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Brilliant women remembered: A Lab of One’s Own

Extract | 16 minute read
An exclusive extract from Patricia Fara's forthcoming book which records the lives of the formative female heroes of science



Suffrage and Science at Cambridge

‘Gentlemen of the House of Commons.’ This ancient phrase . . . is now out of date. Its superannuation is but one indication of the tremendous breach in Parliamentary tradition caused by the election to the Houses of Commons of Viscountess Astor. . . . In the first place, where is Lady Astor to sit? . . . And, if she wears a hat, should she remove it when she rises to speak, as male M.P.s are bound to do?

The Times, 29 November 1919

In the summer of 1908, eleven young women with similar hairstyles posed for a photograph. Their demure demeanour implies that they were quiet and well-spoken, but the cricket bat and their striped ties reveal that they were far from conventional. For one thing, they belonged to an extremely small and select group: a century ago, there were twenty-three colleges at Cambridge, but only two of them accepted women. And cricket was a man’s game.

These women appear well-scrubbed and modest, but their reputation had spread and their families were worried. Some of them may well have defied their parents’ wishes by insisting on higher education; certainly all of them were unusually intelligent and resilient. One Newnham father complained that his previously sensible daughter had turned suffragist, reporting that ‘there is a regular manufactory of very advanced women going on at Cambridge’. He may perhaps have heard that a leading fomenter of suffrage unrest among the undergraduates was Newnham’s cricket captain Rachel (Ray for short) Costelloe, who studied mathematics and here sits in the centre of her team holding the ball. Writing to an academic aunt in America, she enthused that ‘we have started a society which has now got more than ¾ of the college, & which has joined with Girton & amalgamated to the national Society’. Writing to former Newnham students, she collected ‘cheques & postal orders & letters of sympathy. . . . Cambridge has become a centre of activity—meetings, debates, plays, petitions etc all through the term.’

At first glance Costelloe appears indistinguishable from her team- mates, but she alone is wearing white shoes, not black ones. In another Newnham photograph, around fifty undergraduates pose in fresh white blouses—apart, that is, from Costelloe, who is the only one wearing a dark jacket. Was this simply indifference to dress codes, or an urge not to conform, a decisive individualism that would characterize her future career as Mrs Ray Strachey, one of Britain’s most prominent suffrage campaigners? Presumably not many of the other students in her cricket team spent July touring Scotland in a caravan ‘to preach Suffrage’.

Ensconced in the leafy grounds of Newnham College, these female athletes had little inkling either that the country would soon be engulfed in war or that only a decade later, women  over thirty would be allowed to vote for the first time. Thanks to Costelloe/Strachey and her colleagues, some of the women in this picture would  be  able  to  participate  in  the  election  that  was  held  on 14 December 1918—provided, that is, that they had managed to survive the First World War. For over fifty years, campaigners (including some male supporters) had been demanding female enfranchisement, but their efforts intensified in the early twentieth century. As suffrage numbers swelled, various splinter groups emerged. Most suffragists favoured peaceful demonstrations—marches, lobbying, committee meetings— but militant activists engaged in increasingly violent protests. Derisively dubbed ‘suffragettes’, they came to dominate the headlines and the history books.

Cricket team, Newnham College, Cambridge 1908 (The Women’s Library, LSE/Camphill Village Trust)

These privileged young cricketers had probably been educated in one of the newly fashionable establishments for girls. Modelled on the traditional boys’ public schools, they catered for the demand from fathers who were worried about their family’s financial future and regarded education for their daughters as a sound investment. For these schoolgirls, their well-educated teachers provided living evidence of a future different from following their mothers into domesticity. The possibility of financial and emotional independence from a domineering husband stood before them in classrooms every day. Even so, going out to work could be still more frustrating than being trapped at home. Before Ida Mann managed to escape by training as a doctor, her father had sent her to Clarke’s Business College. The routine clerical work was so boring that she used to lock herself in the lavatory, where she silently howled and bit her wrists. ‘I once saw a young woman go mad at her desk,’ she wrote; ‘she was removed and never seen again.’

As well as being taught to develop their intellectual abilities, girls were encouraged to take part in team sports to help them become the strong virtuous mothers that Britain needed for rearing leaders of the Empire. When Costelloe played in the school hockey team, she wore ‘a red flannel blouse, and stiff white linen collar, a red and white necktie, and a straw sailor hat with a red and white ribbon band’. Before going to Cambridge, she had already learnt from her best friend Ellie Rendel that ‘The hockey here is very exciting the only thing wrong with it is that it’s too engrossing. They have team practices continually and the game is so hard and fast that I can hardly move after one. . . . The great excitement at present is the freshers match.’

In contrast, life ahead seemed less enticing. For the great majority of female graduates, the only realistic alternative to marriage and domesticity was teaching, and by 1911, there were already 180,000 unmarried teachers, often looked down upon as frowzy spinsters. The numbers increased after the War, when there were significantly more women of marriageable age than men. After a visit to Cambridge in 1928, Virginia Woolf wrote condescendingly about the students she had met: ‘Intelligent eager, poor; & destined to become schoolmistresses in shoals’, she confided to her diary. ‘I blandly told them to drink wine & have a room of their own.’

What women looked like mattered even more then than it does now. Long skirts, long hair, long sleeves—these restrictions confirmed that they belonged at home, looking after their men, their home, and their children. Yet although none of these sportswomen has yet dared to cut her hair, they have transgressed social norms by adopting a uniform. However unsuitably dressed they might seem for a strenuous game, their identical outfits advertise that they are a group apart. Over the next few years, many suffragists deliberately and provocatively chose to wear quasi-masculine clothes, knowing that most other people (women as well as men) disapproved of such unfeminine attire. Hostility towards women in uniform intensified during the Great War, when countless women took over men’s jobs in factories and laboratories, in hospitals and the armed forces, in museums and transport.

By tradition, men routinely wore uniforms, both as protection and to signify their status. But whereas their official clothes earned them respect for their patriotic devotion to duty, women in khaki were mocked for abandoning femininity.

These student cricketers appear innocent and old-fashioned, but they were emerging from a past that was already crumbling and they would help to create a new future. Cambridge men—students and dons alike—had been horrified when women arrived, first at Girton in 1869, and then two years afterwards at Newnham. Even in the early 1970s, there were still no colleges at either Cambridge or Oxford that accepted both male and female students. Of all the subjects studied at school, mathematics was perceived as being particularly unsuitable for women. In 1908, Dr Janet Campbell warned the Board of Education that schoolgirls should not be forced into this topic ‘requiring much concentration  and  therefore  using  up  a  great  deal  of  brain  energy’. Instead, she recommended introducing cooking or embroidery, to reduce ‘mental strain’.

Virginia Woolf wrote of the students as: ‘Intelligent eager, poor; & destined to become schoolmistresses in shoals’ (Hulton Archive/Getty)

As a mathematics graduate, Costelloe symbolized everything that reactionaries found ridiculous about women’s invasion of this exclusive male stronghold. Punch made sure that the entire country was alerted to the danger:

The Woman of the Future! She’ll be deeply read, that’s certain,

With all the education gained at Newnham or Girton;

She’ll puzzle men in Algebra with horrible quadratics,

Dynamics and the mysteries of higher mathematics.

Mockery is a favourite defence tactic of the frightened, and only six years after this verse appeared in 1884, male fears of being beaten in examinations were realized when Philippa Fawcett came top in the finals examinations for mathematics. A Girton student described travelling to central Cambridge one sunny morning to hear the results. Looking down from the packed gallery of women, she watched the men on the ground floor rowdily cheering the students who had done best—the Wranglers—and banging wooden spoons for the lowest.

And then, the long awaited moment arrived. ‘The Moderator stood there waiting till the noise was hushed, and then the words rang loud through the Senate House: “Above the Senior Wrangler, Fawcett, Newnham.” The shout and the applause that rang through the building was unparalleled in the history of the University.’

To commemorate this momentous achievement, one of Fawcett’s friends at Newnham wrote a five-stanza poem. Although its rhyming is as painful as the verse in Punch, its sincerity rings clear:

Hail the triumph of the corset

Hail the fair Philippa Fawcett

Victress in the fray

Crown her queen of Hydrostatics

And the other Mathematics

Wreathe her brow with  bay.

Despite this ‘triumph of the corset’, male honour was preserved. Women were not allowed to participate in the Cambridge graduation ceremonies until 1948, but instead were sent a certificate through the post to confirm that they had completed the course.  Fawcett was never officially awarded her degree, and never received the traditional accolade of being named First Wrangler. Oxford managed to appear less hostile: there were four all-female colleges, the class lists were arranged alphabetically, and they allowed women to graduate formally in 1920. But after heated debates, Cambridge refused to shift. To celebrate their victory, male opponents to the change converted a handcart into a makeshift battering ram, smashing it into Newnham’s bronze entrance gates and partly destroying them.

Perhaps mindful of its gates, Newnham College carefully safeguards its paper records of the past. When I visited the library, the archivist proudly showed me a substantial hand-made book with embroidered linen  covers  that  records  the  activities  during  World  War  One  of around  six  hundred  Newnham  members. Some of them were recent graduates, others were well into their fifties. Inscribed in exquisite red and black lettering on luxuriantly thick pages are the names of doctors who operated at the front, chemists who developed explosives and poison gases, biologists who researched into tropical diseases, and mathematicians recruited for intelligence work. Some of them died on service abroad; and many were rewarded with government or military honours, not only from Britain but also from Serbia, France, Russia, Belgium, and Romania. Costelloe’s friend Ellie Rendel appears here not as an ardent hockey player, but as a medical worker at the Eastern Front who was decorated with the Serbian Order of St. Saba and the Russian Order of St. George and St. Anna.

This unique volume, lovingly created and preserved, offers a rare and poignant glimpse of the vital contributions made by scientific women all over Europe during the First World War. From Newnham alone, there were women investigating industrial fatigue, carrying out ballistics calculations, inspecting factories, investigating how vitamins might be preserved in sun-dried vegetables, testing radio valves, improving high-quality glass, making artificial limbs, compiling statistics on sugar production, and testing steel. The very first page includes a physicist who ran hospital X-ray departments, a mathematician who travelled to Serbia as a doctor, and a scientist who survived a typhus epidemic abroad but died of pneumonia in London soon after returning home. If similar records had been kept at other universities, they too would have revealed the wartime work of many other remarkable women.

Gingerly leafing through the pages, I wondered why I recognized none  of  the  names—and  after  carrying  out  more  research,  that question continued to haunt me. Why had I heard of Vera Brittain and Edith Cavell, but not the chemists who were experimenting with explosives and mustard gas in trenches at Imperial College? Why does our country not commemorate the female doctors who ran hospitals under atrocious conditions in Salonika, or the London University professor of botany who headed the women’s army in France? Why are these extraordinary women absent from the numerous books detailing the scientific, medical, and technological advances spurred by the War? I resolved to create my own tribute to these scientific pioneers who had helped win the War and gain the vote.

Counter-intuitively, the country’s leading militant suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst, greatly admired Thomas Carlyle, the Victorian thinker who declared that the history of the world is the history of great men. His way of thinking dominated attitudes for many decades, but fashions changed. During the second half of the twentieth century, Carlyle’s version of the past lost popularity with historians, who now preferred a ‘bottom-up’ approach. They began crediting the lives and achievements of ordinary people—first men and then women. As a consequence, there are now many marvellous books about the female ambulance drivers, munitionettes, nurses, bus conductors, farmers, factory workers, and all the other women who effectively ran Britain for four years while their menfolk were   away.

A Lab of One’s Own contains some more unusual and less familiar stories; ones about highly trained female scientists and doctors. Although relatively few in number, these women had a huge impact. They tested insecticides, researched into tropical diseases, analysed codes, invented drugs, ran hospitals … yet despite all these contributions, their existence and their activities have been eclipsed. These scientific pioneers have suffered from a double neglect in the nation’s memory. First, they are largely ignored in studies of women during wartime: feminist historians have understandably preferred to focus on wartime manual workers, who were far more numerous and left behind more readily accessible evidence. At the same time, professional women are scarcely mentioned in books about science and medicine during the War, which deal almost exclusively with men.

By 1914, women had been studying science at university for almost half a century, often braving opposition and mockery from fellow students as well as from parents and teachers. The ones who persevered had already demonstrated that they were exceptionally intelligent, courageous, persistent, and full of initiative. At the beginning of the War, many of them immediately started looking for opportunities to  serve  their  country,  even  if  that  entailed  sacrificing  their  own careers in the process.

As men left for the front, first voluntarily and then under conscription, scientifically trained women took over their vacated positions in museums, boys’ schools, and government departments. Those already engaged in research abandoned their current projects and switched their attention to the essentials of warfare, such as explosives, drugs, insecticides, alloys, glass, and aircraft design. Others emerged from back-room positions, appearing for the first time on the lecturer’s podium or at the experimenter’s bench. Medical schools temporarily welcomed female students, and some doctors defied government recalcitrance by going to serve overseas, where they endured exceptionally demanding circumstances. Benefiting from the unusual experience of having worked professionally in one of the few environments where men and women could be equally well qualified, if not equally well recognized, some female scientists attained high administrative positions. For four years, these scientists, doctors, and engineers proved not only that they could take over the work of men, but also that they could often do it better.

‘The war revolutionised the industrial position of women,’ pro- claimed the suffrage leader Millicent Fawcett; ‘It found them serfs, and left them free.’[18] But many historians no longer celebrate the War as a dramatic turning point for women, and instead interpret it as a temporary opening up of opportunities before the door clanged shut once again. At the time, feminist opinion was divided. Like Fawcett, some former suffragists were jubilant, regarding 1918 as the dawn of a new era when women had at last won the vote and could work side by side with men in conventionally male occupations. But others felt that although women had helped to win the War, they had lost the battle for equality. Conventional hierarchies were rapidly re-established, prompting campaigners to protest that the vote was of little practical use in the absence of professional parity.

As unemployment levels rose during the 1920s, men were given priority in the scramble for jobs. Women who had run hospitals or supervised research teams were forced back into the same low-status positions as before the War, and many factory workers were laid off. Once they had experienced the relatively high wages and freedom of munitions work or farming, women were reluctant to resume their earlier lives in domestic service. Former servants either refused to take back their old posts unless they were offered higher wages and regular time off-duty, or else migrated into shops, offices, and the new light industries.

Milicent Fawcett proclaimed that ‘The war revolutionised the industrial position of women’ (Topical Press Agency/Getty)

Under these circumstances, having the vote made little practical difference—but women themselves had changed. They now knew that collectively they were capable of undertaking the same responsibilities as men, even if they were prevented from doing so for the present. As Vera Brittain put it, although 1919 was a terrible year, it was also ‘the spring of life after the winter of death . . . the gateway to an infinite future—a future not without its dreads and discomforts, but one in whose promise we had to believe, since it was all that some of us had left to believe in’. Many people believed that the route to that golden prospect lay through   science.

What happened a century ago is important for understanding the present. In science, as in other fields, men returning from the front reclaimed jobs that women had been competently carrying out in their absence. Yet at the same time, the government poured money into science, industry, and education after the War, so that although the old stereotypes and prejudices re-emerged, there were more possibilities for scientific women than ever before. They were still not getting their fair share, but at least the cake was larger. Even if the War did not completely overturn old hierarchies, women had proved themselves capable of carrying out work traditionally reserved for men, and—try as reactionaries might—that unprecedented sense of achievement and power and possibility could not be obliterated.

British society had been indelibly altered, so that although the future seemed unsettled, there was no going back to the fixed and oppressive certainties of the past. My mother was born in 1918—the year women aged over thirty gained the right to vote—and she inevitably passed on to me the hopes as well as the fears of her generation. Like many of my own contemporaries, I have tried to continue the pioneering initiatives of the women in this book and to improve the position of scientific women. Old prejudices still resonate through society, and glass ceilings still restrict women’s rise to the top, but the extent of change has been enormous, even if the pace remains frustratingly slow.

There are as many ways to tell a story about World War One as there were people in it. Each would be in some sense right, although none would give a complete picture. A Lab of One’s Own does not pretend to provide a definitive version of World War One. But what it can do is offer new ways of thinking about the early twentieth century by looking simultaneously at the involvement of science and of women. Often only snippets of information about individuals survive, but I hope this book can act as a paean to the pioneering scientists and doctors whose lives are now obscure but who collectively made my own professional career possible.

Patricia Fara’s book, A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War is published by OUP on 11 January 2018 (£18.99). The footnotes in this extracted first chapter have been removed.