‘Women have won their political independence. Now is the time for them to achieve their economic freedom too.’
This was the great rallying cry of the pioneers who, in 1919, created the Women’s Engineering Society. Spearheaded by Katharine and Rachel Parsons, a powerful mother and daughter duo, and Caroline Haslett, whose mission was to liberate women from domestic drudgery, it was the world’s first professional organisation dedicated to the campaign for women’s rights.
Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines tells the stories of the women at the heart of this group – from their success in fanning the flames of a social revolution to their significant achievements in engineering and technology. It centres on the parallel but contrasting lives of the two main protagonists, Rachel Parsons and Caroline Haslett – one born to privilege and riches whose life ended in dramatic tragedy; the other who rose from humble roots to become the leading professional woman of her age and mistress of the thrilling new
Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines tells the stories of the women at the heart of this group – from their success in fanning the flames of a social revolution to their significant achievements in engineering and technology. It centres on the parallel but contrasting lives of the two main protagonists, Rachel Parsons and Caroline Haslett – one born to privilege and riches whose life ended in dramatic tragedy; the other who rose from humble roots to become the leading professional woman of her age and mistress of the thrilling new power of the twentieth century: electricity.
In this fascinating book, acclaimed biographer Henrietta Heald also illuminates the era in which the society was founded. From the moment when women in Britain were allowed to vote for the first time, and to stand for Parliament, she charts the changing attitudes to women’s rights both in society and in the workplace.
Thanks to Anne for organising this tour and to the publishers for sending me a copy. You’re absolute stars. I have a full slate of reviews booked in for this week, but when I read the blurb for this book I had to read it.
This book covers the founding and development of the Women’s Engineering Society. It describes working conditions for women who wanted to become engineers in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century and the First World War, and focuses on two women in particular, Caroline Haslett and Rachel Parsons, their lives and how they diverged in the years after the formation of the society, as well as changes and challenges for women engineers. The book marks the centenary of the Society.
Caroline Haslett, although never an engineer, especially, used her position as Secretary of the Society, and in many other posts concerning labour and electricity, to improve the lives of not just professional women but housewives, to free women from the drudgery of running a house. I for one am grateful she took an interest, I’d hate to have to clean a grate when I can just dust (very rarely) my electric fire, and I’d much rather cook on a reliable electric hob than a coal stove. Although at the minute it’s a microwave, slow cooker and electric grill, but, she, and the Electrical association she help found and build were the first to really encourage builders to build ‘All-Electric’ houses in the 1930s, so we can thank her for that as well. Shee died of exhaustion from running so many committees and sitting on so many boards for 40+ years.
Rachel Parsons was an engineer, from a family of landowners in Ireland and Yorkshire, her father owned companies on Tyneside and she inherited her father’s intellect and inquisitiveness. Unfortunately, things went wrong and she became a society lady, then got into horse racing and breeding. A mind that could have done anything, and a fortune to pay for it, she lost her way and seemed unfulfilled, stifled by the expectations placed on a woman of her class and time. She died when a former employee beat her to death with an iron bar. He got off with Manslaughter – Provocation and 10 years in prison because the prosecution was botched and the defense trashed her character.
I am. of course, paraphrasing somewhat, if you want the details, read the book. I highly recommend it. It made me wish I’d done engineering rather than chemistry. In 2001 however, women engineers were rare beasts and even now they only make up 11% of engineers.
I found the book meticulously researched and written with a warmth for the central characters and the many women, and a few men, who fought to normalise women in engineering in the first half of the twentieth century. The text is descriptive and evocative. For example, the picture painted of life for the Parsons family, especially at Rosse in Ireland was vivid and lively, while the Society’s fight with the Unions and MPs post 1918 to allow women to remain in work is described such that I felt the anger and frustration of the competent and trained women forced out of work by misogyny and misplaced fears.
Definitely one for the school libraries – science, technology and history classes would certainly be able to make use of the book, for context and a rounded picture of the era.
Henrietta Heald is the author of William Armstrong, Magician of the North which was shortlisted for the H. W. Fisher Best First Biography Prize and the Portico Prize for non-fiction. She was chief editor of Chronicle of Britain
and Ireland and Reader’s Digest Illustrated Guide to Britain’s Coast. Her other books include Coastal Living, La
Vie est Belle, and a National Trust guide to Cragside, Northumberland.