Reading A Single Thread for TOAST Book Club in September gave me the impetus to delve into Tracy Chevalier’s backlist, so earlier this month I read and adored Remarkable Creatures. This is her novel about Mary Anning, a pioneering palaeontologist in the early nineteenth century who, struck by lightning as a baby, grew up to be one of the greatest fossil collectors of all time. She was rarely credited for her work, as her Jurassic finds were labelled by the men who bought them from her, but Chevalier’s novel skilfully brings her back to life.
I mention this not only as a recommendation to you, but because I find it interesting to track what books lead us to other books. It was after reading Remarkable Creatures, for instance, that I decided to pick up A Lab of One’s Own by Patricia Fara, keen to learn more about women working in the sciences whose work has been overlooked or forgotten. Fara’s book focuses on the lives of women a century later, its subheading: ‘Science and Suffrage in the First World War.’
Giving a brief overview of the suffrage and suffragette movements which had been escalating up to 1914, Fara highlights how the war had mostly forced a truce at home. As war broke, Millicent Fawcett the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage (NUWSS) called for women to unite with men over a common enemy. In fact, she ‘sent out a stirring message: ‘Women, your country needs you!’’. Perhaps not coincidentally, two days later Lord Kitchener’s recruiting slogan ‘Your King and Country Need You!’ appeared in the press for the first time. It is the latter, of course, that history chooses to remember.
Whilst, by 1918, millions of women had taken over the jobs of men sent to the front, female volunteers had organised themselves into battalions long before the government came to realise just how important they were going to be on the home front. ‘Each battalion had its own uniform and military-sounding name: the Women’s Defence Relief Corps, the Women’s Auxiliary Force, the Home Service Corps.’ These women were ready to challenge the Civil Service report of 1913 that stated: ‘Men command higher salaries than women because they are worth more.’ Some operators added: ‘women are cheaper than men because their wants are fewer. For instance, they don’t require tobacco; and tea and toast is cheaper than beer and beefsteaks.’
Fara points out that statements such as these, which had been repeated so often, were taken as scientific fact. In 1890, for instance, biologist Walter Heap declared if women received an education they would be likely driven mad, as it was so against their nature. Biological and medical ideas sought to ‘reinforce the inferior status of women.’
A chemistry professor argued that women are further down the evolutionary scale and therefore ‘education can do little to modify her nature.’ Scottish biologist Patrick Geddes argued that women are passive, as shown by the fact that her eggs don’t move and that it’s the ‘small active sperm’ that come to her — conveniently missing out the fact that women are quite active in the growth and birth of the child after that point.