Science and Suffrage

By Fara, Patricia | American Scientist, November/December 2018 | Go to article overview

Science and Suffrage


Fara, Patricia, American Scientist


BOOK EXCERPT

Science and Suffrage

The prominent role of women in the workforce during the Second World War is widely known and celebrated. Less commonly understood are the crucial contributions made by women who stepped into positions traditionally held by men-including scientific and engineering roles- during the First World War. Perhaps even less familiar is the relationship between these contributions and the passage of women's suffrage laws soon after the war's end. Women in the United States, for example, attained suffrage in 1920. British women gained the vote, with some restrictions, in 1918. (The Representation of the People Act 1918 granted voting rights to all men, as well as to women over 30 who met minimum property requirements. Suffrage was extended to all British women over 21 in 1928.) In A Lab of One's Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War, historian Patricia Fara explores the connections between science and suffrage in the United Kingdom during the early 20th century and tells the stories of women who worked in fields as diverse as geology and medical research during the war. The centennial of Armistice Day, on November 11, offers an opportunity to reflect on the First World War and the countless changes it wrought-militarily, politically, socially, and scientifically.

Caroline Haslett was just one among many thousands of young women whose lives were transformed by the First World War. Through their struggles, setbacks, and successes, they collectively influenced future generations. Her experiences illustrate how the war permanently altered scientific, medical, and technological prospects for women. A suffragette with a weak school record, she became an eminent international consultant on the domestic uses of electricity, educational reform, and industrial careers for women. She used her influence to alter the scientific careers of countless schoolgirls all over the world.

Haslett was judged a lost cause by her teachers because she never could learn how to sew a buttonhole. As a teenager, she left her Sussex village for London and-to the alarm of her strict Protestant parents-joined Emmeline Pankhurst's suffragettes. When the War started, she was working as a clerk in a boiler factory, but during the next four years she was repeatedly promoted to replace men who had left to fight. By 1918, she was running the London office, visiting customers such as the War Office to discuss contracts, and astonishing staid civil servants with her expertise in a man's domain. After being trained as an engineer by her enlightened employers, in 1919- still in her early twenties-Haslett began managing the newly founded Women's Engineering Society. …

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