Rachel Parsons and the power of good stories
Image credit: Getty images
Pioneering women engineers from the past can inspire today’s young people to follow in their footsteps.
Everyone loves a good story, and really captivating stories that inspire their audience can sometimes change lives. This thought occurred to me repeatedly during research for my new book, ‘Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines’, for the tales of Britain’s early female engineers are nothing if not inspirational.
Building ships and cars, piloting and repairing aeroplanes, electrifying factories and homes, inventing medical devices, precision work on optical instruments – women did it all.
Accounts of these exploits are revealed in the letters, photographs and records of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) and the Electrical Association for Women (EAW), which form part of the Archives at the IET building in London’s Savoy Place. When I discovered the wealth of material contained in these archives, it was like opening a treasure chest.
As an author and book editor, I first became absorbed by the world of engineering while writing a biography of William Armstrong, Baron Armstrong of Cragside (1810-1900), the great Victorian inventor and industrialist who built Cragside in Northumberland, the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity. The more I found out about the profession, the more I became aware of the paradox that, while demand for engineers of all kinds was growing fast, there remained an acute shortage in Britain of young people pursuing this career path – especially a shortage of females, who still make up only 9 per cent of the total.
What a saga of wasted opportunities! It made me wonder whether the image of the profession (which seems to be a large part of the problem) could be transformed by telling the true stories of individuals, not only in books but also through film and dramatisation.
This thought came hot on the heels of my introduction to Rachel Mary Parsons (1885-1956), one of the seven extraordinary individuals who founded the Women’s Engineering Society immediately after the First World War. ‘Magnificent Women’, published to celebrate the society’s centenary, will explore the lives of all these pioneers – and more.
Some of the magnificent women in the book were fortunate enough to grow up in an environment where scientific investigation and practical engineering were part of everyday life and the gender of the person engaged in those activities was irrelevant. Others had to overcome family hostility and virulent social prejudice to achieve their aims.
One of them, Laura Annie Willson, a weaver and suffragette, emerged from extreme poverty and hardship to run her own factory. Laura Annie, who had started work in a Halifax mill at the age of ten, received an MBE for her contribution to the war effort and was the first female member of the Federation of House Builders.
Parsons began life as one of the lucky ones. She was the only daughter of Charles Parsons, whose invention of the steam turbine in the 1880s revolutionised not only the propulsion of ships – as seen in record-breaking liners such as Mauretania, Lusitania and Titanic – but also the efficiency of electricity generation.
Charles Parsons encouraged his daughter’s interest in engineering – an activity in which the family was already steeped, for his father was the eminent astronomer William Parsons, third earl of Rosse, president of the Royal Society from 1848 to 1854. In 1840, Lord Rosse built a six-foot-diameter telescope in the middle of Ireland – the Leviathan of Parsonstown – which was the largest telescope in existence for more than 70 years.
Perhaps even more important to Parsons was the legacy of a grandmother, Mary Rosse, who had herself been an astronomer and engineer, as well as a pioneer of early photography, and the influence of a mother, Katharine Parsons, who was a leading campaigner in the north of England for women’s rights.
In 1910, Rachel Parsons would become the first woman to study mechanical sciences at Cambridge University and, later, one of the first female directors of a large industrial concern, but in many ways she was too far ahead of her time – a fact that may have led indirectly to her tragic end. Almost half a century later, she would become the victim of a violent killing.
Parsons studied engineering at Cambridge from 1910 until late 1912 under Professor Bertram Hopkinson. Her course consisted of papers in mathematics, mechanics, strength of materials and theory of structures, heat and heat engines, and electricity and magnetism. Although she consolidated the engineering skills she had absorbed in her father’s workshop and added theoretical knowledge to practical experience, Parsons was barred from becoming a full member of the university, which made her ineligible for a degree. (This situation, which applied to all female students, was not rectified until 1948.)
On the outbreak of war in 1914, Parsons joined the board of her father’s engineering company on Tyneside, where she supervised the growing cohort of female employees, who had been hired to take the place of fighting men. When a Ministry of Munitions was created under David Lloyd George, she joined the training department and travelled to other parts of Britain, helping to teach factory workers how to do everything from assembling aircraft parts to installing electrical wiring on battleships. Some 800,000 women were recruited into Britain’s engineering works during the war, reflecting a much larger increase of female employees than in any other trade or profession.
Lloyd George, meanwhile, had struck an infamous deal with the engineering trade unions. To persuade them to accept the ‘dilution’ of labour – the entry of unskilled workers of both sexes into jobs traditionally held by skilled men – he agreed that, when the war ended, all women in engineering would be obliged to give up their jobs to men unless they worked for firms that had employed women before the war. This became law in 1919 as the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act.
Several important victories in female emancipation were achieved during this period. Women were allowed to vote and to stand for Parliament for the first time, and the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act allowed them to enter certain professions, such as medicine and law. But those who wanted to be engineers found doors slammed in their faces. The trade unions were intransigent in their refusal to admit women, making it virtually impossible for them to get jobs in the profession.
Impressed by the talent and skills she had witnessed during the war, Parsons was radicalised by this development. At a meeting of the National Union of Women Workers at Harrogate in October 1918, she spoke in support of female munitions workers who “wish to study and learn from a scientific point of view”. As a leading member of the National Council of Women, she campaigned for equal access, regardless of gender, to all technical schools and colleges.
In January 1919, Parsons and her mother, Katharine, established the Women’s Engineering Society, with Parsons as the first president and Caroline Haslett, an electrical engineer, as secretary. The society’s main mission was to promote women’s training and employment in industry. The following year, Parsons helped to create Atalanta Ltd, an all-female engineering firm. She served for three years on the London County Council and stood (unsuccessfully) for Parliament in the 1923 election, when there were only two women MPs.
Over two decades she devoted much of her energy to campaigning for women’s rights. Her political philosophy was encapsulated in an article of 1919 published in National Review magazine: “Women must organize – this is the only royal road to victory in the industrial world. Women have won their political independence; now is the time for them to achieve their economic freedom too.”
Parsons was one of the great unsung heroes of early 20th-century feminism. Having seen what great heights female workers had attained during the war, she used this knowledge to blaze a trail for the army of ambitious women who followed.
Parsons was frustrated in many of her personal desires, however, and retreated in later years to the world of horse racing, establishing a stable and stud farm at Newmarket in Suffolk. As a rich spinster living alone, she became socially isolated and was increasingly perceived as eccentric. She made enemies and fell prey to sycophants, and on 1 July 1956 she was brutally killed by a 25-year-old stableman named Dennis Pratt. Pratt was convicted of manslaughter on the grounds of provocation.
Back in the 1920s, when Parsons’ fortunes started to decline, she had metaphorically handed on the baton to her WES colleague Haslett, a self-taught electrical engineer whose career went from strength to strength. Haslett became the leading professional woman of her age and one of the foremost campaigners for women’s employment rights.
These early feminists realised that they could achieve much more together than they could as individuals, and acted on that belief by forming powerful pressure groups.
Whether the lives of Rachel and Katharine Parsons, Laura Annie Willson, Caroline Haslett and other early female pioneers are ever translated to the screen remains to be seen, but I hope in the meantime to inspire readers young and old with their amazing stories in the printed version of ‘Magnificent Women’.
Henrietta Heald’s book ‘William Armstrong, Magician of the North’ was shortlisted for the Best First Biography Prize and the Portico Prize.
‘Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines’ is being crowdfunded by Unbound publishers to celebrate the centenary of the Women’s Engineering Society. Find out how to make a pledge, quoting the code EW17 for your exclusive E&T reader’s discount, at unbound.com/books/magnificent-women