The Boundaries of Women’s Rights: Activism and Aspirations in the Society of Women Engineers, 1946-1980

Lauren Kata

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Mainstream feminist organizations were not the only parties responsible for disseminating equal rights ideas into society at large. Professional women engineers in the post-World War II period spoke publicly and frequently on matters of equal rights and equal opportunity as members of the non-profit, educational engineering society—the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). In its first three decades, SWE women drew upon the language, legacy and legal gains credited to the women’s movement, while engaging other matters particular to the needs and philosophies of the engineering profession within which it sought to gain legitimacy and credibility. At different times in SWE history, however, individual ideas and promotion of the feminist cause came into conflict with the aims of a non-profit organization, and members’ voices represented opposite ends of the spectrum. In SWE’s 60th anniversary year, this paper looks back at its early history, and specifically, the organization’s support of and gradual retreat from the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. SWE’s participation in the women’s movement became increasingly complicated when the boundaries of the movement expanded to include indictments on technology, as well as, conflicts members’ residing in states that had not ratified the amendment -- making it difficult for some professional women engineers to rationalize the use of SWE resources toward solidarity with organized feminist protest. Exploring these tensions helps us understand the boundaries of women’s rights; how an organization like SWE could be both empowering and limiting; and how imagined possibilities rooted in feminist ideals could be bound
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)34-37
JournalJournal of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE Magazine Special Issue)
StatePublished - 2011
Externally publishedYes


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