It was with nervous anticipation that I boarded the bus with my classmates for our senior class trip that would include a couple of plant visits and an overnight stay in Baltimore, Md. Until that day, I’d never been away without my parents and had led a relatively sheltered life, unless one considers the sink-or-swim milieu of being one of only two distaff classmates in a class of engineering students.
The first in my family to pursue a higher education, I did so via DeCamp bus each morning and evening. Although Catholic University in Washington, DC was my first choice to study Aeronautical Engineering, my family did not have the wherewithal to send me away to school; and Stevens Institute informed me clearly and without apology, that they did not accept applications from women. So instead, with the help of my NJ State Scholarship I commuted into the Newark’s inner city each day to Newark College of Engineering (NJIT today).
After four years of having burned the midnight oil and rising to the challenges of the heavy course load, I had worked my GPA up to a mighty 3.84. Yes, I was proud that in a few months I would receive my BS in Chemical Engineering. I was not threatened by the prospect of an overnight trip with my ‘buddies’ (who had long since become more like siblings than members of the opposite sex); and I would be rooming with Cathy, the other young woman in our class of Chemical Engineering candidates. It was going to be a fantastic trip!
We were all excited to get a glimpse of heavy manufacturing operations in chemical and industrial facilities. We’d been schooled in all manner of technical specialties, from Unit Operations and Thermodynamics, to Plant Design and Senior team projects. We’d researched patents, designed and (virtually) built our own manufacturing facilities, with due attention to economical design, risk assessment and mitigation, and commercial viability. Though some of us had gotten a smattering of hands-on experience with summer internships, it was only now, during these penultimate weeks of senior year, that we were finally on the brink of real-life engineering careers.
Despite the raw grey of the day, our spirits were high as we were driven through the security gate, into the inner sanctum of the immense and impressive steel plant. We were given hard hats and safety instructions, as a prelude to a tour of the smelting operation, where we would get a look at red, hot ore being processed. We must have been quite a sight: 55 engineering students, proudly displaying their industrial gear, marching excitedly to an operation that, up until now we had only read about in text books or seen in documentaries.
Our guide paused and before we realized what was happening, Cathy and I were handed off to another, who peeled us away from the main group, through a separate door. We assumed that we’d be rejoining our class inside the plant. Instead, we were politely escorted to an empty lab, where we posed for an awkward photograph, wearing our ironically superfluous, hard hats. Some apologies were mumbled about women not being permitted to enter the smelting operations. Hours later, we heard all about it. Years later that incident is still cause for reflection.
Decades after “Rosie the Riveter” and thousands of her emulators had stepped up to do their part during WWII, it seemed that industry, and indeed those women themselves, considered their participation in the industrial workforce to have been merely an expedient, temporary solution. After the war, conservative gender expectations had again taken root, as most of these women gave up their perceived advances, to return to their ‘rightful’ place in society.
I don’t know if there were legislated prohibitions in 1967 to the presence of women in the smelting area. I only know that because of my gender, I was excluded from an amazing and informative adventure – the cherry on the ice cream sundae of an engineering education. My disappointment, dismay and embarrassment are as vivid to me today as they were on that day. I thought I had saved that photo but sadly (or perhaps, thankfully) I cannot find it. The reader is left to imagine the black and white snapshot, of two young women in hard hats, standing awkwardly in an otherwise vacant, non-working lab.
We graduated that May, and moved on to our respective professional situations and personal lives. Most importantly though, with the perspective and wisdom that comes with age and experience, I now understand what I couldn’t know then; that we were all reflections and, in a sense, victims, of the societal norms of that time and place. All of the challenges and roadblocks then and since, and our ability to abide and incrementally overcome them, shaped me into the person I am today – grateful for parents who supported their daughter in her unusual career choice, blessed to have had a loving and understanding life partner who shared the struggles and the successes, and cognizant that I was the beneficiary of an invaluable educational experience that opened the door to a lifetime of unique opportunities.