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

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

I grew up in a city in northern Illinois that has been known as the Screw Manufacturing Capital of the World, the birthplace of the Sock Monkey, and the home of the Rockford Peaches. The Peaches were one of a number of teams in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which began in 1943 when baseball promoters were looking to continue making money while the men were off at the war front. Some women played for just a season; others played the full run of the League through 1954. Most people would likely not know about the Peaches at all, except for a 1992 movie starring Madonna, Tom Hanks, and Geena Davis — A League of Their Own.

Allusions to Virginia Woolf’s landmark 1929 book A Room of One’s Own, about what women writers require in order to succeed, abound in popular culture. The reference has become a shorthand for women making their way in a field (though not usually a sports field) that was not built with them in mind. From movies and bookstores to women-only coworking spaces, the intimation of Woolf’s book demonstrates not only the obstacles (largely middle-class) women face but also the will to overcome them. Patricia Fara’s book, A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War, a meticulously researched examination of how scientific women carved out their own spaces, is the latest in this line of works that owe some of its central themes, if not the core argument, to Woolf. Fara’s book begins well before the beginning of the war and plots a trajectory into the 21st century, offering a nuanced discussion of the individuals whose scientific and suffrage work in the United Kingdom expanded the opportunities available to women in the years leading up to women’s suffrage.

From movies and bookstores to women-only coworking spaces, the intimation of Woolf’s book demonstrates not only the obstacles (largely middle-class) women face but also the will to overcome them.

In the opening pages of Fara’s book, we meet Rae Costelloe. In 1905, the year she enrolled in Newnham College at the University of Cambridge, Costelloe cut an exceptional path as both cricket captain and mathematician. By the time the Great War broke out, Costelloe (who later married into the celebrated Bloomsbury Circle, a literary crowd that included T. S. Eliot and Woolf) was also embedded in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. The NUWSS raised money, recruited volunteers, and trained women to serve in conventionally male fields, such as manufacturing and engineering. By the end of World War I, three million women worked in industry and another 200,000 in the civil service — a hundred-fold increase from the war’s beginning.

Woolf herself, who famously insisted that to write fiction a woman needs money and a room of her own, appears like a specter throughout Fara’s book. Woolf was a pacifist who opposed the war but later saw it as a turning point, a watershed event that allowed men and women alike to shed society’s expectations. Women could earn wages — though less than men — and their wartime contributions convinced some men that women were patriotic enough and public-minded enough to deserve the right to vote. Fara uses Woolf as a cipher to argue that the war affected women differently according to their class: during the war, middle- and upper-class women like Woolf were allowed far more latitude than women from less privileged backgrounds. Armed with a fancy education, a wealthy husband, and the right social connections, women like Costelloe could afford, both financially and politically, to spend the Great War working on behalf of equal rights for women. Class, Fara shows, played an enormous role in whether the war and its industry helped women thrive.

While Fara traces the life stories of middle-class women like Costelloe, many of those whose work transformed professional and political life for English women remain anonymous. Their stories have been lost to time in part because they came from the working classes and in part because there were so many of them. In fact, this book could have easily been named after another Woolf quote, “Anonymous was a woman.” Fara gives us a host of characters with blueblood connections, and her book also makes a laudable effort to give voice to the blue-collar women who nevertheless sought and fought for meaningful, well-paid work and social equality. These women formed their own networks, raised their own money, and created spaces of their own to advance the cause of women’s equality at the polls and in the laboratory.

Many women scientists in the early 20th century did not agree with Woolf’s ideal formula for a separate space for women to work. Even those who had the means to carve out their own paths were frustrated by lack of opportunities to work not separately but alongside men. For them, professional success meant being allowed to work and thrive in the same spaces as their male colleagues. Isabel Emslie, a physician from a well-heeled family, spent the war serving in Serbia and Salonika, but after the Armistice, she encountered professional disappointment back home in England. The reality for many of these scientists, as Fara describes it, will sound familiar to a 21st-century reader attuned to the gender-based inequalities of our own era: “Female scientists were paid less for doing the same work,” Fara writes, “and often found themselves stuck in dead-end positions carrying out repetitive tests.”

The war had forced the growth of scientific and industrial research — women like Rae Costelloe and Isabel Emslie and countless unknown doctors, researchers, and technicians opened doors for future generations to create, finally, careers of their own.

Still, the Great War changed how these scientists understood their capacity to make an impact on society. Costelloe, for one, campaigned for suffrage and for women’s access to professional careers and the right to equal salaries. When war was declared, she continued to work with the NUWSS and joined the London Women’s Service Bureau to spearhead efforts to train and place women in paid positions, in part to prove that women were capable of contributing to the economy and to ensure that they were not simply filling vacancies as volunteers. On the other hand, while Emslie stopped practicing medicine after the war, she continued for more than three decades as a volunteer at a hospital, where she played a crucial role in introducing psychoanalysis to Great Britain.

Women fully won the right to vote in Great Britain in 1928, nearly a full decade after the Great War came to an end. The right to equal opportunities in the sciences, however, remained elusive. The war unquestionably altered how women understood themselves and their roles in society, but by the 1930s, professional opportunities for women had receded. Nevertheless, the war had forced the growth of scientific and industrial research — women like Rae Costelloe and Isabel Emslie and countless unknown doctors, researchers, and technicians opened doors for future generations to create, finally, careers of their own.


Image credit: British women working in chemical laboratory near Manchester, 1914. Courtesy of University of British Columbia Library. Rare Books & Special Collections. World War I 1914-1918 British Press photograph collection.

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