to the rest of the United States and, decades later, globally. Yet, beyond impacting the workplace and the profession, what did it mean that one’s mother participated in that auspicious founding?
Swe Stories, Tales From The Founders’ Families

A group photo taken at Cooper Union’s Camp Green on May 27, 1950, is one of a number of iconic images in the SWE archives telling the story of the Society of Women Engineers’ founding weekend. These pictures also help shed light on the stories of individual women engineers and engineering students — from snapshots of young women checking into engineering camp with their now-vintage suitcases, to group meetings and recreational breaks from the hard work of founding a professional organization for women engineers. There is even video from that weekend, taken by a late 1940s-era home movie camera and recently digitized.

Swe Stories, Tales From The Founders’ Families
Participants at Camp Green came from loosely organized groups of practicing women engineers primarily in New York and Philadelphia, as well as from an undergraduate organization founded by students at the Drexel Institute, now Drexel University. Evelyn Jetter is in the back row; in the middle row left of center is Roslyn Keller Gitlin; to her right, Evelyn Fowler. Present but obscured is Miriam (Mickey) Gerla.

Seen in celebrations marking SWE anniversaries and Founders Day, we look at these 70-year-old photos of women who are holding intense discussions during meetings and playing softball and badminton during their downtime. We see animated faces excited and proud to be part of something new and important, while taking a few moments to enjoy the outdoors on a spring weekend.

But what became of those young women? As it turns out, in many cases, that weekend in New Jersey was the beginning of a lifelong affiliation and friendships. For example, Miriam (Mickey) Gerla went on to become the Society’s fifth president. Her contributions to build the organization in its early years are well documented through executive committee meeting minutes, correspondence, SWE publications, and other means. Thanks to her supportive husband, who ventured to Camp Green to record part of the event, the SWE archives has video from that founding meeting. The Gerla family — parents Morty and Mickey, and children Harry and Lisa Gerla-Feder — had kept their home movies. When Gerla-Feder digitized the Camp Green footage, she generously donated it to SWE’s archives.

In honor of the Society’s 70th anniversary, the SWE archives and SWE Magazine jointly reached out to the known adult children of the founding members. We wondered what it was like to grow up in a family whose mother was an active SWE member at a time when most women did not work outside the home. What impact did these pioneers have, not only in their male-dominated workplaces and the profession, but on their children and grandchildren? In these most personal spaces and relationships, what, if any, difference did it make that the mom was a woman engineer in the 1950s? In the ’60s and ’70s?

The same questionnaire was sent to all family members, with the opportunity to provide additional information, photos, or other relevant material. Aside from the differences from family to family, it should be noted that there were variations in recollections and experiences from children in the same family, given differences in birth order, gender, and personalities.

A “family” of families

Founding member Evelyn Fowler is now 99 years old and lives in Connecticut. She moved there from New York decades ago with her husband, an electrical engineer and inventor. There, they built a family business, American Actuator Corporation, much of which was operated from the basement of their home while the children were growing up. Although her first degree is in graphic design from Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, with her husband’s encouragement and before they built their company, Evelyn had returned to Pratt and earned a B.S. in chemical engineering.

Swe Stories, Tales From The Founders’ Families
When not in meetings and sessions, Camp Green attendees played baseball and badminton, went on a tour, had a picnic, and explored the grounds.

The Fowlers and Gerlas are related, as the husbands are first cousins. And with both wives being engineers and active in SWE, the families spent time together. As son Joe, the oldest of the four Fowler children, recalled:

My mother liked to socialize … She was very active initially in both the New York and Connecticut [sections] … we had meetings and picnics at our house in Stamford and went to picnics in New York and other places, as my parents were much more comfortable with other technically educated people than they were with most of their local neighbors in Connecticut.”

These memories and impressions were seconded by Mary Fowler, the youngest in the family, who wrote that her parents “designed, manufactured, and sold equipment for the sheet metal industry. Their office was in the basement of our house. My mother helped with the designs and patents and covered the administration. I literally grew up in the office and helped doing the tasks from office work to component assembly work.”

Regarding the get-togethers with other SWE families, Mary added: “SWE was important to my mother, socially and intellectually. … She was involved with two different groups … [who] ran formal meetings, had guest speakers, and went on field trips. There were also the wonderful, very fun picnics in our yard with the New York families.”

Of the four children in this family, Joe became a patent attorney; another son is “a practical chemist, in the nature of his business”; and the youngest son is an engineer. Mary is a licensed architect and attributes her career path to her mother’s encouragement.

While it isn’t always possible to discern a mother’s direct influence from other factors that might contribute to a child’s career choice, this much is clear: The Fowler children were proud of their mother, and her career as an engineer conveyed a message of gender equality. Joe described his parents as “very liberated,” and who “never regarded women as being limited intellectually or otherwise.” Mary said, “My mother instilled in me the importance of having a profession and that women were as capable as men.”

And finally, for the Fowler children, how did having a mother who was also a woman engineer compare with friends and neighbors? Joe noted that “almost none of my local contemporaries’ mothers worked outside the home. And I believe a number of them pitied my mother as she juggled a lot of hats in a struggling nascent business while raising a family at the same time. And yet, they respected her for her manifold abilities and kind attitude.”

Swe Stories, Tales From The Founders’ Families
Attendees check into their cabins at Camp Green. Doris McNulty later recalled a fire drill in which “in the wee small hours of the morning, a blaring bugle aroused us from our slumber and chaperones commanded us to slide down the escape rope in our P.J.’s to the dew-soaked grass twenty feet below.”

Similarly, Mary wrote, “I was always very proud of my mother. Very few of my friends had mothers with professional careers.” Of her unconventional (for the time) household, she described an episode that took place while her mom was out of town. “When I was about 6, my mom was away on the SWE annual trip, to Philadelphia. I came down with the measles, leaving my dad in distress.”

In the Gerla household, Mickey was active in her career throughout the 1950s and served as SWE president from 1956-58. Son Harry explained what happened next: “When I was adopted in 1960, she had stopped working. Back in those days, families which wanted to adopt children could not have a mother working outside the home. I believe the same was true back in 1962 when my sister was adopted.”

Despite retiring from engineering in 1960, Lisa Gerla-Feder pointed out that her mom remained a SWE member for the next 33 years, until her death in 1993. Mickey’s last annual convention (as they were called at the time) was June 1990, in New York City, when the Society celebrated its 40th anniversary. “My mother was an ardent saver of articles, documents, souvenirs, and photos from her years with the SWE, and I learned a great deal concerning her contributions while navigating through [her] 70-year-old handwritten archives,” Gerla-Feder wrote.

She discovered that her mom “created the bylaws committee and was instrumental in getting the SWE a nonprofit tax designation.” Further, “she worked tirelessly, enabling SWE’s growth, and regularly encouraged young women who were interested in math and science to pursue careers in engineering.”

Swe Stories, Tales From The Founders’ Families
An invitation to the meeting at Cooper Union’s Camp Green, located in New Jersey. The weekend-long gathering, May 27-28, 1950, culminated in the establishment of the Society of Women Engineers.

Through a child’s eyes

Mickey met the renowned Lillian Moller Gilbreth, Ph.D., known as “the first lady of engineering,” and who was also the mother of 12 children, during SWE’s 1957 convention in Houston. Their encounter left such an impression that Gerla-Feder remembers her mother quoting, from time to time, Dr. Gilbreth’s reply to a question raised at the convention. When asked how she managed to meet so many professional obligations, given her personal responsibilities and commitments, Dr. Gilbreth simply said: “Time management is a crucial tool.”

Gerla-Feder said that her mother’s “participation and loyalty to the women of SWE provided me with some personal memories that included social events with fellow founding members Evelyn Fowler, Roslyn (Roz) Keller Gitlin, and Evelyn Jetter and their families. We shared family picnics together, sleepovers, boat trips along the East River, and other personal triumphs and celebrations throughout the years.”

Whether having a mom who was also an engineer influenced their attitudes regarding work, and women’s roles and rights, Harry Gerla  said, “She was just mom to me. I was proud of the fact that she was an engineer prior to my adoption, but I really can’t say that there was anything different about her as a mother because of her prior career.” Still, he added: “I believe having a mother who was an engineer made me more receptive and supportive of women’s rights in general and women in the various professions.”

His final observation speaks to the changes that have transpired since SWE’s early days. Reflecting on those, he noted “the change in attitudes toward women working outside the home that occurred between the 1960s, when my sister and I were adopted, and the 1990s when my wife and I adopted our two children. By that time, a woman working outside the home (which my wife did), was no longer a disqualification or even a negative factor in adoption. I’d like to think that my mother and the other SWE founding members had something to do with that.”

Swe Stories, Tales From The Founders’ Families
Elsie Eaves, P.E., center, was well established in her publishing career at the Engineering News-Record. She supported the young women at SWE’s founding and became the advisory editor to the SWE Journal, established in 1951. CREDIT: LISA GERLA-FEDER

Similar to the Gerlas, the Gitlin children grew up mostly within the traditional family structure of the time. Ira Gitlin, son of Roz Gitlin, wrote: “My mother spent a number of years outside the labor force to raise me and my brother and sister.”

The Gitlins were one of the families that gathered at the Fowler home and other locations, along with the Gerlas and Jetters. Children from these families have described the get-togethers in ways that imply great importance. Through the eyes of a child, these gatherings were experienced as big events and fun.

Yet, considering the value of these get-togethers from the mothers’ perspectives, they most likely offered intellectual stimulation and bonding with established friends — all women who shared engineering education and professional experiences, including SWE. It would not occur to a child just how much satisfaction, even affirmation, these gatherings may have provided, especially to moms who were no longer working outside the home.

In this vein, it seems Ira Gitlin’s statement that he “was aware of her engineering background, and of her pride in it,” along with Harry Gerla’s, that he “was proud of the fact that she was an engineer prior to my adoption,” both reflect how childhood notions that something is important grow into fuller knowledge and understanding.

The Engineer and the Guillotine Joke

While there are a number of variations on the joke, the gist is this:

During the French Revolution, a priest, a fisherman, and an engineer are led to the guillotine. They ask the priest if he wants to face up or down when he meets his fate. The priest says he would like to be facing up so he will be looking toward heaven when he dies. They raise the blade of the guillotine and release it. It comes speeding down and suddenly stops just inches from his neck. The authorities take this as divine intervention and release the priest.

The fisherman comes to the guillotine next. He also decides to die face up, hoping that he will be as fortunate as the priest. They raise the blade of the guillotine and release it. It comes speeding down and suddenly stops just inches from his neck. Again, the authorities take this as a sign of divine intervention, and they release the fisherman as well. 

Next is the engineer. He, too, decides to die facing up. As they slowly raise the blade of the guillotine, the engineer suddenly says, “Hey, I see what your problem is …”

One of Dan Jetter’s childhood memories is overhearing a room full of engineers laughing at this joke.

A less conventional route 

In the Jetter family, Evelyn stayed home with her children for about a dozen years, yet for part of that time worked as a consultant out of her basement. She performed work for Newark Controls, the firm owned by her colleague and SWE’s first president, Beatrice Hicks. They worked on Hicks’ patented invention, a gas densitometer switch, which was later refined for use on the Apollo moon missions and led to Hicks’ posthumous induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Swe Stories, Tales From The Founders’ Families
A portrait of Evelyn Jetter early in her career | CREDIT: LISA GERLA-FEDER

In 1959, Evelyn was featured in Charm magazine, where she was photographed at work in her basement office with her young daughter, Alexis, peering out from behind her. It wasn’t the first time Evelyn had received press coverage. In 1951, before her children were born, she appeared in Mademoiselle magazine due to her work with the Atomic Energy Commission’s Health and Safety Laboratory. 

When her youngest child was old enough for nursery school, Evelyn went back to work, this time for Lionel Electrical. Additional child care issues were resolved with Mr. Jetter’s agreeing to take on much more of those responsibilities, in a step that was quite remarkable for fathers at the time. Dan, the youngest of the four children, shared two humorous stories about family life that also reveal a child’s immediate experience, plus the awareness that frequently develops later.

Swe Stories, Tales From The Founders’ Families
An early meeting of SWE’s Metropolitan New York Section included, front row, from left, Evelyn Fowler and Miriam (Mickey) Gerla; back row, from left, Roslyn Keller (later Gitlin) and Kay Broughton. CREDIT: LISA GERLA-FEDER

Dan Jetter wrote:

“In our family, we kids prepared dinner so that it would be ready when Mom got home (Dad always worked later). But sometimes, Mom got home earlier than expected. Ugh, that would mean that she’d want to help in the preparation — not good. My job was setting the table, which she’d take over when she got home early. I’d watch her, amazed. I never understood how this brilliant woman could never correctly set the table. Something would always be missing: forks, the right number of plates, whatever … I finally realized that she always had the solving of a work problem on her mind, that she never could focus on the menial task at hand.”

Another story speaks to the goings-on at the joint family gatherings:

“Usually, the annual SWE family get-togethers were held at Evelyn Fowler’s in Connecticut. But in the early ’70s, we held one at our New Jersey house. (I was still fuming about Mom’s humiliating me years earlier when she checked my ears for wax in front of everybody on the Fowler’s patio.) I vaguely recall, during the get-together at our New Jersey house, being in a back room when I heard a burst of laughter coming from the living room, where all the grown-ups were. I later found out that somebody had told the ‘Engineer and the Guillotine’ joke. I’ve never heard engineers laugh so hard. I now love that joke.” (See sidebar)

Swe Stories, Tales From The Founders’ Families
Over the past summer, at age 99, Evelyn Fowler once again hosted a gathering of the families at her Connecticut home. CREDIT: LISA GERLA-FEDER

Investigative reporter

The effort to more fully understand her mother led Alexis Jetter down some unexpected paths. She sought an understanding that went beyond wondering what it felt like to be the only mom on the block who worked as a professional, the only one who used a slide rule, and the one to whom neighborhood kids came when they needed instruction on doing so. Understanding those things, important as they were, was just part of understanding a larger puzzle.

In 1979, Evelyn died of ovarian cancer. She was only 52 years old, and until her illness had been active and in peak health — successful and well regarded professionally, enjoying her work at RCA, and the unconventional but uniquely doable rhythm of her home life. At the time of her death, Dan was 16 and Alexis was 22 and on the West Coast. The older two siblings, Paul and Verna, were also on their own.

By chance, a few years later, Alexis had an internship with Mother Jones magazine, where she fact-checked contributors’ articles. One day, checking up on radioactivity, she came upon startling information that led her back to New York with many questions, including: “Did radiation cause my mom’s cancer?” Back home, she pored through her mother’s journals, work papers, lists, and notebooks — through box after box after box as more questions emerged.

Swe Stories, Tales From The Founders’ Families
Efforts to better understand what happened to her mother led Alexis Jetter down the path of investigative reporting and a journalism career. Her master’s thesis was published as the cover story of Newsday magazine.

Alexis eventually enrolled in a graduate program at the Columbia University School of Journalism, and her master’s thesis was both an investigation into the changing safety standards regarding exposure to radioactive materials and her mother’s work history and workplaces. She explained:

“I found out as I did my research that she worked in what’s called the ‘hot lab’ [at Lionel] and the hot lab leaked. You know, I never found the smoking gun, but it was a journey for me to find out — initially my question was, ‘Did my mom die of radiation exposure?’ I wasn’t ever able to answer that question, but what I was able to open up was this whole new vista, this whole new window into my mother’s life.” 

Her master’s thesis became the cover story for an issue of Newsday magazine and won a journalism award. Titled “Did Radiation Kill Evelyn Jetter? A Daughter’s Inquiry,” it was published in the June 29, 1986, edition.

Alexis currently teaches journalism at Dartmouth College. In 2013, she attended the SWE annual conference, where she participated in a panel, met with some of her mom’s friends from the early days, and marveled at SWE’s growth and the vibrancy and energy of the event. While there, she recorded an oral history, sharing among many things that much of her mother’s story is rooted in SWE and in her engineering identity.

Of the WE13 conference, with an attendance of more than 6,000, she said: “If my mother could see this, she would be really happy … I don’t think she could ever imagine this. And it’s what they [the founders] wanted. They didn’t want girls to be discouraged.” 

Although many years had passed since the Camp Green meeting that established the Society of Women Engineers, the attendees at WE13 (as well as at previous and subsequent conferences) were doing many of the same things as the pioneers: networking, making friendships, creating educational and career opportunities in a still male-dominated profession, and perhaps building “SWE families” of their own.

Stay tuned for the second and final part of this series, focusing on the founders based in Philadelphia.