'errors are notoriously hard to kill, but an error that ascribes to a man what was actually the work of a woman has more lives than a cat.'
The twentieth century saw rapid change in the rights of women to vote, have equal rights with men and to work. It might surprise you that the first woman to become a Member of the IET (then the Institution of Electrical Engineers) was elected as early as 1899.
That woman was Hertha Ayrton
(1854-1923). Born Phoebe Sarah Marks, when she was in her teens a friend renamed her Hertha from a Swinburne poem. Hertha attended Girton College and Finsbury Technical College, where she met Professor William Ayrton. They married in 1885. Hertha was able to carry out her own scientific research thanks to a legacy from her friend and mentor Barbara Bodichon, which allowed her to employ a housekeeper. Her husband encouraged her to research the electric arc lamp after one of his own research papers was lost. As soon as Hertha's independent research began, William stopped his own research into that area as he was worried he would be credited with his wife's work.
It was for her research on 'The Hissing of the Electric Arc' that Hertha Ayrton was elected an IEE Member in May 1899. She was later proposed for Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1902: this application was turned down on the grounds that she was a married woman, and therefore had no status under the terms of the Royal Society's original charter.
Another pioneering member and woman engineer was Dame Caroline Haslett
(1895-1957). Caroline Haslett joined the Cochrane Boiler Company in 1914, first as a secretary and later training as an engineer in the company works. In 1919, she left to become the first Secretary of the Women's Engineering Society
and served as President in 1939. In 1924, Caroline Haslett co-founded the Women's Electrical Association, later renamed the Electrical Association for Women (EAW). Its aim was to lessen women's domestic burden by encouraging the use of electricity in the home. She was awarded a DBE in 1957.
Both women played an active role in encouraging equality. In 1914, a young Caroline Haslett was caught chalking 'Votes for Women' slogans outside the House of Commons. The policeman told her she was too young to be sent to prison and to 'be a good girl and get along home'. Her subsequent career focused on the rights of women in business and politics.
Hertha Ayrton was a member of the Women's Social and Political Union and in 1910 marched on Downing Street, but like Caroline Haslett she failed to be arrested. When she was accosted by a policeman, her daughter Barbara shouted, 'You dare not hurt that lady, she's Mrs Ayrton!' The police had been instructed not to arrest her and she went free. Barbara was not exempt, and after the 1912 demonstrations Ayrton wrote to a friend, 'Barbie is in Holloway ... I am very proud of her.'
For more information on women in engineering and technology, have a look at the resources on the IET Archives website, including exhibitions and biographies.
By Anne Locker, IET Archivist
IET Assistant Archivist