It was the second world war that finally opened the doors of Rensselaer to women.  In 1942 the Institute announced that a limited number of women would be admitted "to replace men called to war."  They would be trained as scientists and technologists and thus serve the war effort on the home front. 
 
 The Curtiss-Wright Cadettes
 
In 1943 RPI participated in the Curtiss-Wright Cadette program.  The "cadettes" were math and science students recruited from top universities by the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, a leader in aircraft manufacturing.  The women were trained as engineers and technicians to supplement the company's technical staff, which had been depleted by draft requirements. 
 
The cadettes entered a ten-month program which was designed by company officials and Dr. Paul Hemke of the Aeronautical Engineering Department.  Their courses included Engineering Mechanics, Engineering Math, Materials of Engineering, Elements of Electricity, Machine Drawings and Standards, Stress Analysis, Elementary Aerodynamics, and Job Terminology and Orientation.    Curtiss-Wright Cadettes
 
Of the original 97 cadettes, 84 completed the demanding 10-month program and received special certificates from RPI.  They then worked for the propeller division of Curtiss-Wright in Lyndhurst, New Jersey. 
 
The novel experiment was featured in the May 1943 issue of Life magazine, which applauded the "good looking" young girls for their contribution to the war effort, and claimed that "their pioneering expedition into a field formerly 'for men only' gives them an active share in the fight." 
 
First female graduates
 
Lois Graham and Mary Ellen Rathbun were the first two women to graduate from Rensselaer, in 1946.  The two women and their classmates completed a war-accelerated program in two and a half years.
 
Pi Tau Sigma with Lois Graham, 1944   In addition to traditional academic trials, Mary Ellen Rathbun remembered "there were over 400 men to each woman then.  There wasn't a dorm for us so I had to take a room at Russell Sage College ... I also remember my dread of climbing all of those stairs on the Approach each day, especially when the mercury was way below zero." 
 
Lois Graham
Lois Graham knew that she wanted "a good education and a career in engineering."  She became the first woman in the country to receive a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering (at the Illinois Institute of Technology) and subsequently became a professor at IIT. 
 Mary Ellen Rathbun
After graduating, Mary Ellen Rathbun worked for the Chrysler Corporation and married Ed Kolb, RPI class of 1944.  Their daughter Mary Jane Kolb Stanley graduated from Rensselaer in 1969 and their son John Kolb received his degree in 1979. 
 
 
 
Comments and suggestions to: Archives Staff