Women in science: From embroidery to explosives

Patricia Fara in Nature:

WomenIn the early twentieth century, female scientists felt beleaguered. It is “as though my work wore petticoats”, cries Ursula, the fictionalized version of distinguished physicist Hertha Ayrton in the 1924 novel The Call. The real-life Ayrton was denied entry to the Royal Society in 1902 because she was married; later she struggled to make the British government's War Office consider her design for a wooden fan to protect soldiers against gas attacks. Pre-war, alongside fellow suffragettes, Ayrton had marched behind banners embroidered with scientific figureheads including Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale, but such protests often aroused contempt rather than support.

“I do not agree with sex being brought into science at all,” declared Ayrton. “Either a woman is a good scientist, or she is not.” Ringing words — so have we yet achieved the ideal she was fighting for a century ago? Overt discrimination is now illegal — equality of opportunity is firmly entrenched. But all over the world, traditional attitudes linger on. Glass ceilings and leaky pipelines still present tough challenges for ambitious women in science, especially at higher levels. Exposing prejudice is the first step to eliminating it. By examining the past, we can understand how we have arrived at the present — and how to improve the future. In Britain, where the suffragists and violent demonstrations had failed, the First World War persuaded the government that women belonged in the polling booth as well as the parlour. “Oh! This War! How it is tearing down walls and barriers, and battering in fast shut doors,” enthused a female journalist in 1915 in the Women's Liberal Review. By 1918, women had helped Britain to victory by making drugs, explosives, insecticides, alloys, electrical instruments and other essential laboratory products, and by carrying out research, running hospitals and teaching students. Yet after the war, it was almost universally assumed that female workers should give up their jobs and slip back into their previous roles as wives and mothers. Only much later did the authorities recognize the twin follies of converting highly educated men into cannon fodder and of failing to deploy female brains effectively.

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