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On 23 June 1919, seven exceptional women gathered at 46 Dover Street in London’s Mayfair to do something that had never been done before – to create a professional organisation dedicated to campaigning for women’s rights. It was the official birth of the Women’s Engineering Society, the fruit of an idea conceived  several months earlier, as the guns of the Great War fell silent.”

 

Henrietta’s Heald’s wonderful Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines is the kind of book that I wish had been around when I was reading history at university. Detailing a colourful period of feminist history that has largely been overlooked by historians, Heald brings to life the trailblazing women who established the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), and by doing so not only broke through gender barriers in their own field but also helped promote women’s suffrage and the equitable treatment of the sexes.

In early summer 1919, seven women met in Mayfair, London, to establish the WES. From very different walks of life, they were united by their experiences during the war and by their vehement opposition to the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Bill, passed shortly after armistice, which, among other things, proposed to outlaw the employment of women in the engineering industry.

Katharine, Lady Parsons, led the meeting, but it was her daughter, Rachel, the first woman to study Mechanical Sciences at Cambridge, who was the power behind the throne. Also present was Caroline Haslett, secretary of the WES and a member of  the Women’s Social and Political Union. Along with the other four members, they shared the aim of preserving and building upon the strides made by women towards equality during World War I. They had no wish to relinquish those hard-fought rights now the conflict was over.

Their story is told beautifully by Heald, who seamlessly melds their struggles and achievements with the greater fight for universal suffrage and equality. Writing with verve and style, she helps these extraordinary women attain their rightful position in history.

I was lucky enough to be Tessa Boase’s book editor on the exemplary Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather, which covers a similar swathe of history and looks at many of the same themes. From a personal perspective, it is such a pleasure to see books like these on important, largely overlooked historical female figures, who fought so hard that we might enjoy the rights we have today, showcased in marvellously accessible, meticulously researched books, penned by women writers. That’s a joy.

History can show us the way forward. Indeed, in the afterword to the book, Dawn Childs, president of the WES, writes: ‘Remember the past. Celebrate the present. Transform the future.’

As we look to women like Caroline Haslett and Katharine and Rachel Parsons, yes, we must remember and thank them for their contribution, but we must also take a long hard look at what’s happening now, what we must contribute to live the kind of lives we want when so many of our civil and political liberties appear to be under threat. In looking to the past, we surely can draw strength from the women who came before us, to help change the course of our future in our terribly uncertain, often quite frightening times. We can do better. We can be better.

 

Henrietta Heald | Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines | £20 | hardback | Unbound

 

Acknowledgements: Quoted text © Henrietta Heald, 2019; afterword © Dawn Childs 2019. Many thanks to Anne Cater, as always, and to the publisher for sending a review copy and jacket image. All opinions are our own. All rights reserved.

Also of interest:  ‘We should all be feminists’; ‘The not so invisible woman: I50 in their own words‘; ‘The word for freedom: standing up for women everywhere’; ‘IWM Classics: Trial by Battle‘; ‘IWM Classics: From the City From the Plough‘;  ‘Only Remembered edited by Michael Morpurgo’; ‘Karl Tearney’s healing a “torn mind”‘; ‘Mary Monro’s Stranger in My Heart‘; ‘’Lisa Ko’s The Leavers’; ‘20 books this summer challenge‘; How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original Penguin Ten’; ‘Book covers we love – Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday’.

This review is © 2019 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Thank you so much.

 

 

 

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