Swarthmore Women Engineers
by: Kasia Koziol-Dube


What Is This Project About?


     This website and project are about the earliest women to graduate from Swarthmore College with engineering degrees. I decided that this project would cover the 60 year period from 1922 (when the first woman graduated with an engineering degree) to 1979 (when there was a steady trend of women graduating with engineering degrees). This would be called the "Early Years" of women in engineering for me. The project tracks how many women engineers graduated in each class and uses other sources to figure out what these women did after graduation. I was curious to see if they stayed in the engineering field. I was especially interested to found out about what the first women engineers did after college. We also have to keep in mind that the attitude to women in the workplace was different then from the world today, especially for married women.


     I also wanted this to be more than a project of charts and numbers and focus on the unique accomplishments, great and small, that these early women made. All of them might not have gotten patents, but without them taking the step forward to enter the workforce as engineers we might be see a greater gap in women entering engineering today. I felt that by adding a personal touch of the yearbook entries that we could get a better glimpse at the honor and admiration these women received from their peers by many times being the only female major in the engineering department with no female faculty. The most interesting question is "why did these women choose to go into engineering?" and how did they feel about being the only female or one of few females in the department. Did they feel an extra sense of accomplishment and realize the magnitude of what their presence might mean for future women? Also, how does the feeling change with time as more women enter into engineering, though the number remains small. Unfortunately, this project did not include interviews with these women and we can only look at existing information to ponder this question.


     The two parts of this project are the Women Engineers and the Analysis. The Women Engineers section is the accumulation information of each woman engineer from 1922 to 1979 that I gathered along with complete list of all the women engineers that graduated from Swarthmore College. The Analysis section is where I did some analysis of information, highlighted by a chart and graphs, on these women and some random facts and trends over time of women in engineering at Swarthmore.


Why Did I Pick This Topic?


     I picked this topic because I have a special interest in women involved with engineering. Though I am not an engineering major myself, I have grown up with many male engineering role models. I can remember my dad always saying how there are not many women engineers. Currently, engineering has the lowest percentage of women who graduate with this major and has always been considered a "man's major." Many people ask questions to figure out why this is so and try to encourage more women to consider majoring in engineering. I am interested in knowing when women started to venture into this field. I am sure these women had to be "trailblazers" to take classes in a major that for so long had only consisted of males. I wanted to learn about who these women were and how long it took for women to really look at engineering as a career option. Though we still have a ways to go before the engineering field is fifty-fifty, it is important to note the accomplishments of the earliest women engineers who set the path to be followed.


How I Did My Research


     I started my research with a list of women who graduated with engineering degrees from Swarthmore College. This list started with Elsa Palmer Jenkins and continued to 1998. From 1998 and on there were no lists of just the women engineers. I, then, brought my search to the Friends Historical Library in McCabe, where I used a collection of deceased alumni records, yearbooks, alumni directories, and an engineering department file to collect information on the earliest women engineers. My search lead me to the Publications, where I flipped through numerous Swarthmore Bulletins armed with my list of names to gather information. I was also directed towards using the Swarthmore database and Alumni Records, which gave me clues to the missing information about employment and advanced studies. Finally, I supplemented my information by doing online searches.


Problem/Discrepancies With Research


     Some problems with gathering information was that it was not always possible for me to get all the sources. I chose to focus on Swarthmore women engineers because the most resources would be available to me. I was still limited in some of my searches. I could only use materials that were present at Swarthmore or recorded in a file or book. There may be some more obscure information hiding somewhere but I did not know it existed or did not know where to look. Or if records were misplaced than I could not have access to them. Sometimes it was just luck that I found an article or information on one of the women. There is some luck involved when someone remembers to send an article in a local paper to the college to be put in a file so that I can find it. Some women were in better touch with the college and provided a constant update, whereas some seemed to graduate and never look back. In the case of Ruth Kern, she graduated with a mathematics degree in 1928 and then later in 1932 with an engineering degree. However, I only knew of the 1932 graduation date and information on Ruth was under 1928. Also, there were some discrepancies in the list of women engineers between the engineering department's list and the database. The database did not list Ruth Kern with an engineering degree. The engineering department did not list Alexandra Polyzopoulos has a women engineer in 1971. With the 1971 case, this changed the total women graduating with engineering degrees from 1 to 2. Also, there were some differences in graduation years for Jane Obee and Susan Dunning. Jane was listed in the database with the class of 1981 and with the engineering department with the class of 1982. Susan Dunning was listed in the database with the class of 1983 but with the class of 1985 in the engineering department. These changes have a small impact on the analysis part of the project where I graph different trends. There is also the case of what to do with a 1977 graduate, Nancy Nicholas, who had a special environmental studies major, which combined engineering and biology. Or the random chance I happened to notice Martha Fratt, who appears to not have gotten an engineering degree from Swarthmore but got a M.S. in electrical engineering, as I was searching through class notes in the Swarthmore Bulletin.


     I, in many cases, did not have the full employment history of each individual or did not fully understand whether there was an engineering role in the job, which could have affected my analysis.


My Thoughts About This Project


     I really find this whole project very interesting and feel that I learned a lot about how to go about finding information about regular people as opposed to famous individuals who everyone has written about. It is also a different from the scientific research that I have to do for class. I gained an appreciation for good recordkeeping and the importance of maintaining a contact with the college so that the most update information can be used. I think I will make more of a point to contribute to class notes in the Swarthmore Bulletin or participate in college surveys just in case some poor college student decides to do a project and needs information.


     I also feel like the work on this project never ends. I always want to add more or say something else. I feel like I can improve it in so many ways, but the semester is coming to an end and I only have so much time. There is still information to be found or generalizations that can be made. I just hope that by presenting what I have at this time will help the reader to see some of the same things that I do and what these women accomplished.




     The engineering department, the ladies in the Friends Historical Library, Jeff in Publications, Mimi Geiss for her searches, Ruth in Alumni Records, and many other people who helped direct me in the right direction or assisted me in gathering information. Also, David Gammill for helping me with web page stuff.