On Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, 44 professional and collegiate Society of Women Engineers (SWE) members and supporters headed to the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee campus, to gather in the same building the Wisconsin professional section of SWE was chartered in 50 years ago!
Decked out in long gowns and suits, attendees gathered for a celebratory luncheon, networking bingo and a formal presentation. Event leader Andrea Falasco spearheaded the effort and set the scene by decorating tables with pine boughs, twinkling lights and various award plaques the section has received throughout the years.
SWE-WI section “herstorian” Betty Leonhard provided a nonstop pictorial slide show that included over 90 slides of section memorabilia from the past half a century. She highlighted events from the 1973 chartering year, such as gas prices being 39 cents per gallon and McDonalds introducing their Quarter Pounder with Cheese.
Leonhard explained that SWE-WI was originally chartered as the Milwaukee SWE section and years later expanded to the Wisconsin section; the territory currently encompasses most of the state of Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan.
As membership chair, I shared some of my fondest memories as a SWE-WI member beginning with my term as section president, including hosting the SWE 2004 annual conference in Milwaukee while eight months pregnant with our third child, working with Newsletter Editor Andrea Cole and seeing the section receive the Best Newsletter Award, and challenging my Outreach Committee to create a sixth grade essay contest in 2006.
The essay contest asked students to create a vehicle that ran on items other than fossil fuels. The committee stepped up to the challenge and contacted every public and private school in Wisconsin and, in return, received over 100 essays! Essay entries included vehicles running on everything from mower grass clippings to cheese (which was not too surprising since it is Wisconsin!).
We gave out awards for the best entries, and members traveled to schools to make many of the presentations. SWE-WI received the Connecting Educators to Engineering Award during National Engineers Week that year, out of more than 200 professional sections.
I also recalled my interview several years ago with Elizabeth Bastian, one of the SWE-WI charter members. Elizabeth was the first woman to graduate with an engineering degree from Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE). Elizabeth started the SWE section, along with Lillian Leenhouts (a SWE Fellow and the first woman in Wisconsin to become a licensed architect) and others.
To conclude the program, I expressed why I have remained an active member of SWE:
“Of all the working engineers in the United States, we are lucky if 14% of those are women. The number was 8% when I graduated in the ‘80s. SWE is more timely now than ever. You don’t need to be a woman or an engineer to join SWE. If you want to see more women in the engineering workforce and in the classroom, we encourage you to join SWE where a portion of your SWE dues goes directly back to your local SWE section to support incredible efforts like outreach, professional development and scholarships!”
I went on to recognize past section presidents, life members and past award recipients, and I presented certificates to 23 ladies who have more than 25 years of SWE membership.
Two members of note have more than 50 years of SWE membership! Marcie Strahl has 52 years of SWE membership and spent many of those years in the aerospace industry. Marilyn John has been a SWE member for 50 years, including serving as SWE-WI president in 1982. She also began her mechanical engineering teaching career at UW-Milwaukee in 1956.
We hope this event inspires other SWE sections to celebrate their chartering anniversaries.