A Lab of One’s Own is a fascinating and compelling look not just at the stories of several unsung female pioneers in science, medicine and engineering during World War One, but at the struggles of the Suffragette movement amidst a backdrop of entrenched and pervading gender stereotypes, such as those held by the renowned scientist Charles Darwin.
Fara states that from the turn of the twentieth century “To demonstrate their modernity, suffrage supporters allied themselves with scientific and technological progress.” Indeed, Sylvia Pankhurst aligned technology with universal emancipation and although seemingly simple inventions, such as the bicycle, gave some women a little freedom of independent travel, and though the typewriter provided an acceptable way for a single woman to earn a living away from the drudgery of domestic servitude, it was not until World War One that women’s traditional roles in society were first challenged.
Drawing on Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay, “A Room of One’s Own”, in which Woolf discusses how women might redefine themselves outside their traditionally subservient and economically dependent roles, the author explores the immense hurdles women had to overcome to enter the hitherto impenetrable realm of men, not just to gain the right to a university degree, but by rallying against widely held attitudes that ‘education can do little to modify her nature’ and that studying was bad for a woman’s health.
It is common knowledge that women worked in nursing, munitions, or kept the home fire burning while their husbands fought in the trenches, but Fara expands this view by describing their work in laboratories, aeroplane production and chemical research, with Suffragettes temporarily holding a truce to invest their energies into supporting the war effort. During the War, female scientists were able to thrive in many previously inaccessible posts. Women such as Ruth King, who studied picric acid (explosives), Marie Stopes (increasing coal production and making mines safer), Frances Micklethwait (chemical weapons) and Beatrice Mabel Cave-Brown (aeroplane design) are but a few mentioned who had fascinating war careers. New medical fields of radiography and physiotherapy also flourished during the war, thanks to pioneering efforts by women to treat soldiers in the field and at home. The War also allowed women to study on scientific, technology, engineering and medicine university courses in much greater numbers than had previously been possible.
On the whole, men and women resumed their traditional gender roles after Armistice Day. However, as Fara rightly asserts, what changed forever was the traditional understanding of gender roles. With the Representation of the People Act of 1918 finally giving women over the age of 30 (who owned property) the right to vote, they were rewarded, in part, for their huge contribution to the war effort. It is worth noting that it also finally entitled all men over the age of 21 to vote, thus helping to contract the class divide somewhat. And, in large part due to the tireless efforts of Ida Smedley and Martha Whitely, women began to be admitted to professional societies (the Chemical Society) soon after the War, in 1920.
This thought-provoking book should be of interest to the scientist and non-scientist alike as women continue to fight for equality in the workplace and across society today. With regard to the medical profession, Fara states that “women were paid less than men for doing the same work, passed over for promotion and excluded from medical societies”. Even today, despite a predominantly female workforce, including at senior levels, nine out of ten NHS Trusts have a gender pay gap . Moreover, a recent survey of 1700 neurologists in the United States found that men outnumber women at all faculty ranks in top-ranked academic Neurology programmes, and that this discrepancy increases with advancing rank . As the author writes “What happened a century ago is important for understanding the present.”
A very slight irritation is that, although the author includes a brief mention of Anna Airy, one of the first women to be commissioned as a war artist, a lithograph by the renowned Christopher R.W. Nevinson has been used as the front cover. Female artists, as well as female scientists, continue to suffer lack of recognition!
- https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/mar/27/nhs-councils-gender-pay-gap-deadline (accessed 14 October 2018).
- McDermott M et al. JAMA Neurol. 2018;75(8):956-61.