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Cover of Magnificent Women book

Book review: ‘Magnificent Women and Their Revolutionary Machines’

Image credit: Unbound

The story of the birth of the Women’s Engineering Society a hundred years ago illustrates the social upheaval that Britain experienced in the wake of the First World War.

The fact that this year’s centenary of the creation of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) coincides with that of the period immediately after the end of the First World War should come as no surprise. The war had seen some 800,000 women recruited into British industry to replace the huge numbers of men who had gone away to fight. At the end of hostilities, the stage was set for conflict on the factory floor.

To persuade unions to accept the essential entry of unskilled workers into traditionally skilled male roles, Lloyd George had agreed that women would have to give up their jobs to returning men. The post-war years witnessed milestones for women including the right to vote and stand for election as an MP, while legislation against workplace discrimination finally allowed them to enter the medical and legal professions. In industry, however, the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act meant that those who aspired to continue their wartime careers in engineering found themselves frustrated.

It was, then, perhaps inevitable that a group of women would come together to create an organisation that could campaign on their behalf.

Sadly, despite their varied personal backgrounds and trailblazing achievements, many of their stories have been lost to history. Now, to mark WES’s centenary, ‘Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines’ by Henrietta Heald (Unbound, £20, ISBN9781783526604) brings their work to life again.

While some of this diverse group were lucky enough to grow up in affluent environments where scientific investigation was part of everyday life, others had to overcome hostility and social prejudice.

Led by Katharine and Rachel Parsons, wife and daughter of the engineering genius Charles Parsons, and Caroline Haslett, a self-taught electrical engineer who became the most powerful professional woman of her age, the group also included Eleanor Shelley-Rolls, sister of car magnate Charles Rolls; Viscountess Rhondda, a director of 33 companies, and Laura Willson, a suffragette and labour rights activist from Halifax who was twice imprisoned for her political activities.

‘Magnificent Women’ isn’t just the story of the women themselves, but also the era in which they lived. Much of the source material is drawn from the records of WES and the Electrical Association for Women, which today form part of the IET Archives in London. E&T itself played a small part in the book’s development. During its crowdfunding phase, Heald wrote in the July 2017 issue (‘Rachel Parsons and the power of good stories’) about the background to it and her hope that retelling the stories of these pioneering women might inspire some of today’s young people to follow in their footsteps.

Reading the results now, it’s easy to believe that the lives of the founders of WES could achieve even wider exposure. Almost any of them could sustain the plot of a mainstream film if a studio had the confidence to run with it. In the meantime, the downside of looking back over 100 years of the Women’s Engineering Society is seeing how little has changed in the profession and the lack of any dramatic progress over the course of a century in boosting the proportion of women in industry.

Books like ‘Magnificent Women’ may do something to change that. The consolation is that in another 100 years’ time, historians of this subject will have so many more stories to draw on when they look back to the early years of the 21st century.

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