“Am I a lady or an engineer?” Margaret Partridge

Pioneering women engineers

Female munitions workers at the Heaton Works, Newcastle
Female munitions workers at the Heaton Works of C. A. Parsons & Co., Newcastle, during the First World War

In 1919, soon after women over 30 were granted the vote, Rachel and Katharine Parsons, assisted by Caroline Haslett, founded the Women’s Engineering Society, an organization that still flourishes today. The idea for the society came from the women’s background in engineering and their experiences during the First World War. Above all, they were engaged in a campaign for women’s employment rights.

‘Women have won their political independence; now is the time for them to achieve their economic freedom too,’ said Rachel at the time.

Nine years earlier, in 1910, Rachel Parsons had become the first woman to be accepted by Cambridge University to read Mechanical Sciences. She excelled at mathematics and was very close to her father, the engineering genius Charles Parsons, often assisting him with his investigations into marine propulsion and energy generation. Indeed, she was a largely self-taught engineer who saw no reason why women should not be able to succeed in the engineering profession.

A rigorous academic education at Roedean School in Sussex, together with the support of her feminist mother, propelled Rachel towards a university career. When the First World War broke out, she joined her father’s firm in Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne, replacing her brother, Tommy, as a board director, while Tommy was away fighting in the trenches. Rachel trained many women who came into the factories to help in the manufacture of munitions and a multitude of other engineering tasks. She joined the Ministry of Munitions, found in 1915 by David Lloyd George, and taught women the specialist skills involved in making optical instruments, including telescopes, binoculars, gun sights and searchlights.

At the end of the war, the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act made it virtually impossible for women engineers who had not worked for engineering firms before the war to continue in their careers. The injustice of this legislation prompted Rachel and her mother to launch a campaign for women’s rights. ‘It has a been a strange perversion of women’s sphere,’ said Katharine, ‘to make them work at producing the implements of war and destruction and to deny them the privilege of fashioning the munitions of peace.’

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A parliamentary candidate

In 1920, a year after establishing the Women’s Engineering Society, Rachel and Katharine Parsons set up Atalanta Ltd, an engineering firm that employed only women. They received support from Nancy, Lady Astor, the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons.

In 1923, Rachel herself stood for Parliament, having been adopted as Conservative candidate for Ince in Lancashire, but was unsuccessful in this staunch Labour seat. In the meantime she had been elected to the London County Council. Labour and trade union hostility towards the idea of women’s employment in engineering did much to drive Rachel into the Conservative camp. Her political philosophy is summed up in the following exhortation: ‘Let women form an alliance that shall recognize no distinctions of class, take part in no class war, but which shall go forward with the aim of securing fair play for women in the industrial world.’