Book review: ‘A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War’

How WWI gave women the opportunity to prove their worth in science and engineering.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, women had already been studying science and engineering at British universities for nearly half a century, often very successfully and usually thanks to a level of dogged persistence that meant they often outshone their male classmates. 

While most Cambridge colleges retain records of things that students and graduates accomplished on the battlefield during the conflict, and those who didn’t return, Newnham College is unusual in that being an all-female college the hand-made book ‘War Work, 1914-1918’, which records the activities of around 600 members of various ages, has some very different stories to tell.

Inscribed in the book’s embroidered linen covers are the details of doctors who operated at the front, chemists who developed explosives and poison gases, biologists who researched into tropical diseases and mathematicians responsible for intelligence work. The list is a snapshot of just one group of women for whom the departure of men from their regular occupations created opportunities in industry beyond the usual option of teaching.


As Patricia Fara, a Cambridge lecturer and president of the British Society for the History of Science, explains at the start of ‘A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War’ (Oxford University Press, £18.99, ISBN 9780198794981), it was the realisation of how few names in ‘War Work’ she recognised that prompted her to find out more about these scientific pioneers whose stories have often fallen into a gap between social histories of how women moved into manual roles in factories during the war and the ambulance drivers, nurses, bus conductors, farmers and factory workers who “effectively ran Britain for four years while [the men] were away”.

As well as suffragists such as Virginia Woolf’s sister, Ray Strachey, who had aligned themselves with scientific and technological progress prior to the war and mobilised women to enter conventionally male domains such as science and medicine, Fara tells the stories of some of the many others including mental health pioneer Isabel Emslie, chemist Martha Whiteley, and botanist Helen Gwynne Vaughan.

The story doesn’t have an altogether happy ending. Many historians now acknowledge that although the war provided a temporary opening up of roles that had been denied to women, the return of millions of men to work from 1918 on saw a reversion to traditional roles. Soaring unemployment in the 1920s saw men given priority for the jobs that were available. However, the bravery of these pioneer women scientists, temporarily allowed into a closed world before the door clanged shut again, paved the way for today’s women scientists.

‘A Lab of One’s Own’ is packed with stories of women who deserve greater recognition. More than that though, it resonates with current trends in how women are treated in the workplace even a century after the partial suffrage of 1918. The idea that for ten years women could only vote if they were 30, owned property or were graduates seems ridiculously archaic now, yet some will recognise there’s still more to do.

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