NOTICE: Please use the internet browsers Google Chrome, Firefox or Safari when trying to login to our membership portal. Internet Explorer 8, 9 and 10 are no longer supported and IE 11 has limited compatibility.
By Meredith Holmes, SWE Contributor
Growing up, when friends asked where my father worked, I was supposed to avoid answering or say something vague like, “Oh, I think he crunches numbers for the Department of Agriculture.” The truth was, because of his security clearance and the sensitive nature of his work, he knew stuff most of us would never know about the world’s trouble spots, what world leaders were really up to, and why the U.S. intervened in some countries and not others.
My parents encouraged my siblings and me to be rational and to form opinions based on factual information. But I knew I didn’t have all the facts, and I got the message I was not supposed to ask my father or other members of my family who did confidential work for the scoop on, say, the Berlin Wall (going up or coming down), the arms race with the Soviets, or any headline-making event. Knowing that I lacked full knowledge of a situation, I found it difficult to form opinions.
Finally, when I went to college I decided I would just have to come to my own conclusions based on the incomplete, but abundant, information available to me. Still, at family gatherings, the views I expressed on current events were usually met with a thoughtful silence, a neutral comment, and a change of subject. I accepted this on one level — the one where we accept our own family as normal. Yet, a cousin whose immediate family worked mostly in academe suggested that the secrecy surrounding my family’s professional lives had affected my thinking. I was startled at first, but I saw she was right: I was overly cautious about coming to conclusions, too skeptical of information I gathered, and hesitant to ask questions. These traits are not assets for a writer. Thanks largely to my cousin’s comment, I eventually worked my way around the obstacles I had created for myself.
But I have remained curious about the emotional and intellectual fallout when one or more family members have jobs they are not allowed to talk about. So when, more than a year ago, I learned about early SWE members whose work was classified, I knew these were stories that needed to be told. Even now, long after the events took place, untangling these personal histories remains challenging.
While brainstorming women’s history stories for the spring issue of SWE Magazine, Anne Perusek, SWE editor, mentioned Mary Ross, who was born in 1908 and died in 2008. Ross was the first known American Indian (her preferred designation) woman engineer, and had once been nominated for the Achievement Award, the Society’s highest honor. Most of her work was classified, however, and could not be disclosed to the awards committee, so the nomination was withdrawn.
I found this information compelling because of my personal experience, and also because the classified designation presented yet another obstacle to women engineers and scientists receiving credit for their work. Keeping secrets, went the logic, was our patriotic duty. But the secrecy cloaked the accomplishments of women like Mary Ross. Her withdrawal/removal from consideration for the Achievement Award was particularly ironic, as one of SWE’s missions is to recognize the contributions of women engineers. Mary Ross had been active in SWE, was a charter member of the Los Angeles Section, and spent her retirement promoting the engineering profession to youth.
My investigation of Mary Ross’ work at Lockheed, as well as the contributions of two other early SWE members, Esther Conwell and Bobbie Johnson, resulted in the article, “What We Really Did After the War,” in the spring issue of SWE Magazine. Presenting their stories was at once fascinating, gratifying, and frustrating.
And, in the process of researching this article, I came across materials written by the children of women whose work was also classified, and therefore unrecognized. One was the book Rocket Girl, about Mary Sherman Morgan, a Cold War scientist who developed a propellant crucial to the U.S. space program. She was so secretive about her work and her personal life that her son George, a playwright, devoted years to researching and writing her biography so her accomplishments would be remembered. I also discovered Alexis Jetter, daughter of SWE founding member Evelyn Jetter. Alexis is a prizewinning journalist and author of an investigative article entitled, “Did Radiation Kill Evelyn Jetter?” Alexis continues to research her mother’s career as an engineer, trying to penetrate the secrecy surrounding the Atomic Energy Commission and other employers where her mother worked with radioactive materials.
I am fascinated by the determination of Alexis Jetter and George Morgan to find out the truth about their parents. I think about pulling together these and similar stories into one account about the effects of work and secrecy on families, but, in keeping with my upbringing and tendencies I have not really escaped, I don’t think I know enough yet.