top of page

The Feminine Touch!

Part 2
Barrie Blake-Coleman

The literature of science is immense and takes many forms. To some extent, this explains the difficulty in amassing a full role-call of female inventors, technologists and scientists.  We depend on written records (or a record of some sort) to reveal past endeavours, and if through indifference or animosity these achievements have been left unrecorded, ignored or concealed the task is made impossible...

Research, in assessing and documenting the past role of woman in science or inventive pursuits, is ongoing - but we should not be surprised if, at the end, it still remains thoroughly inadequate in fully realising and acknowledging the names and backgrounds of those woman who were deserving of mention.  We can draw this conclusion frequently because where subjects did manage to leave their mark on posterity, they often did so in ways and circumstances which confirmed that they were denied proper recognition, and had little opportunity to demonstrate or convey (in the usual way) how they had contributed to scientific or inventive pursuits.

Up to the early decades of the 20th century, few women were able to leave academic training - when they could get it - with the certainty that they would find themselves in the laboratory or workshop. And if the route to formal training was stony, they seldom found matters much better in the workplace itself.  As such, their record of achievements are not always to be found in the conventional scientific and engineering literature. That many were able to leave some trace is commendable; that they managed to do so in a time dominated by social prejudices - paralysed by a code which actively discouraged woman in technological or scientific pursuits - is often astonishing!


In a series of letters to the Times in the 1920’s, Earnest Rutherford and William Pope, respectively Cambridge Professors of Physics and Chemistry, strongly defended the admission of women to Cambridge University. They attacked the diehards with humour and logic: -

“-we welcome the presence of women in our laboratories – men and women are being asked to work harmoniously in every department of human affairs - women are endowed with such a degree of intelligence as enables them to contribute substantially to progress in all the branches of learning - for this reason, no less than for elementary justice and expediency, we consider women should be admitted to degrees and to representation in our University.”


With no less insight, they also pointed out that:-

Our friends amongst the opposition seem to forget that every broadening of University interest – the abolition of the disabilities of Nonconformists and the restrictions concerning the marriage of College fellows, the provision of teaching and research facilities in science – has been the starting point for rapid extensions in the usefulness of the University – “ 


We write these lines they said:-

“in the hope of inducing those so dazzled by the glories of the past that they foresee no future greater than the past, to reflect that there is a great world outside for whose needs we have to cater.  We cannot afford to retain women seen but not recognised in this University.”  


How Bright?

It is evident to all that intellectual power is not at root here. Setting aside the contentious question of ‘gender and vocational disposition’ for the moment, the woman has always been equal to the man in intellectual prowess and in capitalising on training and reason.  We are left then only with lack of education and lack of opportunity as the bar to the woman’s contribution to intellectual pursuits.

Opportunity, as mentioned above, is the principle factor that has barred woman in invention, technology and science, but [seemingly] not the character of the work. Nevertheless, we must be careful not to see vocational bars from this side of the twenty-first century - no women of the 19th century would ordinarily, and without exigency, have entered the mechanical or industrial sectors - 19th century engineering practices frequently created horrendous environments for men let alone women, regardless of their vocational or intellectual leanings. It should also be noted that the two World Wars saw huge numbers of women enter the ordnance factories, machine shops and aircraft factories. Much oral and written evidence exists to indicate that production, and manufacturing efficiency was significantly advanced by female engineering supervisors. Nevertheless, for all this, little had changed - these were poor working conditions for men and worse for women, and innovation amongst female workers was handicapped.


We have few statistics to show the number of women that excelled in the sciences (achieved academic or professional distinction) as a proportion of the total that actually entered the field.  Freedom and opportunity to pursue a vocation does not necessarily make for a flood of disciples and practitioners, as attested to in modern times where university places for science (particularly subjects such as physics and engineering) are still poorly subscribed by woman.


Other factors must bear upon whether or not an individual chooses to take up an occupation. For women, the main obstacle has been the structure of society and its perception of the woman’s role as mother and wife etc. Where the general trend has been to dissuade a woman from embarking upon ‘unsuitable’ pursuits, it has happened that those that ignored this advice were the more likely to make a mark or an impact.


Here, then, is the central question in viewing the struggle of past women.  What drives a woman to commit herself to fending off all the disadvantages and difficulties in taking up an occupation that she knows will make her an oddity, and possibly a pariah?  Why yield to the demand she be a paragon in her decorum, compliant to the (un-stated) stipulation that even to stay on par she must be academically superior in her classes, endure being viewed as a dangerous precedent by the more bigoted of male colleagues and superiors, grow weary of being treated as mere help when it came to finding a job, and watch with tolerance as those less competent take promotion over her?


What incentives can there be?  What motivates in such circumstances?

Perhaps we should not seek beyond the obvious - is it not the same drive found in outstanding men! In short, a blissful confidence against the difficulties that lie ahead, a greater determination and fortitude in overcoming failure - the will to succeed whatever the sacrifice?


Success invariably requires a basic determination, a cold objectivity which will not be rebutted or dissuaded. But, this need not take an aggressive form. The ambition is dominating, but in successful women of the past, this repeatedly manifests itself as a serene yet unrelenting struggle to achieve. This insistence to succeed (we must conclude) is bound to a sense of self-worth, self-esteem and an ambition that will be satisfied. 



If we are to believe the modern theory that most of us in gainful occupations have gravitated toward that which we do best [the Catellian theory], then the innovative woman must presumably do the same. It is therefore of little surprise that where woman have filled the ranks in vocations not ‘normally’ their forte, they are counted as exceptional in terms of persistence and ability. It must then tend to be true that in a population of scientists, technologists and inventors ranging through first class, competent and mediocre, the woman is most likely to be in the first rank. Having needed to excel just to enter the lists means that in terms of drive (and competence) she would likely overshadow many male colleagues. However, this does not speak of the degree of recognition that would accrue to her in a typical male oriented profession with its attendant privilege, prejudice and patronage. She has still to contend with taking low precedence in being selected for a ‘breadwinners’ post or one that requires the supervision of other male scientists or engineers.  Why not? Other professions openly favoured male candidates! An advertisement from 1948 for the then Nottingham Technical College offers a teaching position where the incumbent, if male, would receive a salary 25% higher than a successful female.  

We might conclude therefore that in past times, as still today, the woman that overcomes the barriers to her chosen profession will be aware of the bars but, notwithstanding, being exceptional and irrepressible, she is thereby likely to succeed. We can say too, that many would fail - and that those that entered the lists, and are now lost in obscurity, were heavily disadvantaged from the start and fell victim to overwhelming odds.


Worst of all, we can never expect to know very much about the many women who exercised ingenuity in the domestic environment. In past times as too today, many women took positive action to alleviate the domestic drudgery that they faced each day. When, rarely, their ideas were converted into products, or became enshrined in a patent specification, we do at least have some formal record of their achievements.


Of course, many good ideas never acknowledged their paternity [or maternity] but we can sometimes find circumstantial evidence that the concept was originally a woman’s [Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin for example].


A Little More

If this rapprochement does nothing else, it will at least go some way to enlarging the sadly incomplete record of women’s sojourn into science and engineering ever since humankind first embarked on the systematic study of nature.  Lest we forget, the intracellular microelectrode is credited to Phyllis T. Kerridge and Ida Hyde, while Erika Cremer helped develop gas chromatography. Katherine Foot and Ella Strobell gave the technical boost to biological photomicrography whilst Winifred Ashby investigated blood cell survival. Ellen Swallow Richards made domestic chemistry respectable and Leona W. Marshall helped develop the Atom Bomb with the wartime Manhattan Project. However, there is less known about women as inventor or engineer.  It is in the applied sciences, and in the area of general technical ingenuity, that the contribution of woman takes second place.


Yet, there were a significant number of women technologists and inventors, and should we be accused of not speaking when we had the chance let us mention here the American Grace Hopper, who developed the first computer compiler (1952) and the business language COBOL (1959-61), that the flat bottomed brown paper bag was invented by the American housewife Margaret Knight - and that the Kewpie Doll (!) was the brainchild of Rose Cecil O’Neill. Likewise, Blossom Miles who was involved in the development of the British Miles Aircraft M52 supersonic experimental aircraft (1943) which was cancelled in 1946 before it had a chance to fly.  At the other end of the spectrum is Elizabeth Dakin who invented the coffee 'French Press'.

Granted, invention and applied scientific research are blurred to a degree but even if were we to avoid the niceties of semantics we would still get the picture - women are innovative and they are, and have been, at the forefront of scientific technology and venture.   


Science beats Invention!

Contemporary scholarship, if that is what it is, attempts to prove the profound intellectual worth of women through the agency of pure science. Inventiveness, it appears, is infra dig and not quite respectable.  Why this should be, we cannot discover.  That it is specious is undeniable. The sheer brilliance involved in some inventive activities inevitably leads one to conclude that the facility for reasoning, analysis and conceptual manipulation is more readily revealed in one clever inventive step than ever could be shown in a series of competent, dogged and routine procedures or observations.  There is often more intellectual power in one flash of inspired reasoning than in a million years of plodding research.


Perhaps the need to establish credence for a woman’s intellectual contribution is viewed as the first hurdle to be undertaken in generally validating and rehabilitating the woman in innovation etc. Status first [so it appears] - and a scientist (sic) would never credit inventiveness as having parity with the intellectual stratosphere of pure science! (The idea of becoming a professional inventor is even today not apparently uppermost in women’s minds, only 0.005% of the membership of all the inventive and engineering institutes are women, though it must be said that this does not necessarily speak of status, or of women’s inventive abilities so much, as an aversion to joining male dominated fraternities).


Here is the rub it appears, for by understating the woman in invention, science and technology we see another manifestation of the prejudice that woman are seeking to dispel. The unconscious strategy [?] one concludes, is perhaps for the inventive side of things to remain low key and mute, because reminding the establishment that woman have an honourable record in inventiveness as well as ‘pure’ science and discovery could well damage the case for the acceptance of woman into the respectable scientific ‘club’. A case of ‘one thing at a time’?


But, you may say, where are the outstanding ones, the ones that we would marvel at?  Well, there are many and a few appendices to this article will cover examples of the profound woman, the creative woman, the inventive woman and woman technologist.  Many will be seen to share their interest between pursuits that are more academic and the ‘nuts and bolts’ of things. They have never had it easy but still have made a major contribution to our modern society. Our hope is that even if personal bias may be detected, readers will read these articles with a far more balanced opinion regarding the value of the technical woman. If such is the result, then it can only be to the good.



Erika Cremer

Winifred Ashby

Ellen Swallow Richards

Leona W. Marshall

Marshall surrounded by her all-male colleagues.

Enrico Fermi is standing front left.

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper


Dakin French Press

Rose Cecil O'Neill


Rose with her Kewpie Dolls

Blossom Miles

Miles M2L Hawk Six

Eli Whitney's Cotton Gin - inspired by Catherine Greene

bottom of page