As we commemorate the end of the First World War in 1918, it is poignant to reflect on how women helped to bring this about. While much has been written about the contribution of female munition workers to the war effort, the part played by trained female scientists and doctors has been largely ignored. This group of women is the focus of Patricia Fara’s fascinating book. Carefully researched and absorbing, it tells a story that has been hidden from history.
Caroline Haslett was one of many young women who fought for women’s suffrage and women’s advancement in science. Regarded as a lost cause by her Sussex village teachers because she could never sew a buttonhole, she joined the law-breaking suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union, led by Emmeline Pankhurst. When the WSPU ceased militant action on the outbreak of war, Haslett’s life was transformed. She was repeatedly promoted in the boiler factory where she worked to replace men who went off to fight. By 1918, her customers included the War Office. She eventually became an international consultant on the domestic use of electricity – dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, washing machines – and used her influence to encourage girls into scientific careers.
Most scientific women, however, conscious of their marginal status, appear not to have joined a suffrage group or, if they did, opted to become members of the law-abiding National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. As men left for the war front, trained female scientists took over their positions in boys’ schools, museums and government departments. Others abandoned their research projects and worked in areas essential for the war effort – aircraft design, drugs, acetone and insecticides. Some women became lecturers while a few doctors defied the government and served overseas in exceptionally demanding places such as Serbia.
Fara rescues from obscurity the names of a large number of these women, many of whom have left few footprints in the archives. Maria Gordon, the first woman in Britain to gain a doctorate in science, dedicated herself to war work and, as president of the National Council of Women, campaigned for women’s rights. Dorothea Hoffert, who had studied chemistry at Girton College, Cambridge and then taught at a girls’ school, was requisitioned for research in varnish and food. May Leslie, a coalminer’s daughter who graduated from the University of Leeds, was hired for secret wartime research into explosives.
After the war, as unemployment rose, priority was given to finding work for men, while these pioneering women – paid substantially less than their male counterparts – were pushed back into domesticity. Despite their contribution towards winning the parliamentary vote in 1918 for some women over 30, their fight for equality had not ended.
And that fight continues today, as Fara observes in a reflective conclusion. Most speakers at science conferences are men, while presenters of television science programmes are mainly distinguished older men – unless they happen to be glamorous young women. Informative and moving, A Lab of One’s Own is a timely reminder in helping us eliminate the inequalities that professional women still face today.
June Purvis is emeritus professor of women’s and gender history, University of Portsmouth. Her latest book is Christabel Pankhurst: A Biography (2018).
A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
By Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352p, £18.99
Published 11 January 2018