In 1919, in the wake of the First World War, a group of extraordinary women came together to create the Women s Engineering Society. They were trailblazers, pioneers and boundary breakers, but many of their stories have been lost to history. To mark the centenary of the society’s creation, Magnificent Women and Their Revolutionary Machines brings them back to life.
Their leaders were Katharine and Rachel Parsons, wife and daughter of the engineering genius Charles Parsons, and Caroline Haslett, a self-taught electrical engineer who campaigned to free women from domestic drudgery and became the most powerful professional woman of her age. Also featured are Eleanor Shelley-Rolls, sister of car magnate Charles Rolls; Viscountess Rhondda, a director of thirty-three companies who founded and edited the revolutionary Time and Tide magazine; and Laura Willson, a suffragette and labour rights activist from Halifax, who was twice imprisoned for her political activities.
This is not just the story of the women themselves, but also the era in which they lived. Beginning at the moment when women in Britain were allowed to vote for the first time, and to stand for Parliament and when several professions were opened up to them Magnificent Women charts the changing attitudes towards women in society and in the workplace.
I received a copy of this book from Unbounders in return for an honest review.
2019 marks the centenary for the Women’s Engineering Society, which was created by seven women in 1919. Partly created, in response to a reactionary parliamentary bill, and to reinforce the employment inroads women achieved during WW1. The Women’s Engineering Society wanted the women who had kept Britain working during the WW1, to continue in their chosen engineering and manufacturing roles. They also encouraged more women to enter engineering as a career. Given the small proportion of women enjoying a university or technical education, this was an ambitious aim. Women’s rights and choice were also at the forefront of the Women’s Engineering Society’s aims. Many of the founders came from prominent engineering families, but their social class was diverse.
The book follows the accomplishments and life events of the two most active women in the organisation; Rachel Parsons, daughter of a famous engineer, and Caroline Haslett, a dedicated suffragette. This personal element in the book draws the reader in and makes the achievements and sacrifices relatable.
The book is written in an engaging easy to read style, which makes the events, people and social ethos of the twentieth century come to life. Divided into chapters which explore significant individuals, their achievements and inventions, it is easy to dip in and out of and use for reference. However, the potential and vibrancy of this period in history for women, make this addictive reading.
The cover and images contained within the book, support the narrative well. The reader is given a good sense of the time period, social ethos and economic climate and the uphill struggle women faced in their battle for economic equality.
The final chapter lists notable events and inventions for women in the twentieth- century and is the perfect hopeful conclusion to inspire women engineers in the twenty-first-century.
Henrietta Heald is the author of William Armstrong, Magician of the No rt h which was shortlisted for the H. W. Fisher Best First Biography Prize and the Portico Prize for non-fiction. She was chief editor of Chronicle of Britain and Irela n d and Reader’s Digest Illustrated Guide to Britain’s Coast. Her other books include Coastal Living, La Vie est Belle, and a National Trust guide.