Book Excerpt from A Lab of One’s Own

In chapter 16, “Lessons of Science: Learning from the Past to Improve the Future,” author Patricia Fara examines where we’ve been and where we’re going in terms of valuing the influence of women in science.

Feb 28, 2018
Patricia Fara

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2018The past is not dead, but is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are helping to make.

William Morris, Introduction to Medieval Lore by Robert Steele, 1893

To celebrate its 350th anniversary, in 2010 the Royal Society invited a panel of female scientists and historians to choose the ten women who have had the most influence on science in Britain. The emails soon started flying. Being pernickety academics (and here I mean myself), they naturally began by questioning the question: what does “most influence” mean? One easy choice was Dorothy Hodgkin, pioneering chemist and still the only British woman to have won a scientific Nobel Prize. But should the list include the seventeenth-century aristocrat Margaret Cavendish? In her favour, she was the first woman to enter the meeting rooms of the Royal Society—but as opponents pointed out, she was often ridiculed (by women as well as men) and produced no long-lasting theories. What about Elizabeth Garrett Anderson? Although strictly speaking not a scientist, she was one of the earliest qualified doctors and a leading campaigner for female education who affected countless lives. Then there was the unschooled but enterprising Mary Anning. Braving the cliffs of Lyme Regis, she collected fossils and also learned enough about palaeontology to be sure which specimens were valuable. But how important was she to science in general? And how did the panel feel about Jane Goodall, whose empathy with chimpanzees made her a media darling—she certainly aroused public interest in zoology, but did she perpetuate stereotypes of women as touchy-feely earth-mothers rather than hard-headed scientists?

The final selection ranged from the eighteenth-century astronomer Caroline Herschel to the modern geneticist Anne McLaren, who died in 2007. All exceptional, all determined, all high-achievers, these scientific women illustrate remarkable changes in attitudes and opportunities over the last couple of hundred years. Whereas Herschel was the first woman in this country to receive a salary for her scientific research, McLaren enjoyed a distinguished career at Cambridge and the Royal Society.

In the early twentieth century, female scientists were occasionally on university pay rolls, but discrimination still prevailed. Marie Curie’s close friend, the physicist Hertha Ayrton, won a Royal Society medal for her ground-breaking research into electric lighting, but in 1902 was turned down for a Fellowship on the grounds that she was married. At last, in 1945, two women were elected as Fellows of London’s Royal Society—the crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale and the biochemist Marjory Stephenson. The official line at the time was that great progress had been made in opening science to everyone. Thus when the wartime poison gas expert Frances Micklethwait died five years later, her obituarist remarked that “in these enlightened days” it was far more common for a woman to embark on science than in 1898, when she had enrolled as a student. Contradicting that complacent view, during the 1960s Jocelyn Bell, the PhD student who discovered pulsars, self-protectively slipped off her engagement ring every morning before entering Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory because she was convinced that a fiancée would not be taken seriously. There was, and there still is, a long way to go.

The chemist Kathleen Culhane, whose life spanned the twentieth century, provides a disturbing example to illustrate the problems faced by female scientists, doctors and engineers. Born in 1900, she went to university in 1918—the year of the Armistice and the female vote—and lived until 1993. Too young to benefit from the wartime boom in scientific opportunities, after graduating she found that the only way she could even get an interview for a research position was by signing herself “K. Culhane” to disguise her female identity. When that ruse failed, she resorted to teaching, obtaining laboratory experience by working for no pay in her free time. Eventually, she gained an industrial position—but as her employers blithely informed her, at a salary so low that no man would accept it.

Wages were not Culhane’s only problem. Employed by a large pharmaceutical company, she was given routine tasks and banned from the staff lunch-room. When some of her experimental results proved different from those of three male colleagues, she was automatically disbelieved—and yes, hers did indeed prove to be the right ones. When she gave a public information lecture about the importance of including vitamins in margarine, a journalist focused on her appearance—a “pretty girl with blue eyes and bobbed hair.” Astonished to discover that she needed special permission to continue working after she was married, she insisted on remaining until she had children. Imagine her gall when she discovered that her male successor started at a higher salary than her own final one. Culhane’s experiences during the Second World War suggest that insufficient lessons had been learned from the previous experience. Despite the labour shortage, it was only after much badgering that she was allowed to become an assistant wages clerk. Even when she became a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, she earned far less than her male equivalents—and while they travelled First Class on official business, she was left isolated in a Third Class carriage.

Although no modern female scientist would encounter such a catalogue of put-downs, aspects of Culhane’s story remain familiar in the present century. Speakers at conferences—especially session chairs—are predominantly male. Many scientific departments are overwhelmingly male, with exceptions often due to the initiative of a few individuals. Presenters of television programmes on science are mostly distinguished older men—unless that is, they happen to be glamorous young women. Researchers who take maternity leave complain of being marginalised, and then face the expenses of full-time child care. Sceptical scientific mothers feel that there is only one way to reach the top: marry a house-husband.

When Culhane was a baby, the electrical engineer Hertha Ayrton declared that she did “not agree with sex being brought into science at all. The idea of ‘woman and science’ is completely irrelevant. Either a woman is a good scientist, or she is not.” Well over a century has gone by, but are her words any truer now than they were then? The overt differentiation experienced by Ayrton, Culhane, and many many other women is no longer legal, but it appears that discrimination continues to be practised. In principle, equality of opportunity is now firmly entrenched, yet the problem of unequal numbers remains unresolved, especially at higher levels. Even a cursory glance at the statistics reveals that although far more young women are reading science subjects at university than ever before, they are dropping out along the route to the top.

When statistics about women in scientific careers are compiled, I count as a failure. Since leaving an Oxford women-only college with a good degree in physics, I have neither carried out research in a laboratory nor been employed as a scientist: although I could have chosen post-graduate work, I opted for a different career route. I decided to include this autobiographical detail in order to make clear my own position in debates that can become vitriolic and laden with personal accusations. For my first historical projects, I strongly resisted invitations to research into gender. Determined to avoid being branded as an ardent feminist incapable of handling the masculine hard stuff, I picked topics such as magnetism and electricity, Isaac Newton and Joseph Banks. Gradually, I came to realise that for me personally, the main reason for studying the past is to understand the present—and the whole point of doing that is to improve the future. And that is why I have written this book. . . .

Excerpted from A Lab of One's Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War, by Patricia Fara. Copyright © by Patricia Fara. Used with permission of the publisher, Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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