By Elizabeth Baxter, British Science Association


“I do not agree with sex being brought into science at all... Either a woman is a good scientist, or she is not”

Today, 8 March, is International Women’s Day (IWD); a day that will see events held across the globe in celebration of the achievements of women across the arts, humanities and sciences. Albeit a collective sharing of the accomplishments of women, through these events, attention is drawn to the many inequalities that still prevail today and the plight of those that campaign for change for women’s rights in achieving gender equality.

The quote above is attributed to Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923), one of the first female electrical engineers, whose work included improving the electric arc and the Ayrton Flapper Fan, which was used by the military (albeit, following their initial dismissal of her invention) to remove poisonous gas from the trenches. Later, the War Office would distribute over 100,000 Ayrton Flapper fans to the soldiers on the Western Front.

IWD has been observed since the early 1900’s, during Ayrton’s active career. This entry into a new century had seen life transformed by the industrial, social and cultural development that had preceded it. These years saw many civil-firsts for women, but many firsts for women as producers and consumers of scientific study also.

Ayrton, was the first woman to be nominated as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1902, but was unable to be elected to this position, as married women were ineligible to assume role of a Fellow. Two years later, Ayrton became the first woman to read a paper before the Royal Society (a previous paper authored by Ayrton, had been read in 1901, but within the Society’s rules and regulations it was read by a man).

Looking through our own archive, Hertha Ayrton has poignant significance for the BSA’s identity and vision; in both how the BSA (or the BAAS, British Association for the Advancement of Science as Ayrton would have known us) interacted with women, both as producers of scientific study but also as consumers of that research. The success of Ayrton’s prepared papers on the electric arc presented at the Annual Meetings of the BAAS in 1895, 1897 and 1898 can be attributed to the enablement of women to serve on the BAAS’ general and sectional committees, paving the way for women such as Kathleen Lonsdale (1903 – 1971), the early pioneer of X-ray crystallography, who became the first female President of the Association in 1968.

Today, the abject discrimination that Ayrton experienced would be illegal in the UK, yet we still see figures, such as the one’s released in Adecco Group’s latest report; although women represent nearly half of the UK’s workforce, a leaky pipeline exists where only one in ten STEM posts are occupied by women. The civil unrest may not exist in the UK today as it did for Ayrton, who was also a member of the notorious Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), but she did exist herself as a role model, promoting her suffragette ideals by her own scientific achievements in a field that was owned by men.