Biographies of VFA Fabulous Feminists

Karen Spindel

I was a full-time female undergraduate mechanical engineering student at George Washington University in the mid 1960s. In 1969, my senior year, I went with my Student Chapter of the Society of Mechanical Engineers on a tour to Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point, MD. When I arrived with my male classmates, Bethlehem Steel personnel prohibited me not only from touring the plant, but also from getting off the bus, because of my gender. They positioned an armed guard in the seat next to me while the rest of the students toured. The year before, in 1968, I had earned a “women’s badge” from Tau Beta Pi, the Engineering Honor Society, which at that time did not accept women as full members. Then, also in 1969, the rules changed, and I became the first woman inductee from GWU.

Karen Spindel

September 1986, in Seneca Falls

After graduation, while seeking employment as an engineer, I was told by an employment agent that he would ask a lower salary for me than for a male engineering graduate because that way someone might actually hire me. Eventually I was hired by Robins Engineers & Constructors in Totowa, NJ. where one of my first assignments was to design overland conveyors for Bethlehem Steel.

In the mid 1970s I organized a protest at the Passaic Public Library, demanding that women be allowed to get library cards in their own names. Prior to that protest, women had to declare their marital status and use Mrs. followed by their husband’s first and last name on their library cards!

In 1972 I joined Passaic County NOW, where I served as chapter/membership coordinator for more than 20 years. In 1975, when a state ERA was on the ballot in New Jersey, other chapter members and I would lecture on the ERA “at any location that would invite us.” We were crushed when it was defeated because of bogus issues such as the draft (which was federal, not state) and the fear of unisex bathrooms.

During my 30+ years of activism, I have organized, marched and rallied in New Jersey and DC and written enough letters on topics such as equal rights, sex discrimination and gender stereotyping to fill a book.

In 2014, I moved to Northampton, MA (where the sign at the municipal parking garage proclaims: “Welcome to Northampton where the coffee is strong and so are the women and the first hour in this garage is always free”). I had fallen in love with this most liberal medium size city in the USA (according to ePodunk) when my younger daughter attended Smith College there from 2007 to 2011.

I am currently enjoying retirement while at the same time making a lifelong career of writing my memoir: a chronicle of growing up feminist and frustrated in a sexist society. And I am the proud mother of two feminist daughters, Samantha and Rachel.

Karen Spindel

This picture appeared in the July 1968 issue of The Bent of Tau Beta Pi. I received a Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society Women’s Badge my Junior year at GWU. If male, I would have become a member but in 1968 they didn’t allow women. Instead they gave us badges and printed our pictures in the magazine. A year later, during my Senior year, Tau beta Pi voted to accept, rather than except, women; and I had the pleasure of becoming the first female inductee from GWU. – Note: Tau Beta Pi was founded in 1885. When I earned the Women’s Badge in 1968, I became the 573rd women’s badge holder in 83 years since Tau Beta Pi’s founding. That gives you an idea of how hostile the profession was toward women both at the university and employment