In 1919, in the wake of the First World War, a group of extraordinary women came together to create the Women’s Engineering Society. They were trailblazers, pioneers and boundary breakers, but many of their stories have been lost to history. To mark the centenary of the society’s creation, Magnificent Women and Their Revolutionary Machines brings them back to life.
Their leaders were Katharine and Rachel Parsons, wife and daughter of the engineering genius Charles Parsons, and Caroline Haslett, a self-taught electrical engineer who campaigned to free women from domestic drudgery and became the most powerful professional woman of her age. Also featured are Eleanor Shelley-Rolls, sister of car magnate Charles Rolls; Viscountess Rhondda, a director of thirty-three companies who founded and edited the revolutionary Time and Tide magazine; and Laura Willson, a suffragette and labour rights activist from Halifax, who was twice imprisoned for her political activities.This is not just the story of the women themselves, but also the era in which they lived. Beginning at the moment when women in Britain were allowed to vote for the first time, and to stand for Parliament and when several professions were opened up to them Magnificent Women charts the changing attitudes towards women in society and in the workplace.
What I Thought:
The Victorian era and early 20th Century seems to have been a golden age for technological advancement and invention, but all too often we hear about the inventiveness of men, and history tends to gloss over the contribution made to techological advancement by women.
In Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines, Henrietta Heald tries to put that right by introducing us to a generation of exceptional female engineers on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES).
For a start, this is such a readable book, as it makes connections between many well-known inventions and inventors, and then shows where the women involved in these things were subtly written out of the narrative. With the main thrust of the book being the founding of the WES after the First World War, there is a chapter dedicated to those women who answered the call to fill in in the munitions factories when the men were called to war, and were then unceremoniously dumped once the war ended. With blunt instruments like the Restoration of Pre-war Practices bill, there was a sweeping move to put women firmly back into the kitchen but these women were not ready to go quietly.
There is much to induce rage in this book – not least of which is the bill I mentioned above – including women not being granted degrees from Cambridge University until 1948, like a large number of women being turned down for fellowship of industry bodies and many other instances where women were considered to be inferior in brainpower and strength to men, but there are also countless inspirational women who not only break through into their chosen professions, but also hold the door open for younger women to follow them.
From Naval and aeronauctical design, to flying solo around the world, so many different women in a diverse range of fields are represented here in a tribute to the pioneering spirit of the women of the early 20th Century and, with an afterword by Dawn Childs, current President of the the WES, there is much more to look forward to from more Magnificent Women. Although this does come with a caveat – still, only 11% of professional engineers in the UK are women, hopefully a number that will continue to grow with the help of WES and organisations like it.
This is a timely book given recent initiatives to increase the number of women and girls studying STEM subjects and it’s definitely an eye opener. Highly recommended from me, another fantastic project published through Unbound.
To find out more about Henrietta Heald and her work, you can connect with her on Twitter.
This post is part of a blog tour to celebrate the publication of Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines – do be sure to check out some of the other fantastic blogs taking part:
Please note: I was sent a copy of this book for review purposes. All opinions are, as ever, my own.