The most recognizable of SWE’s thousands of historic photographs is the group shot of the Society’s founding members, taken on May 27, 1950 in a field at the The Cooper Union’s “Camp Green.” Among them, sitting on the ground in the second row at the far left, is Aileen Fong Shane. A founding and charter member of the Society, she was also SWE’s first Asian American member and the first to sit on SWE’s Board of Directors.
The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Aileen Fong was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1926. She attended Barnard College briefly before completing a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1946 at Newark College of Engineering. “She was just doing what needed to be done,” explained daughter Jordana Shane in a 2010 email to SWE’s archives, “getting a college degree during wartime as quickly as possible, so that she could earn money and help her family, who were not rich.” After graduating, she worked for a year at Curtiss-Wright Propeller Division as a vibration stress analyst. She became a test engineer for Purolator Products, Inc., testing filter components, supervising two laboratory shifts, and consulting with company salesmen, before returning to the Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical Division in 1950 as a test engineer for ram jet components.
It was during this time that Aileen attended what became the founding meeting of the Society of Women Engineers in 1950, most likely at the behest of friend and fellow NCE graduate Beatrice Hicks, who was elected president of the fledgling society at that meeting. In 1952 she was elected director of the New York Section, representing the section’s interests on the Society’s FY53 Board of Directors. She married Harold Shane in 1953, and in June 1955 they participated in a Society for Advancement of Management New York Chapter program on “Man and Wife Teams in Management and Engineering,” alongside Hicks, her husband Rodney Chipp, and several other dual-engineering couples from the SWE New York Section.
Aileen completed a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology in 1954, reportedly without the benefit of women’s restrooms in the engineering buildings. She worked at Reaction Motors (later Thiokol) for much of the 1950s, working on the engine cooling system for the first North American X-15 rocket plane. “My mom worked up until a short time (a week probably!) before my brother was born in 1962, and wore heels every day,” explained daughter Jordana in 2010. When she left, her fellow male engineers gave her specs on how to care for a baby, written on graph paper in “engineer-ese.”
Although Aileen stepped away from her engineering career in the 1960s and early 1970s to raise a family, she did work as a substitute teacher in physics, math, drafting, and home economics for the local school district. She returned to engineering in 1974 at Howmet Corporation. Where she had previously worn high heels in her 1950s offices, she switched to safety shoes in the Howmet foundry. “These things just were, and we didn’t think about them too much. She never, ever was one to say, ‘Look at me, I’m special!’” considered Jordana. “In retrospect, I don’t know anyone else whose mom owns safety shoes.” Aileen later moved to Picatinny Arsenal, where she designed fuses until her retirement in 1991.
Aileen Fong Shane passed away in 2017. Known as “firecracker” and for her strong opinions, her New Jersey Herald obituary also remembered that she, “had a big heart, and wanted the best for humanity. A first-generation Chinese-American, she had a lifetime of experience with prejudice and discrimination. She wanted others facing similar challenges to be heard, and to be aided.” While she never particularly considered herself a trailblazer or activist, “She just lived it,” Jordana attested in 2010. “She did feel, I think, that the best way to deal with discrimination was that she needed to better, to be smarter, to be quicker than the men—and she was.”
Sources: Society of Women Engineers Records, Walter P. Reuther Library; New Jersey Herald obituary, March 5, 2017; personal correspondence.