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Lives of Women Engineers rediscovered in latest update to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

23 July 2018


Women in engineering and science have been recognised in the latest update of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, with the selection being specially curated by the IET's archives manager, Anne Locker.

As the centenary of the Women’s Engineering Society (founded 23 June 1919) approaches, the Oxford DNB has added the lives of its prominent early members. 

Introducing the new biographies, Anne Locker, says: "Recent research into the role of women in the First World War has helped to uncover the early stories of women in engineering and technology in the United Kingdom.   The individual lives ‘show the remarkable ingenuity and disregard for convention shown by women who decided to enter a working space which had been previously closed to them’.  Yet when the war ended, these women faced the prospect of again being excluded from the profession, to make way for men returning from the forces.

"The lives included here show how these women negotiated these challenges, and the types of careers they were able to make both through established networks, such as the existing professional bodies, and new fields, such as aviation, automobiles, and electrical engineering."

The lives include Rachel Parsons, who in 1915 became director of her father’s marine turbine firm at Heaton, Newcastle; and Margaret Moir, Lady Moir, who worked as a lathe operator during the war and devised training schemes for women employed in engineering; Laura Willson, a Halifax suffragette who ran a lathe-making business with her husband and took a particular interest in the welfare of women working in munitions; Margaret Partridge, who spent the war as a supervisor in a munitions works, and afterwards set up as a consulting engineer responsible for electrification schemes in rural Devon along with Margaret Rowbotham, who had been a superintendent in wartime munitions factories;   the aviator Hilda Hewlett who ran a factory at Leagrave, Luton, making air frames and employing equal numbers of men and women by 1918; or the early woman motorist Cleone Benest who (as C. Griff) wrote in 1915 on the need in Britain to encourage women to become engineers; Letitia Chitty, who worked on stress analysis of experimental aircraft, and later worked on the structure of dams.  Three of the women were graduates of  Edinburgh University:  Dot Buchanan, who served a pupillage with the steelwork contractors Dorman Long (Sydney harbour bridge and King George V bridge, Newcastle) and became in 1927 the first woman elected a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers;  Anne Gillespie Shaw, whose mother was an MP, became supervisor of women workers for the Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Company in Manchester and was an acknowledged expert in motion study; and Molly Fergusson, who in 1948 became the first woman partner in an engineering consultancy.

"The world of engineering did change and adapt", Anne Locker concludes; "Women engineers were here to stay".

The Oxford DNB is the national record of men and women who have shaped British history, worldwide, from prehistory to the year 2014. From July 2018 the Dictionary includes biographies of 60,638 individuals, written by over 10,000 contributors.

For more information, visit: www.oxforddnb.com/

Notes to editors: