The southwesterly view from the Sky Room at 100 Memorial Drive provided the perfect backdrop for a party last week to honor Sheila E. Widnall, the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Professor Widnall served as secretary of the US Air Force from 1993-97; she returned to MIT exactly one year ago.
"It was the only job in Washington to have -- a great job," said Professor Widnall of her Air Force years. "How many people get to fly with the Thunderbirds?"
Appropriately for Professor Widnall, an airplane enthusiast, the culinary centerpiece of the event was a large, off-white cake with "Welcome Back Sheila!" and a portrait of an F-15E fighter jet in chocolate on the top.
Professor Widnall's previous positions with the Air Force include service on advisory committees to Military Airlift Command and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. She was the first woman to serve as secretary of the Air Force.
"Sheila Widnall represents daring. She unabashedly challenges any limitations on women. Women's Studies wanted to celebrate her presence at MIT," said Margery Resnick, associate professor of Hispanic studies and chair of the Women's Studies Program, which organized the event.
"We're here to join the theory -- which is Women's Studies -- with the practice -- which is represented by Sheila Widnall," said Professor Resnick.
Professor Widnall holds SB, SM and ScD degrees from MIT. In 1964, she became the first woman appointed to the engineering faculty at MIT and in 1979, she became the first woman to chair the MIT faculty. In 1992 and 1993, she served as associate provost, with special responsibility for issues affecting the quality of life for faculty at the Institute.
She is internationally known for her work in fluid dynamics, specifically in the areas of aircraft turbulence and the spiraling airflows (vortices) created by heliocopters.
On her return to MIT, Professor Widnall was "struck by the number of women in engineering. I'm the vice president of the National Academy of Engineering. The nationwide stats on women in engineering are bad, but not here. MIT has something very special."
About 20 people attended the late afternoon event, which featured performances of "Mummer's Dance" and "Time After Time" by the Muses, MIT's female a capella group. As fast-moving clouds darkened the fall sky, generations of women at MIT compared notes on their experiences and expectations of life in academe.
Justine Cassell, assistant professor of media arts and sciences, was encouraged by the gathering. "It's inspirational to be able to follow in the footsteps of Sheila Widnall," she said. "We junior faculty women are lucky that there are such fearless women who were willing to be 'firsts' in so many domains. And we're even luckier that they are willing to continue to support women faculty and women students even as they become more established in their careers," she said.
Bevin P. Engelward, assistant professor in bioengineering and environmental health, asked Professor Widnall how she had balanced motherhood and her academic career.
"I didn't take any time off. I had my first child and came back in three weeks. I didn't take any official leave for the second. A supportive husband makes a huge difference, and MIT has been a good environment," said Professor Widnall.
"So you have it all? You did it?" persisted Professor Engelward.
"Yes, I did," responded Professor Widnall, adding with characteristic brightness, "Stress? What's stress?"
Commenting later on Professor Widnall's contributions to MIT, Vice President and Secretary of the Corporation Kathryn Willmore said, "Sheila has apparently unlimited energy and devotion to the Institute. She has taken on more issues and responsibilities than anyone could reasonably expect and for the past 40 years has served as a source of inspiration and support to women students, faculty and staff alike."
In a toast acknowledging women's history at MIT, Professor Resnick declared, "Sheila, we're sorry the government lost you, but we're glad you're back. A warm welcome to you, the Muses and to all the "oldies" -- those of us who fought for women's bathrooms and athletic programs in the '70s, and to all the younger women faculty here today who will undoubtedly face new challenges."
"It's time now for broadening the issues. Many Americans think that feminism has lost steam. But we know women's issues aren't just what the White House says they are -- child care or family leave -- they're much wider than those," said Professor Widnall, who has a particular interest in gender-integrated training in the armed forces.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 4, 1998.