A Statistic Unto Herself
Spend just a little time with Mary-Ruth Demers Cayer, and you get the impression that trailblazer is a mantle she would just as soon shrug off.
Cayer is the first woman to graduate from URI with a B.S. in electrical engineering. She entered the then Rhode Island State College at 16 years of age, intending to pursue a degree in home economics.
“And I disliked it so,” the 81-year-old said. “I started school in June; engineering wasn’t offered until the fall. I thought engineering would be interesting, because I used to like to design and draw. So when engineering opened up, I enrolled.”
Cayer attended classes six days a week, with Sundays off. Classes were small, comprising 10 or 12 students on average. Math was always at 8 a.m., and if you were late, Cayer said, you were locked out of the classroom. Standing in a classroom in Bliss Hall during a recent visit to her alma mater, Cayer recalled one professor’s morning routine.
“There was always a slide rule problem on the board when we got into the classroom. We came in in a hurry, because the first five students to solve the problem got an A. You wanted to get an A.”
After graduation, Cayer received an offer to study at Duke University’s School of Law. “But I got married instead,” she said. Three children followed.
Cayer became a high school mathematics teacher on the advice of her mother, who believed in preparedness. “I taught math 15 or 16 years—all because my mother told me I should be prepared in case something happened.”
Today about 15 to 20 percent of a given engineering program’s students are women. In the 1940s, Cayer was a statistic unto herself.
Was it a problem being the only female in the class for most of her college career? “No,” Cayer said and laughed. “I enjoyed being the one woman in the company of many men.”