Rosie the Engineer: RCA Cadettes
If Rosie the Riveter had spent some time in college before the outbreak of World War II, she might have been known as Rosie the RCA Cadette.
Factory jobs in aviation and nearly every major industry weren’t the only positions to be filled by women as men were called up to active service in wartime. The ranks of college-trained engineers, which weren’t large enough to handle soaring wartime demand in the first place, were depleted further by the war as men were drafted or enlisted.
The Advanced Development Group of Radio Corporation of America, a Lockheed Martin heritage company known today as the Advanced Technology Laboratories, participated in a socially groundbreaking solution to the problem. It sent a group of promising women students with prior college experience off for intensive college-level training at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. Other industry leaders, notably Curtiss-Wright, did the same.
The first group of RCA Engineering Cadettes, comprised of 86 women from 17 states, started classes on Purdue’s campus on May 1, 1943. They underwent forty-four weeks of intense training in mathematics, drafting, shop, electrical circuit theory, electronics, and radio theory, among others. They donned flannel work shirts on the shop floors and toiled alongside their male counterparts in other classes.
These wartime Cadettes were the first women to invade the inner sanctum of Purdue’s engineering department, and with predictable results, as wryly noted in the March 1943 edition of Purdue Engineer: “The advent of skirts, light footfalls, and the lilt of soprano voices into the heretofore masculine environment…caused many a head to rotate through the angle theta and many a neck to exceed all previously known elasticity constants.”
The Cadettes remained focused. In February 1944 the first graduating class of seventy-three Cadettes went straight into jobs as engineering aides in one of six RCA Victor plants around the country. By war’s end, 137 women had matriculated through the program and gone to work for RCA.