Gender and Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales c. 400-1150 CE

Figure 1. Eliseg’s Pillar near Llangollen, Denbighshire, Wales. Photograph © 2006 by Jeffrey L. Thomas (

The Pillar of Eliseg is an exceptional stone monument in Wales which was erected by Concenn ruler of Powys (c. 854 CE), to honor his great-grandfather Eliseg, who had expelled the Anglo-Saxons from that part of Powys.

The pillar is a round-shafted cross that stands on a barrow near the Cistercian abbey of Valle Crucis. The lengthy inscription carved into the monument is now illegible, but two copies of the transcription in 1696 by Edward Lhuyd have survived, enabling a study of the inscription and its significance.                                                                                                

The archaeological context of this pillar has recently been reconsidered, illuminating how its form and function emphasized the link of the rulers of Powys with the Roman usurper Magnus Maximus and the sub-Roman ruler Guarthigirn. The inscription was intended to be read out loud and that the monument was as an important piece of public propaganda erected at a time when the kingdom of Powys was severely under threat (Edwards, 2009).

Studies of such exceptional monuments can add to the historical narrative and fit into the objectives set by archaeologists of early medieval Wales to better understand the relationship and interaction between different political and cultural groups in the early medieval period. However, important questions about the social structure of Wales—in particular—the function of gender evidenced through the stone monuments has yet to be explored.                                                                                                           

A total of 565 monuments for Wales c. 400-1150 CE. The volumes cover into three geographical regions: the South-East Wales and the English Border (Redknap and Lewis, 2007), South-West Wales (Edwards, 2009) and North Wales (Edwards, 2013). The three regions have 191, 216, and 158 number of monuments respectively. Most of the stones with inscriptions include a name in the nominative or genitive case, which implies that the stone is the ‘monument of X’ and also includes the filiation, frequently by the use of filius or fili, followed by the name of the father in the genitive ‘X son of Y’.

These types of monuments may have also functioned as grave-markers, but do not include the phrase hic iacit. There are 20 stone monuments with inscriptions that include the formulae with filius or fili or the equivalent. Many of the stones contain the formulaic Latin ‘hic iacit’ ‘here lies’and ‘pro anima’ ‘for the soul[s] of’, commemorating the dead and their souls in Christian fashion.

The imagery on the stone monuments include human figures, most of which are arguably Christian and depict familiar Biblical scenes or ecclesiastical figures. This study is a focus on gender representation, display, and power during this religious transformation.

What can these functions and formulae say about gender in early Wales? Firstly, that the stone monuments had commemorative and religious functions. The surviving stone monuments present an overwhelming majority of mens’ names and filiation. It can be argued that the stone monuments were for men to display their genealogy and kinship as well as their religious status. From the formulae and filiation on the inscribed stones, it is clear that Christianity was an important part of the display of identity in early Welsh society. However, the patterns reveal that this was an act done by and for male kin.

Figure 2. Vaynor (Abercar) B47

An exception is one of the stones that is included under fili, which can be transcribed as filia, considering that the name that comes before it is in the feminine form, transcribed as the name Cupeta.

The only possible stone monument in this dataset that mentions a woman is Vaynor (Abercar) B47, which is lost. A photo and a drawing of the stone survive, so the inscription is still clear (see Figure 2). T. H. Thomas recorded it as follows:

Fragmentary Latin inscription, reading vertically:


[-]peta fili[a-]

=(Cu)peta, daughter [of…]

Cupitus/Cupita was a particular popular cognomen in Celtic areas, including Roman Britain, the most likely reading is [CV]PETA, with Vulgar Latin E for I. There are less likely possibilities, such as Hospita, Popita, but these are not attested in Roman Britain. (Redknap and Lewis, 247)                  

Even in this particular example where a woman’s name is mentioned, she is the daughter of someone else to whom the stone monument claimed ownership of. Her relationship to her father was important enough to be included, and it is even possible that Cupeta had the stone monument erected for her father. This is also potential significance in terms of agency and the potential significance that her father’s status was being used to bolster hers.

By carving one’s name into permanence, along with one’s kin, men used the stones to harness a self-image and their continued remembrance after their death, as well as for their kin. The evidence of the kingroup of early medieval Wales gives insights into their worldview of association, property-holding, inheritance, legal rights, and aspects of the soul, which allow us to recognize the persistence of ancient social forms into the society of the early middle ages.

Masculine power is directed into the production and maintenance of political and social formations (the stones) to consolidate political, economic, and legal powers for men. The stones were placed in public, visible spaces (such as the Pillar of Eliseg) in an attempt to define mens’ powers in these spaces, while womens’ overwhelming absence from the stones reflected the cultural belief in womens’ incapacity to carry out public professional responsibilities.                              

Overall, the stones marked the preponderance of masculinity and in the few cases where women do appear on the inscriptions or imagery, they are marked by their relationships and elite or religious statuses.      

Arica Roberts is a doctoral student in the University of Reading’s Department of Archaeology. Her thesis is a study of gender during the Christianisation of early medieval Wales c. 400-1200 CE. 

Conference: Gender, Religion and Power


Registration is now open for our interdisciplinary conference

Saturday 21 September, Birkbeck, University of London

Please register here

Both religion and power are salient research subjects within gender and women’s history. These subjects have particularly attracted recent attention in discussions of hegemonic structures, as researchers have evaluated the effectiveness of using power as a means to evaluate relationships between and amongst men and women. Understandings of patriarchy, and its multitudinous nature have arisen. These two topics have also inspired conversation about agency of those who seem to willingly submit themselves to religion and power structures. This is a multidisciplinary conference which analyses the historical links between gender and religion, gender and power, or all three.

Stay tuned to updates by following our twitter account @RHBedfordCentre

If you have any questions, please contact the conveners here:

Keynote speakers:
Professor Kate Cooper (Royal Holloway, University of London)
Professor Clare Midgley (Sheffield Hallam University)

Provisional Programme:


The Emily Davison Memorial Project


The maquette (small model) of the proposed life-size sculpture of Emily Wilding Davison.

A group of Epsom residents are leading a campaign to install a memorial to the suffragette and former Royal Holloway student Emily Wilding Davison, who died after running out in front of the King’s horse during the 1913 Epsom Derby.

Emily is arguably one of the most famous suffragettes after Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters because of her actions that day. The incident was captured on the newly invented technology of the time, the moving image, and viewed by millions nationally and internationally. Emily became a controversial figure and there was much debate about her intentions, which were interpreted by many at the time as suicidal. These persisted until recently, when new evidence came to light suggesting she was attempting to attach a suffragette banner to the horse’s bridle as it passed the Royal Box, in order to highlight the campaign for votes for women to the King.

However, Emily was so much more than what happened that fateful day. Born in Blackheath, London on 11 October 1872, but raised in Morpeth, Northumberland, Emily was intelligent and academically minded. She studied at both Royal Holloway College and Oxford University where she completed two degrees, despite the fact that women were not allowed to graduate. She subsequently became a teacher and a governess in order to earn a living, as her father had died and left her and her mother in financial hardship. She also had many other talents and interests, which included swimming, cycling, singing and writing.

During her campaign to secure women the vote, Emily was imprisoned a number of times. She went on hunger strike seven times and was subjected to force feeding no less than 49 times. Emily is also well known for boldly hiding in a broom cupboard overnight in the Houses of Parliament during the census, thus claiming her address as ‘Houses of Parliament’. There is now a plaque to commemorate this event on the cupboard door.

Residents in Epsom also want to commemorate Emily in the town where she lost her life on that fateful day, and so the Emily Davison Memorial Project has been formed with the aim of installing a life-size bronze statue of Emily sitting on a contemporary granite bench in the redeveloped Market Place in Epsom town centre.

The artist commissioned to make the statue is Surrey-based sculptor Christine Charlesworth, an elected member of the Society of Women Artists and the Royal Society of Sculptors. Christine has created many sculptures for individuals, local authorities and businesses and won a gold medal at the 2017 Chelsea Flower Show. Christine was an official artist with BT leading up to and including the 2012 Olympics with a selection of sports sculptures, and she created an action portrait of Paralympic basketball player Ade Adepitan for Jubilee Square, Woking.

Epsom and Ewell Borough Council and Surrey County Council are both behind the project, along with Emily’s family. All permissions have been granted and the fundraising campaign is in full swing; the Committee are almost halfway towards their £50,000 target. If you would like to donate to this important project to ensure Emily and all she did to secure women the vote is properly commemorated, please donate via the website. Donations of any size are welcome. There are also corporate sponsorship opportunities available, with companies or individuals donating £5,000 having their name engraved on the statue.

Sarah Dewing, Chair of the EDMP says. “It is time that Emily Wilding Davison is properly recognised for the part she played in bringing about the Governments’ decision to give some women the right to vote. It is due to her sacrifice and that of many others that women today have equal rights in law and opportunities to fulfil their potential that Emily’s generation could only dream of”.

To find out more, please visit, or the Emily Davison Memorial Project Facebook or Twitter page (@Emily Memorial). You can contact the Committee at

Women’s Power and the Fall of Norse Paganism


Sally Todd throws a spear in the 1958 film The Saga of the Viking Women and their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent

Vikings and the Viking Age have long provided the general public with a source of fascination, and many popular presentations have been attempted with varying degrees of historical accuracy. The TV show Vikings is an example of this, and the rather less successful Saga of the Viking Women featured above. While neither provide a genuine reflection of Viking Age society, TV shows and films can often spark interesting discussion, especially in the case of women. Vikings’ Lagertha and Áslaug, two very different characters, are both likely fictitious but nevertheless give us something to think about: the female presence.

Viking women are very much a part of the historical conversation today, particularly as a result of surprising archaeological discoveries. Recently, a warrior’s grave in Birka, Sweden, was reassessed to reveal that the person interred was biologically female, sparking intense debate as to whether this proves the historical existence of female Viking warriors. Similarly, the well-known example of the Oseberg ship burial in Norway is known to have contained women ostentatiously buried in a style similar to male Viking Age chieftains.

Unfortunately, this does not conclusively prove anything at all, but these burials provide small indications of a world that can be further illuminated by a close reading of the narrative sources: the Old Norse sagas. Through my research into the saga representation of aristocratic women, I have found that the Norse pagan image of female power is shown to have been vastly different from contemporary Medieval Europe, which was dominated at the time by clerical Christianity.

The historiographical sections of the saga literature, situated somewhere between history and legend, present a world in which Scandinavian aristocratic women were allowed considerably higher status and influence than their sisters to the south, and this is corroborated by more contemporary written and material evidence.

These same sources indicate that this difference seems to have gradually evaporated with the Scandinavian conversion in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It is difficult to assess the actual situation given the nature of the source material, but in the written narratives, women’s power on the socio-political scene disappears almost entirely.

On one hand, Christianisation presented new and different opportunities for women, such as alternative religious careers outside the family, and there are signs of increased relative independence of women from families through these new opportunities. However, increased restraints were imposed upon women’s freedom of action inside the family. Previously having been given great prominence in Scandinavian kin networks, aristocratic women are now shown merely as coin to be spent for political gain.

Women’s role and agency within the religious structures also changed. With Christianisation, women were excluded from their existing place in the mythic cult, and religious leadership became reserved for men alone. Simultaneously, new religious issues were in play: women were now seen as guilty of original sin, more closely connected to sexual uncleanness, and overall, they were to a much larger degree subjugated by men.

All indication suggests that Christianisation appears to have forced women into the ‘private sphere’ and away from what independence they may have enjoyed prior to the conversion. This does not necessarily mean that women’s lives generally became more miserable, but if they lost their autonomy and their access to the public scene, there is an evident transformation of female power that needs to be investigated.

There is need for great care in this area, both as the sagas are notoriously unreliable and because the distinction between the private and the public sphere can be both enticing and misleading, as is the belief in (or hope for) the historical existence of literary archetypes such as female Viking warriors. The body in the Birka grave contains no signs of battle or proof of anything beyond ceremonial status. We have yet to find a real Lagertha, and it is highly possible that we never will.

Overall, however, it seems likely that the sagas and other sources paint a picture of female sociopolitical power increasingly restricted by the rise of Christianity, and that consequently the potential for women’s power was greater, and different in character, prior to the full establishment of the church. Whether this was the case it remains to be seen.

Markus Mindrebø is a doctoral student at Royal Holloway. His thesis explores women, gender and power in Early Medieval Scandinavia.


Event: Rediscovering the Women of Royal Holloway and Bedford College: Wikipedia Workshop

The Centre for the Reception of Greece and Rome and The Bedford Centre joint event

Thursday June 6th 2-5pm, International Building, Computer Lab 005


Sarah Parker Remond (1815-94), African-American abolitionist and suffragist

Did you know that Wikipedia is the largest and most influential source of knowledge in the world? The encyclopaedia has five million articles in English, and 800 articles are added every day. Yet only one in six of its 1.5 million biographies feature women, and only 15% of Wikipedia editors are women.

Would you like to know more about Wikipedia’s problematic gender bias? Would you like to be part of the solution? Then please do join us for an afternoon workshop with the aim of increasing the representation of the lives of women staff and graduates of RHUL and Bedford College on Wikipedia. Working with a team of wiki-trainers from Wikimedia UK, the workshop will introduce participants to the skills required to create Wikipedia entries as well as exploring best practice for representing women’s lives online.

No previous knowledge of Wikipedia or editing is required!

This workshop warmly welcomes people of all genders and is for all interested students and staff.

Places on the workshop are limited so please contact Bedford Centre co-ordinator Adam McKie if you would like to join us:

Organised by Dr Liz GloynProfessor Jane Hamlett, and Dr Victoria Leonard

The Value of Religion in Women’s History, Part 3: Opportunities and Activism


Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, c. 1797

Religion was often the centrepiece of Christian women’s identities in the 19th century. Women prioritised their love for God, as in him was to be found ultimate happiness and purpose, and married women prioritised domestic duties in service to God.

Many religious women in nineteenth-century Britain believed that men and women should have separate roles and responsibilities – that women’s lives should be centred on the home – and that this was an application of the teachings of the Bible.

However, it must also be acknowledged that religion did not sequester women in the home. As noted by many historians who criticise the separate spheres paradigm, faith offered women numerous opportunities as well. Some suggest that religion allowed women to enter a ‘third sphere’ via the church and associated ministries in which they could have an active role.

Indeed, this argument is often used to suggest that separate spheres were not as separate as some historians have argued, since religious women found ample opportunity to engage outside of the home in their churches, communities, and through activism.

In 1763, Jean-Jacques Rousseau suggested that women ought to hold the same religious views as their husbands, in order to maintain a docile and submissive order – an important factor in the Christian home. He said the reason for this delineation was because women – due to their weak faculties – would be led astray when left to themselves:

 “Women being incapable of forming articles of faith for themselves, cannot confine them within the limits of evidence and reason; but permitting themselves to be led astray by a thousand foreign impulses, are always wide of the mark of truth…”

Renowned feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, objected to this premise in her famous Vindication of the Rights of Women. She framed her response to Rousseau by arguing that a woman must have some religious autonomy in order to fulfil her domestic roles – as teacher to her children and companion to her husband:

“How should she incline them to those virtues she is unacquainted with, or to that merit of which she has no idea?… How indeed should she, when her husband is not always at hand to lend her his reason?… The man who can be contended to live with a pretty, useful companion, without a mind, has lost in voluptuous gratifications a taste for more refined enjoyments…”

Wollstonecraft employed faith to argue for improved educational opportunities for women. She suggested that women would be better suited raising children and acting as companions for their husbands if they were permitted substantial education which allowed them to form their own religious opinions.

Thus, even Mary Wollstonecraft, the first renowned ‘modern feminist’, interpreted the liberation of women within religious terms. Often when women engaged themselves in opportunities outside of the ‘domestic sphere’, they used expectations about the feminine role to further their agendas. Their arguments, such as in the case of Wollstonecraft, often focused on benefits which complimented the status quo – such as those which might impact domestic happiness and success.

While from our own contemporary perspective it is easy to see the powerful gendered inequalities in 19th century society, it is important to understand how women perceived their own lives within this structure. The tensions caused by religion were palpable – though women did often find their own way to manoeuvre within the existing structures.

Admittedly, we can critically assert that these manoeuvres were not enough, certainly not by our standards. However, it is also important to consider the ways women viewed their own agency while living in this reality – which, for religious women, was often connected to their love and service to God, rather than absolute freedom to do as they wished.

Whether a religious woman was a housewife, an activist, or a female minister travelling the globe, they believed their lives and work were intertwined with their religiosity. It is therefore essential to study this intersection when engaging in women’s history.

Angela Platt is a PhD student in Royal Holloway’s Department of History. Her thesis explores the lives of nonconformist families in England between 1780 and 1850.

The Value of Religion in Women’s History, Part 2: ‘Separate Spheres’ and Agency


Elizabeth Fry c. 1823, by Charles Robert Leslie

As previously discussed, religion was an important part of life for many women in 19th-century Britain – so much so that it informed the centerpiece of their identity. Happiness and purpose were to be found in God and the obedience of his precepts. This could also mean religious beliefs reinforced societal expectations of ‘separate spheres’ for many women.

‘Separate spheres’ is historian lingo for a movement generally believed to have arisen in the late-18th century as work increasingly became separated from the home due to urbanisation and industrialisation. As this separation grew, men began to leave the home to go to work, while women continued to stay in the home, and were tasked with ‘domestic duties’.

There is much debate among historians as to whether this bifurcation of ‘home’ and ‘work’ was too distinct – suggesting that women and men crossed over these ‘boundaries’ frequently between the public sphere of work, and the private sphere of home. Families heavily influenced by evangelicalism did, however, tend to expect this division to be part and parcel of married life.

Helen Martineau, a Unitarian wife of a physician, remarked how happy domestic life had made her in August 1823, despite her previous apprehension due to her lively life outside the home:

“It is astounding how I am changed. I who used to enjoy society so much. I do still enjoy it, but I have a still dearer source of enjoyment in my child & when my husband also is with me – then it is almost heaven upon earth.”

Some women were worried about getting married at all, in the understanding that they would have to prioritise domestic work and possibly forfeit some of their other activities and interests. Elizabeth Gurney – later Fry – (a thoroughly active Quaker, female minister, and philanthropist) believed that marriage would mean serving God in a ‘different way’ in which the domestic realm would take precedence. She notes in a letter to her cousin in 1799:

“I have almost ever since I have been a little under the influence of religion, rather thought marriage at this time was not a good thing for me…If I have any active duties to perform in the church, if I really follow as far as I am able the voice of Truth in my heart; are they not rather incompatible with the duties of a wife and a mother?… but it is now at this time the prayer of my heart, that if I ever should be a mother, I may rest with my children, and really find my duties lead me to them, and my husband; and if my duty ever leads me from my family, that it may be in a single life.”

Religion shaped women’s understanding of family life, which – in their understanding – expected married women to prioritise domestic duties.

It is important to remember that belief in ‘separate spheres’ was shaped by an understanding of the Bible which was taught by the churches to which the women subscribed. Women were not simply subjected to these rules by force: they believed it was the ‘right thing to do’ to submit to them.

Freedom of choice for women did not always mean the ability to do whatever you wished or to challenge patriarchy – it also was notably defined by the willingness to ‘choose what is right’ – which, for many, were the principles their church believed were aligned with Scripture.

Thus, religious women found their identity and in purpose in God, and prioritised their love for him above all which manifested in their duties and activities. For married women, it was generally anticipated this would mainly include domestic work.

Angela Platt is a PhD student in Royal Holloway’s Department of History. Her thesis explores the lives of nonconformist families in England between 1780 and 1850. The next post will examine exceptions to this norm as religion provided women opportunities in the ‘public sphere’.

The Value of Religion in Women’s History, Part 1: Identities

Prayer without end

 Old Woman saying Grace, known as ‘The Prayer without End’, Nicolaes Maes, c. 1656

Religious principles are a frequent theme in didactic literature of the long nineteenth century. Religion was vitally important to women and was often used in arguments to improve their position in their family and society.

It gave women a voice and was significantly valued by the women themselves – as religion formed their identities, as mothers, wives, and their relationship to their communities. For many women of this period, the Christian God of the Bible was a pre-eminent force in their lives, directing them by his providence and preparing them for an eternal future with him and other believers in an eternal home. Love and service for God – in whatever manifestation that presented – was supreme.

This three-part blog series will demonstrate the importance of understanding the religiosity of women in this period, highlighting how religion shaped identities, helps us understand debates over women’s position in society, reveals agency, offers opportunities and catalyses activism. This first post will focus on religion and identity.

While it would be remiss to suggest that all women in the long nineteenth century were religious (they weren’t), those who were eminently religious did not consider it a tangential part of their lives; religion was the axiom which underlay their other activities; whether political, family-orientated, or career-driven – religious experience was central.

The importance of faith is especially evident in diaries and letters of nonconformist women (Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians and Congregationalists) which I have examined from 1780-1850. Anna Braithewaite, a Quaker minister in the early nineteenth century, comments in a letter (in July 1823) to her husband how greatly she missed him and her children – and yet considered her love and service to God as the greatest priority:

“My mind was brought to a close sense of the separation between me and all who are dear to me… I felt to the full the reality and bitterness of the sacrifice, yet I desired to be preserved in a cheerful surrender of my all unto Him whom I love, and whom I feel utterly unworthy to serve.”

Another Quaker woman, Elizabeth J.J. Robson, noted that the greatest happiness could only be found in Christian religion, in her diary in 1844:

“I have thought that we cannot be perfectly happy, unless we be true Christians, self-denying, cross-bearing Christians.”

Jane Attwater, a pious Baptist lady, frequently wrote prayers in her diaries. In March 1782, she praised God for his goodness, and chided herself for being less than fully devoted to Him:

“How little alas can I do for such infinite goodness, o for a heart intirely devoted to thy service.”

Many women believed that they ought to love God, in light of all that he had done for them, and that this ought to manifest in obedience to his calling upon their life. Religion was not a peripheral part of life for these pious women – it was the centrepiece.

Faith provided happiness and purpose. Whether women found themselves committed mainly to domestic work, or active in the ‘public sphere’, religious women believed their lives were to be both directed by and towards God. Identity was found in their love and service to God, who was pre-eminent in their lives.

Angela Platt is a PhD student in Royal Holloway’s Department of History. Her thesis explores the lives of nonconformist families in England between 1780 and 1850. The next post will explore how concepts of ‘separate spheres’ and agency can be better understood through religion.

Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders? Opening the Professions to Women after 1919

Jane image 6.jpg

© Women’s Engineering Society and the IET Archives

On 20 February 2019, the Bedford Centre will be hosting a panel discussion on the history of women in engineering and we are delighted to be welcoming Jane Robinson as one of our speakers. Jane is the author of the forthcoming ‘Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders’ and, as a taster, she tells us about the book and what inspired her to write it. 

Embarking on a new book is terrifying. The one I’m working on now is about the first women in the traditional professions, including engineering, following the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act (the SDRA) in 1919. I wanted to write it because of two books I’ve written before: Bluestockings, about the first women to access a university education – which of course features Royal Holloway and Bedford Colleges – and Hearts and Minds, about the campaign for the vote.

Both are populated not by celebrities but ordinary women fighting for the right to live life on their own terms – and both beg questions. What did educated women do with their new-found education? And what did those seasoned by the suffrage campaign tackle next? Hence Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders, due for publication next year.

I should explain the title: when debating the admission of women to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), members came up with a definitive argument. Ladies can’t possibly be architects: they can’t climb ladders. Job done. (Some would argue women still can’t climb ladders, in terms of their careers.)

The SDRA should have been one of the most significant pieces of legislation in modern British history. Its wording was encouraging: ‘a person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function, or from being appointed to or holding any civil or judicial office or post, or from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation…’ It signalled at once a political watershed and a social revolution; the point at which women were technically recognised as competent as men.

But that ’technically’ is important; it was an enabling act rather than an empowering one. It enabled establishments like the Bar, like the Royal Colleges of medicine and surgery, architecture and engineering bodies to admit women. However, there was no requirement to admit them, no penalty for not doing so, especially if they were rash enough to marry which in many cases meant instant dismissal.

I said new books were scary: this is why. My fear is always that there’s not enough interesting material available. In the case of Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders there was one light-bulb moment when the fear was dispelled: I opened the digital archive of The Woman Engineer, the journal of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). Running from 1919 to today it’s packed with fascinating information, illustrations, and personalities who burst from the page with good humour and high spirits. These people would be remarkable in any age; that they achieved so much in the face of the sort of prejudice you will hear about at the ‘Magnificent Women’ event, is inspirational.

© Women’s Engineering Society and the IET Archives

There was still prejudice, despite the SDRA. This was in many ways the worst time for women to think of entering the professions. Though they had won temporary respect and valuable experience by metaphorically donning bowler-hats and pinstripes or overalls and grease-guns during the First World War, priority was now given to returning servicemen while their womenfolk were expected to unfold their aprons and retreat to the parlour.

The economic climate of the mid-1920s hit everyone hard. Trained or educated women felt guilty for occupying positions which in the good old days before the war belonged exclusively to men. It took moral courage for male employers and female employees to stand up for the rights of a woman architect, civil engineer, solicitor, university lecturer or doctor.

And it’s a myth that either of the World Wars liberated women in the long term. Expediency meant that they were given the taste of an independent career, but socio-economic pressures ensured that in peacetime, the old order was reluctant to change. Lip-service was paid in the form of the SDRA, but the professional world was still hide-bound by precedent and, quite frankly, scared of competition.

After the passing of the SDRA the implication was that now there were no barriers left for women. Admittedly, only those aged 30 or above could currently vote, but optimists in the WES were sure that would change soon. Besides, having the vote was all very well; as one suffrage campaigner said, it’s what it led to that mattered. And yes, it was going to take a while for reactionary men to get used to working with women at the highest level, but that, too, would only be a matter of time. Wouldn’t it?

© Women’s Engineering Society and the IET Archives

Jane Robinson is a social historian, the author of 10 (and a half!) books including Bluestockings: the Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education, currently in development as a TV drama series, and Hearts and Minds: the Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote which is just out in paperback.

To find out more about the history of women in engineering and the current work WES is undertaking to promote gender diversity and inclusivity, please join us in the Shilling Auditorium at 6:30 on 20 February 2019.  Please register for free tickets here.

Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines: Women Engineers after 1919

heald 1

Eleanor Shelley-Rolls (1872–1961), a founding member of WES

On 20 February 2019, the Bedford Centre will be hosting a panel discussion on the history of women in engineering and we are delighted to be welcoming Henrietta Heald as one of our speakers. Henrietta is the author of the forthcoming Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines which tells the story of the foundation the Women’s Engineering Society in 1919. To mark the society’s centenary in 2019, copies of the book will be available in print from September. As a taster, here Henrietta tells us about the book and what inspired her to write it. 

This book began as the story of one intriguing, enigmatic and inspirational character: Rachel Parsons—daughter of Sir Charles Parsons, an inventive genius, and granddaughter of William Parsons, an Irish earl who in the 1840s built the largest telescope ever seen.  Rachel and her mother, Katharine, were the pioneering founders of the Women’s Engineering Society, of which Rachel became the first president.  During her presidency, Rachel met Caroline Haslett, an equally extraordinary woman of a very different kind. From a strict Victorian lower-middle-class background, Caroline went on to become the pre-eminent female professional of her age and mistress of the great new power of the 20th century: electricity.

heald 2

Rachel Parsons (1885-1956)

The idea of exploring the parallel lives of these two largely forgotten women was irresistible. What I hadn’t anticipated was the number of other amazing individuals who would clamour to get into the book because, as I found, the Women’s Engineering Society was a magnet for many ambitious and intellectual women in the 1920s and 1930s who sought to express themselves and earn a living outside writing or the arts.

At the same time, as well as securing the vote and the right to stand for Parliament, women were making progress in law, medicine and other areas.  However, those with technical, mathematical or scientific interests probably had a steeper uphill struggle. The Women’s Engineering Society and, later, the Electrical Association for Women, drew them together in a common purpose, opened new opportunities, and encouraged them to make alliances across boundaries of wealth, politics and class.

It wasn’t all plain sailing, of course. In a forerunner of today’s familiar assassination by social media, women who stepped outside the boundaries of ‘normal’ female behaviour were often subjected to ridicule and suspicion.  They reacted by ignoring such treatment or asserting their independence in diverse ways, with many remaining single or having same-sex relationships.

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Caroline Haslett (1895-1957), IET Archives

As now, engineering covered a broad range of disciplines but in 1919 it brought together those women who had contributed to industrial production and related activities during the war and felt angry and disappointed at being, as some put it, ‘thrown on the scrapheap’ afterwards. Some were trained in particular areas, others absorbed skills along the way, but all had had their eyes opened to the advantages of social and economic liberation.

Equal pay was a crucial goal and in the wartime munitions factories the positive effects of supporting female workers in all aspects of life had become clear. Special provisions were made for pregnant women and mothers of young children, including subsidised childcare schemes. Training and education for women had been implemented on an unprecedented scale, and they had shown that they could excel in many areas. Taken together, these elements might have been seen to prefigure a feminist utopia—until the war ended, when it all started to go badly wrong.

The magnificent women in my book called themselves engineers, but their revolutionary machines were more than mechanical objects such as cars and boats and planes. Through their achievements at work and their campaigns to promote women’s rights, they prepared the ground for a social revolution that would put fair and equal treatment of the sexes firmly on the political agenda. It amounted to a vibrant ‘wave’ of feminism that, until now, has largely eluded the attention of historians.

Henrietta Heald is the author of William Armstrong, Magician of the North, a book about the great Victorian industrialist who built Cragside in Northumberland, the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity. The book was shortlisted for two literary prizes.  To get a 10% discount on your pre-ordered copy of her new book, Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines, please visit and use the code WIE10.

To find out more about the history of women in engineering and the current work WES is undertaking to promote gender diversity and inclusivity, please join us in the Shilling Auditorium at 6:30 on 20 February 2019.  Please register for free tickets here.