Ladies with attitude

On this day in 1928 women in the UK were given full electoral equality with men for the first time. Laurence Scales highlights the Ri women whose committed campaigning we have to thank for such a milestone.

This blog is the latest in a new series in which Ri volunteer Laurence Scales tells the stories of some of the weird, wonderful, and fascinating Ri members through the ages. Its release coincides with the anniversary of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928.

Widow, spinster, married woman, wife of Ri member, daughter of peer, gentlewoman or (occasionally) independent lady is how many of the female members of the Ri in the late 19th century and early 20th century styled themselves in the absence of a more formal profession. Some identified themselves only as, say, ‘Mrs Edward Brocklehurst’. (This was a common practice at the time but presents an annoying obstacle to the historian trying to research them!) Although in most cases ‘independent lady’ probably said more about the state of their financial assets than their attitude, ‘independent ladies’ is a fruitful topic for a blog.

The Ri certainly attracted independently minded women around that time. It may not generally have been a hot house of extremism, but physicist Hertha Ayrton (born Sarah Marks) was only one of a number of suffragettes who, at one time or another, were Ri members. (Not all were simultaneously activists and members).

  • Hertha Ayrton bw painting

    Painting of Hertha Ayrton

    Credit: Public domain

  • Hertha ayrton blue plaque

    Hertha Ayrton's blue plaque

    Credit: Simon Harriyott, Flickr

From its inception in 1799 the Ri welcomed women to lectures and also accepted women as members. The Ri has always enjoyed a little friendly rivalry with the Royal Society, and the latter was notably discomfited when an application for Fellowship was brought on behalf of Hertha Ayrton, a married woman, in 1902 and no such application was entertained until prejudices had softened in 1945. But Ayrton became an Ri member in 1907, supported by Helen Dewar, James Dewar, Silvanus Thompson, William Crookes and another, name unreadable.

Ayrton was not accepted as a Fellow by the Royal Society. But Ayrton, a friend of Marie Curie, was no doormat, to be trampled by the monstrous regiment of men. She marched with the suffragettes and nursed the women hunger strikers including Mrs Pankhurst at her home in London’s Norfolk Square (where you can find her blue plaque). Ayrton is understood to have laundered money for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the suffragettes’ organisation, then regarded as terrorists. In 1910 she wrote in a letter to The Times saying that: ‘I was marching immediately behind Mrs Pankhurst when she entered Downing Street, but was prevented from reaching No. 10 by an attempt at strangulation on the part of a policeman...’

Breaking windows as a suffragette protest led Louisa Garrett Anderson (admitted as an Ri member in 1903) to being imprisoned at Holloway. She was the daughter of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (who also attended lectures at the Ri) and received private tuition from Sarah Marks. Elizabeth is usually regarded as the first woman in Britain to qualify as a doctor (in 1865), and Louisa followed her mother into medical practice. Octavia Lewin (admitted as an Ri member in 1935) was another medical suffragette. She worked with Louisa Garrett Anderson at the Endell Street Military Hospital in London.

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (admitted as an Ri member in 1924) was treasurer of the WSPU and was briefly imprisoned, force fed, and had assets seized. Among her philanthropic work for women she was co-founder of the Espérance Club for young dress makers. (The club later staged an assault on another traditionally male preserve, Morris Dancing, still jealously protected by some when I briefly took up bells and sticks in the late 20th century.)

  • Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence

    Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence

    Credit: Public domain

  • Edith Anne Stoney

    Edith Anne Stoney

    Credit: Public domain

A ‘fellow traveller’ was Alice Mona Henryson-Caird (admitted as an Ri member in 1919). She was a novelist who explored feminist themes, and also wrote on vivisection and social issues including the nature of marriage. She demonstrated with the suffragettes in Hyde Park.

Several female Ri members, while they may not have stormed the barricades, nonetheless had the resources and determination to gain a foothold in male dominated professions. Edith Stoney (admitted as an Ri member in 1907) was another who went into medicine and, like Louisa Garrett Anderson, took her skills to France in the First Word War. There she used stereo X-ray images to locate shrapnel in wounds, and seems to have been quite handy with a spanner.

Edith Stoney had also worked on turbine calculations for Sir Charles Parsons (inventor of the steam turbine, another Ri member). Parsons’ daughter, Rachel (admitted as an Ri member in 1918), became an early member of the Institution of Naval Architects. It seems that she was a cantankerous creature and she was eventually murdered by her thieving and disgruntled stable hand.

Annette Matilda Benson (admitted as an Ri member in 1929) was another early qualifier in medicine. But qualification was only one hurdle. For a lady to find a suitable position was difficult. She practiced in India and in 1894 became ‘First Physician’ at a hospital in Bombay for women and children.

Gertrude Caton-Thompson (admitted as an Ri member in 1921) studied under Egyptologist Flinders Petrie and, after the Great War ended, was able to undertake archaeological field work in Egypt and the Zimbabwe ruins.

Emily Aston (admitted as an Ri member in 1891) described herself as a researcher in chemistry (she obtained a degree in chemistry and geology in 1889) and co-authored a number of papers with Sir William Ramsay (later a Nobel Prize winner) before moving on to academic institutions in Paris and Geneva.

  • Annette Benson membership form

    Annette Benson membership form

    Credit: Ri

  • Edith Stoney membership form

    Edith Stoney membership form

    Credit: Ri

  • Hertha Ayrton membership form

    Hertha Ayrton membership form

    Credit: Ri

  • Louisa Garrett Anderson Membership form

    Louisa Garrett Anderson Membership form

    Credit: Ri

So far, in this blog we have met some of the determined pioneers among the women of the late Victorian and Edwardian world. I will finish with an introduction to someone who, though she broke no windows or glass ceilings, fought through books, pamphlets and speeches, for improving the lot of women in her own way. The organisation she worked for was not outlawed. It was the British Commercial Gas Association. Curiously, her practical manual ‘The Mother’s Companion’ of 1909 was one of the first titles published by Mills & Boon. Her name was Maud Adeline Cloudesley Brereton.

The working woman’s lot in late Victorian Britain was an unremitting grind in which men took little part. Consider housework without today’s domestic appliances and household chemicals. Now sprinkle on the coal dust and ash from stoves, and the greasy soot from chimneys. The streets were full of manure. Many of the streets, I learnt recently, were even paved with spongy soft wood. Every time a heavy load rolled past, a fine spray of decomposing horse pee would launch into the air.

A gas cooker, argued Maud, a former headmistress and an Edwardian working mother, could liberate women from some of their toil and free them to explore their full potential. At a time of public debates over racial deterioration and eugenics, she argued that what was actually needed to improve the health of the nation was abundant boiling water, which would lead to better hygiene. She called for more female gas showroom demonstrators, cheaper appliances, more understanding salesmen and better designed houses. Such changes would benefit all women ‘from the charwoman to the chairwoman’.

Maud joined the Ri in 1932, the year of her retirement, and she exemplified the Ri’s charter: ‘facilitating the general introduction, of useful mechanical inventions and improvements; and for teaching… the application of science to the common purposes of life.’

In 2014 the Ri is celebrating the achievements of women in science today with our first ever all women line-up for a year of Friday Evening Discourses. Find out more.

Aoife McLysaght, Friday Evening Discourse speaker, 28 March 2014

Laurence Scales is a volunteer working with the Ri Heritage and Collections team. He also leads unique and eclectic London tours focused on the curious history of science, invention, medicine and intelligence.

He is a graduate in engineering and has worked in various technological industries. In 2013 he helped to set the annual Talk Science quiz at the British Library.

Find out more on his website, and follow him on twitter: @LWalksLondon

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