Penn State, World War II and the Curtiss-Wright Cadettes

March 22, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For Women's History Month, we feature a video on Penn State's Curtiss-Wright Cadettes.

Unable to hire enough men during World War II, aviation manufacturer Curtiss-Wright Corp. offered to pay for women's technical training in aeronautical engineering at eight institutions of higher education across the country, with the understanding that the "cadettes," as they were called, would then take jobs in the company's defense plants.

Between February 1943 and March 1945, 918 female college students took courses in aerodynamics, engineering and design at the participating institutions.

At Penn State, 104 of these women took advantage of the offer and signed up for the first class. Curtiss-Wright paid for tuition, room and board, books and transportation, and the University provided housing.

The "lady engineers" overall achieved consistently high grades; more than one-third made the dean's list. The program was so successful that other companies emulated it, with more than 90 percent of these students completing their studies and entering employment in the aviation industry.

When it became clear the end of the war was in sight, the program was discontinued. By 1946 the ratio of men to women on campus had returned to the customary six-to-one as thousands of veterans returned to take advantage of the GI Bill.

Penn State trained female engineers during World War II

In 1943, roughly 100 women enrolled at Penn State as "cadettes" of the Curtiss-Wright Corp., a defense contractor that made mostly aviation equipment. Since most able-bodied males were off fighting on the war fronts, there was a need for "Rosie the riveter," a term used to describe the push to get women working in factories. There also was a need for female engineers and the Curtiss-Wright Corp, in partnership with the University, paid to train women in some fields of engineering with the prospect of the "cadettes" coming to work for the company. It was programs like this that ultimately would lead to the start of the Women in Engineering Program in the College of Engineering. This program seeks to increase the number of female engineers who graduate from Penn State every year.

C Roy Parker


  • Curtiss-Wright Cadette at Penn State, circa 1943

    A Penn State Curtiss-Wright Cadette using a lathe or grinding wheel.

    IMAGE: Penn State University Archives

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Last Updated March 22, 2017