Written by Hannah John 

Most post-war female scientists were not feminists. Or, to be more exact, they did not want to associate themselves with the term ‘feminist’.

But before we get too outraged at this statement, it is important that we judge their opinions and actions in the context of the time – says Dr Sally Horrocks, in her talk on Women, science and feminism at this year’s British Science Festival.

The talk centred around verbatim quotes taken from multiple female scientists of the post-war period, giving us a unique insight into what felt like to take those first steps into such a previously male dominated industry.

By engaging and examining the subtext of their words, it started to become clear why they may have been so reluctant to adopt the label at this specific point in history.

Firstly, they couldn’t reconcile their ideas of femininity with science. The hands-on, hazardous nature of laboratory experiments was completely at odds with what society was telling them was ‘womanly’.  If they made it into the labs, the female version of the uniform was unfit for purpose (Barbara Bowen cited dangerously flimsy lab coats and easily tearing tights as her reason for moving into a more academic area of science). The message they were getting from every angle was that the job was, quite literally, not designed for them.

On top of that, day-to-day survival in an environment that was 99% male was emotionally and physically draining enough without trying to overhaul the system. The pressure on the few women who managed to get jobs higher up was immense. As Dame Stephanie Shirley said: “If you’re the only one, if you fail, you fail for all women.”  It is understandable that they didn’t want to jeopardise the precarious position they had worked so hard to achieve by associating with what many thought was a shocking and uncivilised movement… 

At the time, there was a general lack of understanding amongst both men and women as to what Women’s Liberation could mean in real terms. Many held the assumption that the movement was purely for aggressive radicals.

In 1980, Mary McCann summarised this general feeling, when she said: “We agree that men are the problem, but we think we are doing OK. We have no time for Women’s Lib. We don’t know anything about it anyway but fear the image of aggressive women it evokes.”

Finally, men’s self-confidence was often mistaken as a sign of superior intellect. As all the top jobs were filled by men, it was easy to conclude this was because they were naturally better at them, rather than being a side effect of living under a patriarchal system.

As discussed in many other talks across the British Science Festival, especially in Angela Saini’s Q&A, this would not be the first time that scientists saw inequality and took it as biological fact.

When asked if she thought it could have been possible for her to become a professor, Mary Almond claimed that she thought not, because she was “not good enough.” When probed as to why she believed this, she claimed that she was “busy with everything else,” referring obliquely to the monumental task of raising her children as a single mother.

In a post-war system where working women were made to feel isolated and ‘othered’, it is easy to see why adopting a label that made them even more of a target of reproach lacked appeal.

However, Dr Sally Horrocks felt it was important to focus not on what labels these women chose to adopt, but on what they actually did. With the marriage bar only lifted after WW2, the phenomenon of women having careers at all after marriage was still shockingly novel. They needed a huge amount of skill and an impressively thick skin to be pioneers in this uncharted and largely hostile landscape. These women paved the way for the ones that came after and were the first to push against walls previously untouched. It is because these women persevered against the odds in this industry that many female scientists of today feel comfortable enough to openly call themselves feminists.

The British Science Festival takes place between 10-13 September, bringing over 100 events to Coventry and Warwickshire. Find out more here.