‘Engineers or semi-engineers’ – recent projects on the history of women in engineering

by Anne Locker, Library and Archives Manager at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET)

Women engineers in 1967, Standard Telephones and Cables collection (IET archives, NAEST 211 02 23 03)

As custodians of the IET Archives, we are fortunate to hold a number of different collections relating to the history of women in engineering, including the archives of: the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) the Electrical Association for Women (EAW); Dame Caroline Haslett; and companies that employed women engineers.

Since 2016, we have seen a significant increase in both research and outreach projects in this area, which have helped to open up collections, reach a wider audience and improve our understanding of the history of women in engineering. This is a topic that has needed such work; as the quotation from the title suggests (taken from a letter Caroline Haslett wrote to Margaret Partridge in 1925), even how a women engineer should be defined has been subject to debate. 

This is a summary of some of the recent key projects and activities, and how they have changed the way we look at this fascinating topic. Most were driven by two centenaries: the First World War (2014-2018) and the Women’s Engineering Society (2019).

This is necessarily a selection and I have chosen to focus on those where we have had direct involvement. We are keen to find out more about any related research in this area, as there is still a great deal to discover about how women have worked in, and been affected by, developments in engineering and technology. 

1.         Women engineers in the Great War and After – April-October 2016

The commemoration of the centenary of the First World War in 2014 was an opportunity to look again at women in technical roles. In 2016, discussions with the University of Leeds and other partners resulted in two funded events. The first was a one-day seminar at the Science Museum, titled ‘Women Engineers in the Great War and After’, held in April 2016. This was followed by the IET’s first Wikithon on women engineers, which was held in the IET library in October 2016.

Content from the Science Museum seminar can be found here.

2.         Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) project: 2016-2019

This project was a direct result of discussions at the Science Museum event on the need to add more women engineers to the historical record. The first set of biographies was published by the ODNB in 2018. The long list was generated from discussions with researchers in the area, and women who had contributed to engineering developments in any area were considered for inclusion.

Following a great deal of work from volunteer authors, the following biographies were published between 2018 and 2019:

Cleone BenestHilda Lyon
Frances Bradfield Margaret Moir
Dorothy Buchanan Rachel Parsons
Letitia ChittyMargaret Partridge
Gertrude Entwisle Margaret Rowbotham
Molly FergussonAnne Shaw 
Hilda HewlettBeatrice Shilling 
Ethel JayneBlanche Thorneycroft 
Amy Johnson (update) Alice Tredwell 
Eily KearyLaura Willson

3.         Henrietta Heald, Magnificent Women and their Extraordinary Machines – 2019

Published in 2019, this book charts the story of women engineers from the foundation of the Women’s Engineering Society in 1919 to the present day.  It focuses on three fascinating characters: WES founder Lady Katharine Parsons, her daughter Rachel Parsons (the first woman to study engineering at Cambridge and first WES President) and the first WES Secretary, Caroline (later Dame Caroline) Haslett. It also tells the stories of the other ‘magnificent women’ working in engineering in the UK and the role they played in a rapidly changing but still challenging world of interwar engineering.

A review of Henrietta’s book appeared on this blog in July 2020.

4.         Top 100 historical women in engineering – 2019

Part of the WES centenary celebrations, this list focuses on women who lived and worked in the period 1919-2019. The full list is available on the Magnificent Women website and includes brief biographies and a digital banner. The list includes: Marjorie Bell, first women to chair a BSI technical committee; Marjem Chatterton, first female Fellow of the Institution of Structural Engineers; and Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Milligan, first female engineer at the South West Electricity Board.

5.         Engineer of the week (EOTW) – 2019-2020

Throughout 2019, biographies of women engineers featured in the Engineer of the Week blog researched and written by Dr Nina Baker. By the end of the year, Dr Baker published an impressive 127 blogs, which can be found on the Magnificent Women website and were publicised via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The first blog was on the record-breaking pilot and engineer Amy Johnson, and the 127th on Constance Tipper, metallurgist and crystallographer who developed the ‘Tipper test’ for the brittleness of steel.

6.         WES Centenary Trail – 2019-present

This WES centenary project, supported by the National Lottery Fund, worked to add biographies of women engineers to Wikipedia via a series of Wikipedia edit-a-thons and the contributions of dedicated volunteers. The resulting content is available to browse via an interactive map on the WES website. Adding content to Wikipedia ensures a broad audience for these biographies and addresses the public lack of awareness of the sheer number of women involved in the history of engineering and technology.  

Pages have now been created for women in engineering such as Katharine Parsons, Ira Rischowski, Ayyalasomayajula Lalitha, and many more. Read more about the Wikithon in September 2019 in this Electrifying Women blog post. You can see the full extent of the trail here

7.         Electrifying Women – 2019 – present

Finally, a summary on recent growth of interest in the history of women in engineering would not be complete without adding the Electrifying Women project at the University of Leeds.  Supported by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, and working in partnership with the IET, WES, Wikimedia and the Science Museum this project has taken stories of the long history of women in engineering to a wide range of audiences.

Further information on the scope and objectives of Electrifying Women, as well as a broad array of free (educational) resources can be found on the home page.

Future developments arising from the momentum created in these projects will likely focus on more international (not just British) stories and bring out a greater global diversity of stories of women’s lives in engineering

Women mechanics working on a tank radio in 1943, Evershed and Vignoles archives (IET archives, NAEST 102 05 03 15)

Finally: do we need to define women engineers?

In 1926, Margaret Partridge, electrical engineer, was corresponding with Caroline Haslett about an event they were both planning to attend, and asked the question: ‘Am I a lady or an engineer?’ Caroline responded with typical directness:

“One thing I am quite clear about and that is that we are both going as engineers or semi-engineers … also I am quite clear about the fact that if I desire to take part in any of the more serious discussions I shall most certainly do so.”

This is a theme that runs through all the projects above. Rather than focusing on whether the women featured can be defined as engineers, these projects have looked at what women were actually doing in the fields of engineering and technology from the 19th century to the present and what their experiences can teach us today.