A Century after the Suffragettes
Being aware that it was a century ago that the suffragette movement stood to be counted in the United Kingdom, I felt it was important to try and commemorate this. In many ways the work they started, most famously personified by Emmeline Pankhurst, is still on it’s ascendency. What gender differences exist still within and outwith the home, workplace and institution ? Here is a quote from Elizabeth Fulhame (fl. 1780 to 1794). She was a chemist working on significant problems and the formulation of a science developing out of less rigorous traditions…
“It may appear presuming to some, that I should engage in pursuits of this nature, but averse from indolence, and having much leisure, my mind led me to this mode of amusement, which I found entertaining and will, I hope, be though inoffensive by the liberal and the learned.
But censure is perhaps inevitable, for some are so ignorant, that they grow sullen and silent, and are chilled with horror at the sight of anything, that bears the semblance of learning, in whatever shape it may appear; and should the spectre appear in the shape of a woman, the pangs, which they suffer are truly dismal.”
This was taken from Fulhame, Mrs – An Essay On Combustion, with a view to a new art of dying and painting (printed for the author by J. Cooper, 1794). Elizabeth Fulhame’s view of how some regard work by woman at that time crystallises how inequalities were integrally woven into the landscape leading to the following century where, later on, the suppression of the intellectual life and contribution of women was questioned heartily.
It is vital to keep evolving our understandings away from pernicious authoritarianisms, acting to try and correct the obfuscations which have been foisted onto history. If with cast our minds backwards, it does not take much to scratch under the surface to reveal great contributions snatched from individuals simply because of their feminine gender.
Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’ is based on a series of lectures she did at Newnham College and Girton College at Cambridge University in 1928. She writes a story to explore the argument that women should have a place within intellectual traditions dominated by a patriarchy. She derives the title from the idea that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write’, and highlights that women have been kept from writing because of their relative poverty, and that financial freedom will enable women to participate in the intellectual and creative fields.
There are implications of this work which extend more widely than just that of the feminist realm, and it is clear that gender equality is part of a greater subset of ethics that talks about an egalitarian world. Education, social living, economies and all manner of human endeavour should be open for all dedicated and aspirational individuals to take part in – without this inclusivity we live in an impoverished world.
We must be careful to rediscover the histories lost to us. From the integral work Rosalind Franklin did in elucidating the structure of DNA (much as she was told by her administration to stop work in favour of Crick and Watson), to the seminal role Lise Meitner played in revealing the nature of nuclear fission (although it was Otto Hahn who was awarded the Noble Prize for this), to the literary cannon of the likes of Kate Millett (which is being lost from publishing circles).
So in this theme, (and in the theme of broader inequalities) I have written this article to think back to the struggles of Alice Hawkins and all suffragettes who fought for the right to be equal in society. In context with education, it was painfully difficult for women to be appointed to senior positions in academia, research or industry despite their exceptional ability.
Some illustrators: Women were only allowed to graduate from Scottish universities when the Scottish Universities (Scotland) Act 1889 was passed. The Royal Society did not admit women until 1945, while the Royal Society of Edinburgh only elected their first female fellows in 1949.
Some women at the tip of this iceberg:
- Mary Somerville 1780 – 1872 Mathematician
- Charlotte Auerback 1899 – 1994 Geneticist
- Muriel Robertson 1883 – 1973 Protozoologist
- Isabella Gordon 1901 – 1988 Marine Biologist
- Victoria Drummond 1894 – 1978 Marine Engineer
- Marion C Gray 1902 – 1979 Mathematician
- Williamina Fleming 1857 – 1911 Astronomer
- Marion A S Ross 1903 – 1994 Physicist
- Elizbeth Fulhame 1780 – 1794 Chemist
- Elizabeth Blackwell 1700 – 1758 Botanist and Artist
- Dame Maria Gordon nee Ogilvie 1864 – 1939 Geologist
- Mary Wolstonecraft 1759 – 1797 Philosopher and Educator