JOANNA BOURKE welcomes a book celebrating trailblazing female scientists and highlighting the injustices they faced
A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War by Patricia Fara Oxford University Press, 352 pages, £18.99
Helen Gwynne-Vaughan was one of the first female professors of botany in Britain. As a mycologist based at Birkbeck College, fungi were her passion. Her aim, she explained, was to present “the fungus as a living individual”. Gwynne-Vaughan’s meticulous microscopic work was widely admired, but it took guts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to talk to male scientists about the reproductive processes and sexual proclivities of plants. Indeed, as Patricia Fara’s fascinating new book highlights so skilfully, it took courage for a woman to become any sort of scientist.
Gwynne-Vaughan had been born in 1879 into an upper-class Victorian family who were deeply opposed to her desire to study at university. After numerous fights, she was admitted to science classes at King’s College London where discrimination was rife. At the end of her degree, when it was discovered that she had earned the highest marks of her year in botany, there were serious debates about whether the rules even allowed a woman to be awarded the Carter Gold Medal and Prize. Like many other female scientists, such prejudice drove GwynneVaughan to feminism: she co-founded the University of London Women’s Suffrage Society. During the First World War, in 1917, she became the chief controller of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (the WAAC).
Gwynne-Vaughan’s experience as a female scientist in a man’s world is just one of many examples explored in Fara’s new book. Her central themes are discrimination, political struggle and resilience. As A Lab of One’s Own reveals, women who were passionate about science had to do much more than merely prove their abilities. They also had to persuade family members that academic life would not pervert their femininity, learn to ignore numerous insults (such as being forced to allow their non-scientific husbands to read papers for them at the Royal Society), patiently resist petty rules and shrug off sexist jokes (“would you rather have a slap in the face or a WAAC on your knee?”). As family planning pioneer Marie Stopes complained, female scientists with international reputations were “shut out” from conversing with their male colleagues. Even women-only colleges had a habit of appointing men to the most senior posts. Initially, at least, Fara argues that the First World War
Female scientists with international reputations were “shut out” by male colleagues
provided female scientists, engineers, and physicians with new opportunities. But progress was maddeningly slow.
The book ends with a reminder not to be complacent about the position of women in science today. Many of the same discriminatory ideas and practices remain with us. A tiny proportion of members of the Royal Society today are women (even in the humanities, only 15–17 per cent of British Academy modern history fellows are female).
As this remarkable book demonstrates, Fara is not only one of Britain’s leading historians of science, but also one of her generation’s most eloquent storytellers.
Botany professor Helen Gwynne-Vaughan (standing) in her laboratory. She is one of the female scientists profiled in a new book by Patricia Fara