The origins of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) lie in student groups organized at Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia and Cooper Union and City College of New York in New York City in the late 1940s. Increased defense spending and a shortage of men during World War II had provided unprecedented educational and employment opportunities for women engineers. As a result, female graduate engineers began organizing local meetings and networking activities, in order to exchange information and address mutual concerns.
On May 27-28, 1950, about fifty women representing the four original districts or sections — metropolitan New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D. C., and Boston — attended the first “national convention” of the Society of Women Engineers at Green Engineering Camp of the Cooper Union in New Jersey, and elected Dr. Beatrice A. Hicks president. Over the next three years, the Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Los Angeles sections were chartered. In 1957 the SWE Archives was established, and the national SWE Archives Committee became a SWE standing committee.
Even though there was a shortage of engineers in the 1950s, it wasn’t until the 1960s, after Sputnik had intensified the United States government’s commitment to technological research and development, that engineering schools began opening their doors to women; SWE membership doubled to 1,200 and the organization moved its headquarters into the newly constructed United Engineering Center in New York City.
Over the next decade, an increasing number of young women chose engineering as a profession, but few were able to rise to management-level positions. SWE inaugurated a series of conferences (dubbed the Henniker Conferences after the meeting site in New Hampshire) on the status of women in engineering and in 1973, signed an agreement with the National Society of Professional Engineers in hopes of recruiting a larger percentage of working women and students to its ranks.
At the same time, SWE increasingly became involved in the spirit and activities of the larger women’s movement. In 1972, a number of representatives from women’s scientific and technical committees and societies (including SWE) met to form an alliance and discuss equity for women in science and engineering. This inaugural meeting eventually led to the formation of the Federation of Organizations of Professional Women (FOPW). In addition, SWE’s Council resolved in 1973 to endorse ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, and a few years later, resolved not to hold national conventions in non-ERA-ratified states.
By 1982, the Society had swelled to 13,000 graduate and student members spread out in 250 sections across the country. The Council of Section Representatives, which in partnership with an Executive Committee had governed the Society since 1959, had become so large SWE adopted a regionalization plan designed to bring the leadership closer to the membership. Today, SWE is comprised of over 17,000 student, graduate and corporate members, and continues its mission as a 501(c)(3) non-profit educational service organization.