Internationalism and the UK’s Women’s Engineering Society (WES)

by Graeme Gooday

Electrifying Women 5 key themes: Networking

For centuries, women have been busy making new technologies all over the world. More than that, we now know that some, such as Henrietta Vansittart, worked as professional engineers as early as the nineteenth century; others worked less visibly in family engineering businesses.

While the global presence of female engineers isn’t a recent phenomenon, how did these women first join together in national organisations and then as a global networked community?

Much of the impetus came from the pressures of war. In the First World War (1914-18) thousands of women in numerous countries proved they could perform engineering as well as the men who had departed for the battlefront.

When the Second World War (1939-45) began, many women were ready to resume such war work. But now totalitarianism, with its reactionary notions of domesticity, sought to end women’s work outside the home. Women mobilized across national borders against this dire threat.  

The first joining of women engineers into national associations began immediately after the First World War. In Britain the impetus for a Women’s Engineering Society (WES) came in 1919 as engineering women reluctant to return to pre-war lives were buoyed up by successes in women getting the vote (if aged over 30), and new laws prohibiting sex discrimination in employment.

Even so, their optimism was soon thwarted. Male-only Trades Unions successfully forced the government to enact a post-war return to ‘Pre-War Practices’, military veterans now taking back their old jobs.

By June 1919 the British women thus rendered unemployed could look to WES for assistance. This organisation aimed to defend female employment in engineering and, through its quarterly magazine The Woman Engineer, publicised many examples of women at work in engineering around the world. WES created a powerful network of women for this purpose (see video above).

This both inspired some prospective female entrants to join the profession and challenged sceptics who had cast doubt on women’s aspirations in this field.  

The first US female marine engineer, Mrs Carlia Westcott, featured on the front cover of the March 1922 issue of The Woman Engineer

There was a similar move in 1919 for a Society of Women Engineers (SWE) in the USA. Yet that campaign initially lacked the large-scale financial and political support that WES received from its wealthy aristocratic founders, Lady Shelley-Rolls, Lady Parsons, and Lady Moir.

During World War Two, with ‘Rosie the Riveter’ prominent among a large US female engineering workforce, a new context was created for the SWE to be launched in 1950 by female students at sympathetic universities.

In interwar Europe, unlike in Britain, a degree was essential for a professional engineering career. So there too it was engineering undergraduates who campaigned for recognition e.g. the Association of Female Engineering Students which lobbied for better working conditions in 1920s Sweden.

In France, where employment pressures in the First World War had prompted Universities to admit women to engineering, the collegial Association Amicale des Femmes Ingénieurs was launched in 1929.

Arguably Germany saw the greatest growth of women’s employment in engineering in the aftermath of the First Word War. By 1933 the long-standing national institution the Verein Deutscher Ingenieure (VDI) acknowledged this by setting up its own dedicated women’s section. But by then, the VDI’s adherence to Nazi exclusionary policies meant that its female section was not the locus for international support and coordination of women’s engineering activities.

As the first of its kind, WES in the UK offered this global role, opening its membership to anyone supporting women’s work in engineering. It did not matter where prospective members were located, whether they practised engineering or had been trained in it.

This open-ness was partly motivated on pragmatic financial grounds. Yet WES was genuinely non-nationalistic in its approach, aiming to build harmonious transnational links in an increasingly tense political world of the 1930s.

WES’s 1935 Register of Women Engineers  shows the broad nature of its international membership. Among those in the USA, the most famous member was psychologist Dr Lillian Gilbreth. Her work on enhancing efficiency of human labour had helped WES’s Secretary Caroline Haslett shape the goals of the Electrical Association for Women in 1924.

Another was Mildred Cohn: with a Masters degree in Chemistry from Columbia University, the US National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics employed her as a Junior Scientific Aide, writing Technical Reports on combustion in engines.

More specifically as a mark of internationalism, two members of WES’s guiding Council were based outside Britain. One was Iris Cummins, a university qualified engineer employed as a Land Surveyor with the Irish Land Commission.

Another was Ilse Knott-ter Meer (one of two German members) whose Register entry emphasised her wide engineering experience, and her publications on sanitary and domestic engineering.

Revealingly while the Register showed members based in the informal British Empire, in Palestine, Egypt, and New Zealand, these is no indication of WES members in France or Sweden.

This international focus of WES is apparent again in looking at the WES journal The Woman Engineer. From its earliest days it had articles from correspondents around the world, with reports on Soviet Russia in which women clearly benefited from favourable state-managed childcare arrangements.

Early on a cheerful picture of the first US female marine engineer, Mrs Carlia Westcott, featured on the front cover of the March 1923 (quarterly) issue (see above).

Articles on Germany were common in the 1920s, notably by Ilse Knott-ter Meer, thereby recognizing the advanced status of women’s engineering in that nation. The tone of this changed in 1940 at the 21st anniversary of WES’s founding, twenty-one being the conventional threshold for ‘coming of age’ as an adult.

While positive letters of support came in from WES’s international supporters, the whole tone of the 21st anniversary issue in March and June  1940 was clearly inflected by the mood of the Second World War. The German correspondent was Ira Rischowski, the German Jewish refugee in Britain who denounced the Nazi regime for suppressing so much, especially women’s technical careers.

From the USA (as yet not engaged in the war), came this message of greetings from an enthusiastic leader in aeronautics, Ruth Nichols (DSc):  

Letter from Ruth Nicholas in The Woman Engineer (vol 5) March 1940, p. 29

Such was the recognition of WES’s importance in wartime, based upon what women had done in the previous global conflict, that the UK’s Minister of Labour & National Service (Ernest Brown) attended WES’s special commemoration of ‘coming of age’ in Spring 1940.

Observing how both his Ministry and WES were direct products of the preceding War – and now indispensable features of the recently started War – his speech nevertheless looked to post-war freedom as the essential requisite for both their organisations to thrive.

 As WES President, Caroline Haslett replied responding to this core theme of liberty:  

How much more does it mean to women in the industrial and technical world! What is happening to the technical and professional women in [German-occupied] Czechoslovakia and Poland? If similar conditions should prevail in this country everything we [in WES] have built up over twenty-one years would be gone. We know what will happen to us if we do not win this war.

That the war was indeed won by the forces promoting liberty against totalitarianism did not necessarily entail that women’s skills and achievements in engineering were fully recognised afterwards. The global community of women engineers initiated by WES came nearer to that recognition owing to the efforts of the SWE in the USA.

On the initiative of the SWE in dialogue with WES and other national bodies, 1964 saw the first International Conference of Women Engineers and Scientists; now the International Network of Women in Engineering and the Sciences its meetings continue to this very day.

The recent advent of an annual International Women in Engineering Day on June 23rd crystallises this global phenomenon in a way that helpfully reminds us of WES’s historic launch on June 23rd 1919.

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