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Engineer Jill Tietjen on recording women's history
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Sarah Toce
2015-06-16

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National Women's Hall of Fame CEO Jill Tietjen co-authored the enduring register Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America ( HarperCollins ) with Charlotte Waisman in January 2013. Since then, the two-pound tome has systematically altered the course of feminism through the sheer force of its existence.

"I was introduced to my co-author Charlotte Waisman in 2003, and she had this idea already of women along the timeline," said Tietjen, an electrical engineer by trade. "In fact, she had a paper timeline that consisted of 100 sheets Scotch-taped together that she used when she went out and spoke. And then she decided, really, that it was time to have a book, and she went out to find the book to give to her classes and her students, and the book didn't exist."

Waisman had her goal set: She would create a book for women by women—and she would do it with Tietjen.

"We went out to lunch—a lot of my life happens through lunch—and she, at the end of lunch, said 'We're going to write a book together, and this is what it's going to be,'" Tietjen recalled.

Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America would eventually profile and feature more than 850 women "that most of us have never heard of, that we never learned about in school, because we don't learn anything about the women in history through school … because the textbooks are 95-99-percent male," Tietjen explained.

The first woman elected to Congress from Colorado, Pat Schroeder, issued a coveted endorsement for Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America that still rings exuberantly in Tietjen's ear.

"Too many Americans think men fought their way to this country on dangerous sailing ships while women arrived on cruise ships. Her Story sets the record straight, men and women came on the same ships and shoulder-to-shoulder built this great country together. Her Story is a must read. We have had 400 years of sex-gregated history; it's time for the holistic view," Schroeder praised.

"That's the whole purpose," Tietjen said. "We haven't told the story of women and women's contributions are important. Nobody actually would be here without women. And we can't continue to populate our country without women. And there are a lot of roles that women have that are very important, and we haven't told their story and we needed to."

Tietjen's life assignment is translucent: "My objective is to tell women's stories, that's what I now have as my whole mission, is telling women's stories," she said.

As an active member of The Society of Women Engineers in 1987, Tietjen became involved in an essay contest highlighting accomplished women in the fields of engineering and science. The essay contest led way to Tietjen's next move: nominating colleagues to the Women's Hall of Fame.

"My first successful nomination in '94 was Admiral Grace Murray Hopper. Admiral Hopper developed the computer compiler, and that is the software that allows us to talk to our laptops or our smartphones in English, French, German, Spanish, Swahili, or whatever, and then the computer compiler translates our language into the 0's and 1's that the computer understands," Tietjen said. "She was my first successful nominee for what's called the National Medal of Technology, although it's actually now called the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. And I was at the White House to receive it from the first President Bush in '91 and then she was my first successful nominee to the Hall in '94. And there's actually a destroyer—a ship—named for her. And her name was grace, so one of its nicknames is Amazing Grace."

To date, Ttietjen has nominated successfully 21 women to the Hall.

"I'll tell you one interesting one—Dorothy Eustis. She was the one who came up with the concept of the Seeing Eye dog. Everybody knows what the Seeing Eye dog is, and it's expanded now to other kinds of companions and other kinds of programs, but the model, the first, was the Seeing Eye dog, and [the creator] was a woman."

NASA Astronaut Sally Ride was the first woman in space. She spent her life with her partner Tam O'Shaughnessy—a fact that came to light posthumously.

"Her impact was incredibly significant. She really dedicated herself to getting more women in science, technology, engineering, and math ( STEM ) careers. Sally had to prove the acceptance of women in space," Tietjen said. "There were women that did test to be in the original astronaut program and that were effectively denied after they passed all the tests. I don't remember exactly all the reasons why—I mean what sticks in my head is probably not necessarily the reason, but I think they couldn't figure out how women astronauts were going to use the bathroom in space. But anyway…"

Another groundbreaking individual, in Tietjen's opinion, is teacher/adventurer Ann Bancroft, who has journeyed to the Arctic and Anarctic regions. She asked, "If women can have babies and put up with all of the hardships that come with their lives, why couldn't they be polar explorers? You know, carrying a baby for nine months actually requires a fair amount of endurance."

Speaking of maternal connectivity, Tietjen participated in a Google Connected Classroom in May wherein she taught a class dubbed "Amazing Moms Through History."

"At the end of the program I said to the students—one was a fifth-grade class in Florida and one was an eighth-grade class in North Carolina—I said, 'What did you learn?,' Tietjen said. "And the boys said, 'I learned that women's contributions are equal to men's. I learned that women deserve our respect.'

"It's so important to have this experience for fifth-grade and eighth-grade boys to say that women's contributions are important and women make equal contributions to men and women deserve our respect. Oh, yeah!"

What did Tietjen envision for the future of women in science?

"I think the trajectory is upward. I tell people I've been working to get more women specifically into engineering now for 35 years. And the needle hasn't moved very much. I worked on a project in 1997 through '99, and our objective was 50/50 by 2020. The odds are negligible—we're not going to get close to 50/50 by 2020. It would be nice to get to 20, even 25 percent by 2020," Tietjen said.

Tietjen's advice for women passing the torch to the youngsters in the STEM conglomerate is, in part, to remember their history.

"You know, if the suffragettes could stick to it for 72 years, and only one of the people that was at the 1848 Women's Rights Conventions was alive when women got the right to vote, then it's really not asking too much of us to stick to it and get through it and do it for the ones who are going to follow us," she said. "But that's a little bit of hollow advice for people who are struggling—to say, well others have struggled before you and you have to do it for the ones that follow. Part of that actually is true and is what I believe. Scientists, science and engineering really have advanced the quality of our life."

Learn more about Jill Tiejen's work and Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America by visiting www.herstoryatimeline.com .


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