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ARCHIVE: The women engineers who fought for professional recognition

Karyn French

Women build the Napier aero engine during the First World War
Women build the Napier aero engine during the First World War

International Women in Engineering Day, 23 June, is a global celebration of women past, present and future.

This year we have also been marking the centenary of the act of parliament that gave some women in the UK the vote. The long, hard struggle to win the vote parallels the efforts that female pioneers in engineering had to make to break into a male-dominated profession. 

The issue of women members of the Institution of Automobile Engineers (IAE) was first raised in May 1907. Cleone de Heveningham Benest (1880-1963) wrote to find out whether women could be admitted as graduate members. 

In 1909 Benest was noted in the press as being the first woman to drive a motor omnibus in England and the only woman to take a motor engineering examination in London. The Woman Engineer journal said in 1920 that she was elected as an associate member of the IAE but there is no evidence of this in the records. It is accepted that she attended IAE meetings. Benest is difficult to pin down, however, and hardly anything is known of her after 1927. 

Many women had their first experience of engineering work during the First World War. Although women did work in factories before this, it was largely in operating machinery rather than in building or maintaining it. Women were trained in wartime to carry out many tasks that had previously been done by skilled men. By 1918 almost one million women were working in engineering and munitions. 

But the 1919 Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act forced women to give up their jobs to men returning from military service. Unions such as the Amalgamated Society of Engineers were against female engineers, viewing them as competition for their members. The forced loss of women’s jobs was part of an agreement that the society negotiated with the government.

But 1919 also saw the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, which stated that sex or marital status could not be a bar to admission to any incorporated society, and forbade universities from regulating the admission of women. This gave some scope for progress. Soon afterwards, the IAE elected Dorothée Pullinger (1894-1986) to membership. Although she initially rejected the offer of associate membership, she accepted it in January 1921. Pullinger is the first woman who can be verified as having been an IAE member but perhaps Benest beat her to it.

Early in 1920 the Institution of Mechanical Engineers sought legal advice on the issue. The institution’s solicitor replied that the act removed the disqualification of all women – the words ‘he, him and his’ had previously been used to restrict membership, but this now had to read ‘he or she’. All other qualifications required for membership remained unchanged – a woman applicant would have to meet the same technical and educational standards as men. 

It was presumably with this advice in mind that IMechE minutes contain a footnote stating that the decision in December 1920 not to elect Verena Holmes as a member “was made strictly on the merits of the case, and without prejudice on account of the candidate’s sex”.  No further mention of women becoming members occurs in the minutes until Holmes was elected as an associate member in 1924.

Pullinger and Holmes were active members of the Women’s Engineering Society, which was formed in 1919 by women who wanted to resist the pressure to leave engineering following the war, and to promote engineering as a suitable profession for women. 

The society was active throughout the inter-war years, and was instrumental in mobilising many women to enter engineering during the Second World War. It was able to take steps to ensure that women engineers were not subject to the same pressures after 1945 as had been applied after the First World War. 

Despite the work done by such pioneers, there is still a long way to go to improve the representation of women in engineering. 

Out of IMechE’s 133 presidents, only three have been women. And, according to Engineering UK 2018, women make up only 12% of those working in engineering roles.

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