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The women we erased from history

November 9, 2018   4 mins

Last week, I experienced what it feels like to be an invisible woman. While running a large international conference, I took over behind the registration desk. When one of my colleagues came up to collect his badge and programme, he immediately launched into flirtatious conversation – but then after a few minutes, he paused. “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” he asked.

Invisible women pepper our history and inform our present. And yet we choose to forget or ignore their contributions. We can learn much, though, from them and their stories. Particularly from those scandalously ignored women who contributed so much to our victory in the First World War.

As soon as the War began, women scientists volunteered for extra work, seizing the opportunity they were given when their male contemporaries left to fight at the Front. Some carried out crucial research into aeroplane design, insecticides, vitamin preservation, ballistics calculations and metallurgy; others provided medical care on the European battlefields. Their participation was scarcely recognised at the time, and a hundred years later, they might never have existed for all we remember them.

So let’s correct the historical record. And by investigating the ingrained prejudices and overt discrimination that afflicted these women, we can perhaps cast light the unconscious bias still pervading modern workplaces. In studying the past, one aim is to improve our understanding of the present – and for me, the whole point of doing that is to improve the future.

Unusually, the chemist Martha Whiteley did leave some traces behind her. After winning scholarships to pay her way through school and university, she became a researcher at Imperial College, studying synthetic barbiturates. When war started, she put that project to one side and took charge of an eight-woman team investigating poisons and bombs, working out of an experimental trench dug in the gardens at South Kensington.

Hailing her experiments on tear gas, a newspaper headline introduced her as “The woman who made the Germans weep”; an explosive she developed was codenamed DW for Dr Whiteley. Previously an ardent suffragist, in the 1950s she was still encouraging schoolgirls to take up scientific careers, thus providing the type of role model that remains vital in science education today.

Historians are so swayed by stereotypical expectations and the proliferation of stories about male heroism, that unconventional women such as Dr Whiteley are often ignored. In one recently published scholarly book about medicine during the War, the only index entries relating to women are the two obvious ones: nurses and brothels.

There is no mention of all those female surgeons, electricians and radiographers who went out to war-wracked countries such as France and Serbia, and who, while still admiringly commemorated overseas, have virtually vanished from British public memory.

Fortunately, one of these pioneers reported the hardships she had suffered in Eastern Europe. Working in appalling conditions, Scottish doctor Isabel Emslie and her female colleagues lived and died on the edge of danger as they treated wounded soldiers, ran maternity units, cared for refugees, researched into infectious diseases, and introduced preventive health programmes.

Patients were crammed together on filthy straw pallets and surgeons operated by candlelight with neither disinfectant nor anaesthetics. In winter, frostbite and gangrene added to the complications of dysentery and other infectious diseases, while in the scorching summers cholera, malaria and typhus were rife.

After a couple of years, Emslie successfully applied to run a hospital funded by American donations. “Just fancy me a C.O. at my tender years,” she wrote proudly to her mother; “I should have been 20 years older & worn hob-nailed boots & flannel.” She led a convoy of nine vehicles – entirely staffed by women – to set up her hospital behind the front line. After five days of driving, they arrived, amid swirling snow, to a stench which told them they were in the right place. Hundreds of injured soldiers lay dying on a stone floor, still in their uniforms, swarming with maggots and lice. Patients wailed continuously as surgeons operated without anaesthetics on trestle tables; Emslie never forgot “the floor swimming in blood… the pails crammed with arms and legs and black with flies”.

By January 1919, she had converted the chaos into a well-equipped hospital, complete with an X-ray department, laboratory, and dispensary, all immaculately maintained by a team of grateful former patients.

Whiteley and Emslie were just two among many. After the War, those pioneers who had known masculine independence and responsibilities bitterly resented being expected to resume their traditional, restricted roles. Their protests and campaigns prepared the way for their daughters and future generations to pursue rewarding careers.

Between the Wars, the industrial chemist Kathleen Culhame had some realistic advice for her contemporaries:

“…the male graduate…is paid a reasonable salary and, however young, if his university qualifications are good, he is usually given quite a dignified position from the beginning. The girl who worked side by side with him at the university is hard up and constantly humiliated… She will be happier if she is not too enterprising because then her sense of frustration will be less.”

But she refused to give in, repeatedly applying for men’s jobs, demanding the same conditions of employment, demonstrating that women were perfectly capable of scientific work.

Over the past century, so many of these courageous women have fought to establish the current legislation that guarantees equal salaries. Even so, on average women employed in STEM areas earn less than men because they are funnelled into inferior jobs.

To ensure true equality of opportunity, modern scientific women must make themselves heard and also make themselves seen. We need to hang female portraits on corridor walls, make sure that student reading lists include papers by women and stand up at the lectern to deliver keynote addresses.

And the Bank of England should put Dorothy Hodgkin – Britain’s only female scientist to win a Nobel prize for her work on insulin and vitamins – on the new £50 note.

Patricia Fara is Senior Tutor of Clare College, Cambridge, and lectures in the History and Philosophy of Science Department. She is the author of a number of books, including A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in World War One.

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