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A Lab of One's Own by Patricia Fara | Book Club

BOOK CLUB

Author Jen Campbell reviews Patricia Fara's book A Lab of One's Own, for TOAST Book Club.

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. 

Even after women had gone on to prove their worth in their chosen fields they were mostly dismissed. Ida Smedley, an English biochemist and the first woman to be admitted to the London Chemical Society, was opposed entry to said society by her colleague, Henry Armstrong, who, despite supervising her work, maintained that the prime duty of female chemists was to learn and then ‘pass on their genius to the next generation by producing [presumably male] baby chemists.’

In A Lab of One’s Own, Fara dives into the lives of female scientists, codebreakers, spy catchers, factory workers and farmers. The Munitionettes who not only took over factory jobs but stepped out onto the sports pitch when professional football was suspended at the end of the 1914-15 season, defying the British Medical Journal article that warned women should not play sports in knickerbockers because it violated their organs. The women, such as physicist Hertha Ayrton, who worked alongside their academic husbands but did not see their names published on scientific papers. Women like Louisa Webb, the first woman to win the Cambridge University agricultural diploma, and who established the Women’s Land Army.

Fara is careful to navigate the nuances of this time period. Women working during the war did not mean they secured jobs once it was over; it did not grant good pay (in fact, when women entered the workplace, the pay was lowered accordingly — the argument being that it could not be a skilled job if a woman was doing it); there were huge class divides which greatly affected the narrative of the suffrage movement; and decades later the newspaper photographs of ‘feisty women labouring to support the war effort […] were shown as neutral depictions rather than instruments of propaganda’, making most forget that working in chemical factories could give women epilepsy, and that those who worked with TNT were nicknamed ‘canaries’ for, as well as causing sickness, headaches and rashes, it made women’s hair turn green and their skin bright yellow. At the time, make-up corporations jumped on this, with the company Vinolia asking working women to buy their face cream with the nauseating cry: ‘Beauty on Duty has a Duty to Beauty!’

Fara’s research is meticulous. Whilst some basic facts are repeated a few too many times in the text (presumably for those who are dipping in and out of it), it’s a book I would highly recommend. For those who are wondering what book A Lab of One’s Own has inspired me to pick up next, I’ll be diving into No Surrender by Constance Maud. First published in 1911 and reissued by Persephone Books, it’s a novel about real-life working class suffrage figures.

This book club review was written by the author and poet Jen Campbell, whose latest book is The Girl AquariumPlease let us know your thoughts on A Lab of One's Own and we will enter you into a prize draw to receive a copy of our next book, My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.

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