previous arrow
next arrow

From the World War I Centennial News Podcast

Historian's Corner: Dr. Patricia Fara on Women's Rights post-WWI in the UK

CN PodcastLogo Final gray lower

In March 1st's edition of the World War I Centennial News Podcast, Episode 112, host Theo Mayer spoke with Cambridge University's Dr. Patricia Fara about the effect of World War I on women's rights in the United Kingdom. The following is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity:  

Theo Mayer: It's now March, which is Women's History Month. We're also entering the centennial period when American women finally succeeded in getting the vote. But women's suffrage was a global issue these days 100 years ago. In fact, the movement had strong proponents in Europe, and especially in the UK. Joining us today to look at the movement in Europe and the effects of World War I on it, is Dr. Patricia Fara. Dr. Fara is the Director of Studies at the Cambridge University's History and Philosophy of Science Department. Generally considered to be one of the top five HPS departments in the world, she's written on a range of subjects, including a book titled A Lab of One's Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War. Dr. Fara, welcome to the show. Dr. FaraDr. Fara is the Director of Studies at the Cambridge University's History and Philosophy of Science Department

Patricia Fara: Thank you very much. It's very good to be speaking to you. 

Theo Mayer: Dr. Fara, how did you become interested in the effects of World War I on women's suffrage, or I suppose WWI on the Women's Rights Movement in general?

Patricia Fara: I'm interested because it's something that's affected my whole life. I've got a degree in Physics, and I was 1 of only 8 women in a year group of about 200 men. And now I'm a historian, but for me the point of doing history is how to understand how we got from the past to reach the present. Then the whole point of doing that is to try and improve the future. And of course because I teach lots of students who are women, I'm very interested in their position today.

Theo Mayer: That's wonderful. How would you summarize World War I's effects on the suffrage movement? And also, on how the post war period, with women having taken such key roles during those war years, how did that play out?

Patricia Fara: The general story is that as soon as the war started, all the suffrage activities ceased because the women decided that they were going to fight for their country, they were going to be patriotic rather than continuing to campaign for the vote. And in a way, that was extremely good for the movement because by the end of the war, women had been working in factories, they'd be working in science laboratories, they'd been obviously working in hospitals, driving trucks, doing all the sorts of jobs that the men usually did.

So I think the attitude towards women changed permanently after the first World War. And also the fact that they had done all that voluntary work during the war was a very, very big factor in obtaining the vote for women over 30 in 1918.

Theo Mayer: Well, in the US, people tend to think of the suffrage movement as something that happened here. But in fact it was happening on both sides of the pond. Were there any connections between the two movements?

Patricia Fara: Oh, absolutely. The suffrage movement here has been going since the middle of the 19th century. And there are individual leaders here who went over to America. And then there were American women who came over here. There was one particular person called Ray Strachey who was part of the Bloomsbury set, she was a relative of Virginal Woolf, and her aunt was President of Bryn Mawr. So there was a lot of contact between this woman Ray Strachey and her aunt in Bryn Mawr who was very, very active in the suffrage movement. So Ray Strachey went over before the war and went touring around America and giving talks and going to suffrage demonstrations. One big difference, I believe, between America and here is that delegations of American women came over to Britain to find out what was happening. And one thing they did fundamentally disapprove of was the violent tactics of the suffragettes, the people who were pitching bricks through windows, chaining themselves to the railings, attacking the police. These were the women who were being put in prison. The were being force fed, they were being treated terribly, terribly badly. And American women didn't go down that route. cambridgeUCambridge University

Theo Mayer: Well, let's talk about your book. What do you consider your favorite or maybe the most important or most memorable stories that came out of your research?

Patricia Fara: What I was trying to do in this book is focus on a very small group of women that nobody has ever written about before. And women were engineers, they were doctors, they were scientists during the first World War. They were already trained. And as soon as the war started, they took over the jobs that men were doing. One fascinating woman was a woman called Isabelle Elmsley. And she was a doctor, she trained in Scotland, and she went out to Serbia during the war. And Isabelle Elmsley and a lot of other women were out in Serbia building hospitals, they were treating wounded soldiers, they were looking after the local population, they were working under most appalling conditions. And they saved the lives of very, very many soldiers out on the Eastern front. Then of course after the war ended, Isabelle Elmsley stayed out there until 1919 and she treated a lot of the local population who lived in such remote places that they'd never seen a doctor before. And she was curing all sorts of chronic problems like club feet and cleft palates that were being operated on here (in the UK). Then she came back to Britain. And in Serbia she is still very, very much remembered. There is a hospital named after her, there's postage stamps commemorating her. Here, she very quickly got forgotten, she got married, which meant that she could no longer go on working as a doctor because married women weren't allowed to be paid as professional doctors. She wasn't allowed to do surgery because surgery was a man's specialty and she had to go back to doing gynecology and pediatrics, which is what most women doctors ended up doing. Ray StracheyThe British and American women's suffrage movements were in contact during this period. Ray Strachey (above) participated in the movement on both sides of the Atlantic.

Theo Mayer: Patricia, let me ask you about that. Was it by law or was it by custom that they weren't allowed to work after they got married?

Patricia Fara: That was by law. She did work, but she couldn't be paid for it. It was the same with teachers, with civil servants, with lawyers. And that went on until the 1920s. So as soon as you got married, you had to stop working. It's absolutely extraordinary. There was another woman, Hertha Ayrton, slightly earlier, who was the first woman who was allowed to read her own paper at the Royal Society London. Before that, the man had to read a paper for her. And she was a very, very distinguished engineer, she'd won all sorts of medals and prizes. And she gave her paper. Then afterwards, someone nominated her for fellowship of the Royal Society. They thought very hard and they said, "No, she can't be a fellow of the Royal Society because she's married." So the first female fellows of London's Royal Society weren't elected until 1945. We were ahead of you in getting the vote. We got the vote in 1918. But we were behind you in very many other respects, particularity at Cambridge. At Cambridge, although women had been going to University at Cambridge since the end of the nineteenth century, there were colleges specifically for women and they followed the same degree courses as the men, they passed all the exams. There was one woman, Filipa Forcet, who came top of her year in mathematics, but no women were allowed formally to graduate from Cambridge University until 1948, which is very recent.

Theo Mayer: That's shockingly recent.

Patricia Fara: Right, isn't it? Yes. That's one thing that I say to my students, because quite often students are in despair because there's still the statistics showing that women aren't getting to the top of their professions, they're earning less than men on a whole. But I encourage my students to think how much matters have changed, certainly since the first World War. But also how much the situation has improved just in my own lifetime.

Theo Mayer: Dr. Patricia Fara is Director of Studies at Cambridge University's History and Philosophy of Science Department and author of a Lab of One's Own, Science and Suffrage in the First World War. We have links for you in the podcast notes.