In the center of many British towns stands a cenotaph, a memorial tomb honoring the native sons who gave their lives during World War I. Etched into the plinths, in between carved garlands and laurels, are the names and military ranks of the fallen. Additional rows list the soldiers and sailors lost in later conflicts. On Remembrance Day, November 11, the anniversary of the end of World War I, red silk poppies adorn the monuments in remembrance of these patriots’ sacrifices.

Unrecorded and unrecognized, much less inscribed in stone, is an entire class of patriots that British society has willfully forgotten over the past century: the women who gave their all for the war effort, including many who even gave their lives. Some used their muscles in mines and munitions factories. Some brought their medical expertise to the front. And some put their minds and scientific skills in the service of their country. A Lab of One’s Own, the latest book by the historian of science Patricia Fara, seeks to fill this gap in public memory by focusing on this last group, giving the female British scientists of the early twentieth century their rightful due.

Fara’s welcome and novel work goes beyond the familiar nurse-on-the-western-front accounts of pluck and patience that appear in many histories of the Great War. Instead, the book meshes two coinciding centenaries: the 1918 armistice that ended World War I and the law that gave British women, at least the older and wealthier among them, the right to vote that same year. As if conducting her own experiment, Fara places her heroines on the examining table and observes their responses to these historical stimuli.

Both events were jolts to British society, shaking up families, economies, and, as Fara reveals, laboratories. At great personal risk, female scientists took on the study of dangerous explosives, toxic chemicals, virulent diseases, and the unrecognized lethal effects of radioactivity. Simply pursuing a career in science was tough enough: whether at universities, in industry, or in the War Office, women faced entrenched misogyny. Desperately needed but decidedly unwelcome, they suffered indignities on the job and were paid far less than their male coworkers. And the rationales used to shut them out might sound all too familiar to modern ears.

BARRIERS TO ENTRY

Fara has pulled off quite a feat of archival archaeology. Digging through the records of universities, scientific societies, industrial establishments, newspapers, and personal journals and correspondence, she excavates and pieces together the lives of some of the first women to embark on scientific studies and careers in the modern era.

Often, what emerges are just tantalizing snippets, frustratingly incomplete, but such are the limits of the documentary evidence. The compilation also skews toward the socially privileged, who left behind a more complete paper trail through their carefully preserved correspondence (it takes a big house to store all those family letters), their published and unpublished memoirs (often the fruit of thoughtful leisure), and newspaper accounts (where socially prominent women were more likely to pop up). Still, Fara tries hard to include women endowed with scientific talent but not to the manor born.

Fara has pulled off quite a feat of archival archaeology, excavating and piecing together the lives of her heroines.

At the turn of the century, the United Kingdom was not exactly fertile soil for female scientists and mathematicians. Higher education for women, the thinking went, was not just a waste of time; it was a threat to the human species. Eminent physicians warned that too much deep thinking would siphon a woman’s bloodflow from her reproductive organs to her brain, harming her childbearing capacities. And with a little twisting, Darwinian theories of adaptation appeared to show that women had evolved for reproduction and nest building rather than intellectual pursuits.

If a strong-willed girl nonetheless convinced her family to let her prepare for college, and she passed the entrance exams, few opportunities were available to her at the most prestigious institutions. Only two colleges at Cambridge and four at Oxford enrolled female students, and they were women-only schools. Classes and laboratories at Cambridge and Oxford were segregated by sex, and since many male professors refused to lecture to female students, the task fell to female instructors, who, no matter how talented, were rarely given faculty status, let alone time or resources for research.

In the rare instances that female Cambridge or Oxford students got to attend a mixed-sex lecture or meeting, they had to endure the hoots, mockery, and foot stamping of their outraged male classmates. At Cambridge, even mathematical whizzes such as Philippa Fawcett (daughter of the suffrage movement leader Millicent Fawcett), who beat out all her male classmates to take top honors, were neither allowed to attend commencement ceremonies nor given an official degree. In 1897, when the Senate of the University of Cambridge considered granting women full degrees, male students rioted in the streets, hanging and mutilating effigies of a bicycle-riding woman—the symbol of the feared female classmate. It wasn’t until 1920 that Oxford allowed women to become full members of the university and bestowed proper diplomas on its female graduates; Cambridge women had to wait until 1948 to be offered a full degree.

If the elite universities made life difficult for women, less prestigious, regional “red brick” universities—such as Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester—seem to have been more egalitarian and welcoming, enrolling middle-class women in coeducational classrooms and labs. Less invested in tradition, pomp, and privilege, these schools became important training grounds for female students and scientists. Still, science was a perilous career choice for women, and Fara does an admirable job of conjuring the social, political, and scientific attitudes that made theirs an uphill and obstacle-strewn climb.

Munitions workers at the National Shell Filling Factory in Chilwell, Nottinghamshire, August 1917
Imperial War Museums London

WORKERS AND WARRIORS

With the outbreak of World War I came a sudden opening, especially in the work force. As millions of men left to fight, thousands of scientifically, medically, and technically trained women jumped into the breach. By necessity, women took over positions long considered men’s work. Doors swung open; glass ceilings shattered. Female chemists worked with explosives and poisonous gasses, female metallurgists tested steel strength for the navy, female engineers perfected airplane designs, female medical researchers fought the infectious diseases decimating troops, female physicians and nurses operated at the front. There were female cryptologists, welders, nutritionists, physicists, statisticians, pharmaceutical researchers, laboratory directors, and industrial supervisors.

The physician Mona Chalmers Watson and the botanist Helen Gwynne-Vaughan left their clinic and lab to run the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, supervising nearly 100,000 women in military support activities. The chemist Frances Micklethwait studied chemical weapons during the war and was among the first to analyze mustard gas, closely observing the effects of the pernicious gas on her own skin. As an employee at the state’s Censorship Office, Mabel Elliott heated a letter she was inspecting and found secret messages written in lemon juice; her discovery broke open a German spy ring. The physicist May Leslie conducted groundbreaking secret research on explosives in a government laboratory.

As millions of men left to fight, thousands of scientifically, medically, and technically trained women jumped into the breach.

For all these breakthroughs, prewar gender norms did not evaporate into thin air. British society recoiled at the sight of “munitionettes” in wartime factories, clad in safe and practical overalls rather than customary long skirts. Many winced as nurses traded their starched white caps for helmets and khaki breeches, riding motorcycles to hospitals behind the lines. Women did what was needed, but in taking on men’s work and wearing men’s garb, they were becoming irreparably “masculinized”—at least in the eyes of many male compatriots.

The social and the physical toll of wartime work often went hand in hand. Women ruined their health making TNT explosives, their skin and eyes turning yellow and their internal organs green from exposure to the toxic chemicals involved. Dubbed “canaries” for their strange appearance, many of these women were shunned by neighbors and family; more than 200 of them died, and thousands more became seriously and permanently ill. Fara places their predicament during four harrowing years of national upheaval in high relief, showcasing society’s shocking ambivalence toward their patriotic efforts.

It’s rather astounding that in the midst of a savage war, the British people still mustered enough energy to rail against working women. But for many, safeguarding patriarchal privilege and the endangered male ego at home was as much a priority as protecting the nation on the battlefield. The same male alarm and resentment cropped up in the United States during its brief stint in the war, but the effect was milder there, if only because the nation suffered less from the war.

SCIENCE AND SUFFRAGE

Measuring the war’s impact on British women in general, and scientific women in particular, is admittedly easier than gauging the subtler effects of demanding and finally gaining the right to vote. It’s hard to weigh the role that the protracted fight for suffrage and women’s civil rights played in the lives of female scientists, not least because these efforts were largely put on hold from 1914 to 1918.

Another problem is that, Fara’s lucid writing and admirable dedication notwithstanding, the book would have benefited from a cleaner narrative framework. At times, it reads like an archival dump, a slurry of names and anecdotes in a repetitive thematic stream. Time sequences are jumbled, which robs the story of any logical progression and a sense of societal progress—or lack thereof.

Beyond this, Fara’s grasp of women’s suffrage history is far less assured than her understanding of British scientific culture. She repeatedly dismisses the militant suffragists affiliated with Emmeline Pankhurst as mere obstructionists; in fact, historians agree that it was the synergy of the Pankhurst militants and the law-abiding Fawcett forces that powered the movement to success. At one point, Fara alludes to Anna Howard Shaw as a character’s “American friend” without identifying Shaw as the leader of the U.S. suffrage movement—a woman of international renown at the time.

Fara’s account also fails to fully make the case that women’s role in science catalyzed the suffrage movement. The evidence for this claim is thin and anecdotal. Fara hints at a more fundamental link when she observes, early in the book, “Both suspect activities for women, science and suffrage were often bracketed together by critics worried about this twin threat to long-established conventions of female domesticity, subservience, and demureness.”

The animus against women barging into the male-ruled domains of mathematics and science was indeed the very same that denied women a place in the public sphere and a voice in their government. These prejudices continued to shape public resentment toward female war workers—many of whom were also suffragists. Yet it was the decades-long fight for the vote—born in the Victorian era and carried out up until 1918—that laid the logistical and emotional foundations for women to enter the universities and scientific professions and propelled their wartime participation, not the other way around. The suffrage movement gave women the confidence and skills to organize, demand change, and insist on inclusion, to slowly chip away at the customs and laws that kept them at home, their bodies encumbered by pounds of petticoats, their minds caged. Three generations of committed suffrage activists agitated and lobbied, formed suffrage societies in every British city and town, published their own newspapers, put on massive conventions, and organized giant protests with 40,000 women marching through the streets of London. The women who participated in the movement learned to endure contempt and ridicule, imprisonment and torture. The suffrage movement taught women to be unapologetically loud, audacious, and ingenious.

The suffrage movement gave women the confidence and skills to organize, demand change, and insist on inclusion, to slowly chip away at the customs and laws that kept them at home, their bodies encumbered by pounds of petticoats, their minds caged.

So when the women of Cambridge found the doors to university classrooms and laboratories closed to them in the 1880s, they didn’t whine and cry; they raised the funds to build and staff the Balfour Biological Laboratory for Women, where generations of female scientists were trained and nurtured. When distinguished female academics were barred from representation on university committees and denied entry into the plush common rooms that their male colleagues frequented, they founded the British Federation of University Women, in 1907. When fully qualified female chemists tried unsuccessfully to join the professional Chemical Society, the researchers Ida Smedley Maclean and Martha Whiteley led the charge to pry the gates open in 1920. Female scientists learned from their suffragist sisters to expect setbacks and disappointment but to keep their eyes on the prize: the campaign to elect female fellows to the Royal Society, the country’s most prestigious learned society, didn’t succeed until 1945.

THE CLOCK OF EXPERIENCE

By the war’s end, women composed one-third of the British work force, three million of them in industry. Female scientists were lecturing to men, heading research labs, and running hospitals. But the direct benefits proved short-lived.

“Formerly seen as ‘saviours of the nation,’ wartime workers were now scorned as ‘ruthless self-seekers depriving men and their dependents of a livelihood,’” Fara reports. One million British men did not return from the war; those who did come home were distressed to find that women had done so splendidly taking over their jobs. Women “have had the time of their lives . . . swaggering about in every kind of uniform,” wrote a British commentator in January 1919, before admonishing that they would have to resume their roles as “wives and mothers now the men are coming home.”

And so they did. Women in industry were given pink slips or reduced wages; female scientists were sent back to teaching school or working behind the scenes in the lab. Possessing the vote didn’t help much: under the 1918 law, women under 30 were not granted suffrage at all, as politicians feared that with so many men lost in the war, giving the vote to all British women at age 21 would create a majority-female electorate. Thus, many of the young women who had eagerly entered dangerous new professions and contributed to the war effort found themselves shut out of civic participation for another decade.

Yet they had learned to push, and they did so until the law was changed to include them, in 1928. In the words of one of the women highlighted in A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge mathematics ace and suffrage organizer Ray Strachey, “It is impossible to put the clock of experience backwards.” World War I advanced the hands of that clock—by a little. Yet 20 years later, when the United Kingdom entered another shattering world war, the lessons of the last one had largely been forgotten. Once again, women took on “men’s work,” only to come home to mind the kitchen after the hostilities ended.

The fight for equality in the workplace continues to this day, as does the quest for women’s rights. The long-lived lessons of the suffrage movement, rather than the short bursts of wartime opportunity, are probably more useful for the future. The suffrage movement trained leaders and feminist thinkers, organizing women of all classes to agitate for their own rights, whereas women’s wartime participation still took place largely on men’s terms, with men’s reluctant cooperation. As today’s women continue to shatter glass ceilings in government, business, and academia, the suffragists offer a legacy of organizing, mentorship, and proud self-reliance.

Fara has composed a worthy and lasting tribute to these pioneering women. One wonders, of course, whether the terrain of the so-called STEM fields has been made much smoother for women during the past century—or whether modern-day female scientists, engineers, and technology professionals will shake their heads in sad recognition at the patronizing and infuriating attitudes described in this book. Fara leaves this question open but cautions against too much optimism: “Before the First World War, suffragists could see what they were fighting against, but modern discrimination is elusive, insidious, and stubbornly hard to eradicate.” Female scientists know how to carry on.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • ELAINE WEISS is a journalist and the author of The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote.
  • More By Elaine Weiss