Pi­o­neer spir­its

JOANNA BOURKE wel­comes a book cel­e­brat­ing trail­blaz­ing fe­male sci­en­tists and high­light­ing the in­jus­tices they faced

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Reviews - Joanna Bourke is pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Birk­beck, Univer­sity of Lon­don and au­thor of The Story of Pain (OUP, 2014)

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

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