A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War by Patricia Fara - review by Uta Frith

Uta Frith

Cracks in the Glass Ceiling

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War


Oxford University Press 334pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

This enthralling book documents what happened to women in the scientific workforce at the beginning of the 20th century. Patricia Fara tells the stories of not only the poor and courageous women who worked in dangerous munitions and poison gas factories, but also the scientists educated at Newnham, the women-only Cambridge college founded in 1871 where the lab of Fara’s title was built. At the time there were no plans to enlarge the facilities in the overcrowded main university labs, where women were made to feel unwelcome.

In the early 20th century there was a deep-rooted belief that women were the feeble sex and inferior to men by law of nature. Society, it was believed, might fall apart if women were employed on the same terms as men. Fara cites a civil service report: ‘Men command higher salaries than women because they are worth more, being stronger and more capable of getting through more work in a day.’ Men were seen as possessing sounder judgement. In this world, the women who revolted against the status quo were in the wrong. To make matters worse, the suffragettes were using illegal means to gain privileges that nature had not intended for them.

The First World War entailed a shift in the battle of the sexes. Women were needed to do men’s jobs. Slyly, to overcome the resistance of employers, government propaganda proclaimed that women were more diligent than men, more eager to work and more easily trained. Suddenly it was

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter