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Stepping into scientific roles left vacant during World War I brought gains for women in and out of the laboratory

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

Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press
2018
350 pp.
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The ability of war to disrupt gender roles is well established. Amid the chaos of fighting, the enlistment of men, and the need to keep home fires burning, women have historically stepped into roles previously considered masculine domains. In World War I–era Britain, women could be found in a variety of new places, such as the munitions factories and military auxiliaries that have attracted the most attention by scholars to date. Less well known is women’s work in scientific fields. With A Lab of One’s Own, Patricia Fara aims to correct this imbalance, masterfully bringing to light women’s wartime contributions to these areas, as well as their efforts to improve women’s status in both science and society.

During World War I, countless British women designed airplane equipment, invented drugs, tested bombs, studied the effects of tear gas, and cracked codes. They also ran hospitals and science museums and taught at universities. Even seemingly “feminine” fields, such as nutrition, assumed increased importance during the war. As Fara argues, “in wartime, the need to find out why bread goes mouldy was as pressing as the invention of a new explosive.”

Although some women received recognition for their work, many did not, a situation that raises much larger questions about the nature of women’s wartime gains. On the one hand, many enjoyed increased educational and professional opportunities that had not been made available to them before the war. Yet those opportunities were also circumscribed by gender stereotypes and traditional conventions regarding women’s work.

Throughout the war, female scientists were overwhelmingly relegated to the lowest-paid and least-prestigious positions. Much of their work, moreover, involved tasks that were not only tedious but also dangerous, such as in the case of industrial chemists, where women made up almost 90% of their ranks.

Although outright hostility to female scientists seemed to diminish during the war, women continued to be marked as outsiders. Their appearance was routinely scrutinized, and some scientific women also felt pressure to reassure anxious observers of their femininity, as if to offset the masculine nature of their work. The assumption that women in science were temporary participants was made all the more apparent when many male veterans returned to reclaim their jobs.

MARIE STOPES INTERNATIONAL AUSTRALIA/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Renowned as a paleontologist, Marie Stopes also championed scientifically sound sex education.

As Fara demonstrates, however, women’s wartime participation was not all for naught. Some were in fact successful in applying their wartime training to postwar careers. Their wartime experiences, coupled with a postwar influx of government money into science, education, and industry, allowed them to enjoy expanded opportunities once again. “They were still not getting their fair share,” Fara concedes, “but at least the cake was larger.”
Others, regardless of whether they remained in scientific fields, found that their self-confidence and expectations had been irrevocably heightened by their participation in wartime science. Compared with the short-term nature of some gains, this transformation was long-lasting.

Some of the most fascinating parts of the book include analyses of women who blended their work and their commitment to women’s rights. During the war, for example, Louisa Garrett Anderson and Flora Murray—who were medical pioneers, suffragettes, and long-term companions—set up a number of hospitals that were staffed entirely by women. Their most famous venture, the Endell Street Hospital in the Bloomsbury section of London, was an explicitly political organization with clear ideological and financial ties to the suffrage movement.

Meanwhile, other scientifically trained women gravitated toward the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), which took on important wartime work. For much of the conflict, the NUWSS assumed the role of a patriotic employment agency, which involved, among other things, training women to carry out scientific and technical jobs usually held by men. Unfortunately, despite figuring prominently in the title, suffrage does not get as much attention as one might expect in A Lab of One’s Own. More of these stories would have enriched the book.

As Fara is careful to note, the degree to which women’s wartime contributions influenced the 1918 decision to grant suffrage to women over 30 (subject to other restrictions) is the subject of much debate. What can be said with more certainty is that “public opinion was nudged towards approving female suffrage” in recognition of women’s work.

Perhaps a more important issue, though, is the role that suffrage played in improving women’s status. Many professional women viewed the vote as the first step in a much longer battle. For them, being paid, promoted, and respected in their fields was just as, if not more, important. Indeed, these concerns remain pressing ones today.

About the author

The reviewer is in the Department of History, Christopher Newport University, Newport News, VA 23606, USA.