There’s no better time to get to grips with one of the most prominent female scientists from the 20th century. Her name is Hertha Marks Ayrton, orn in 1854 Ayrton (née Phoebe Sarah Marks) was a pioneering British inventor, mathematician, engineer, physicist and a dedicated suffragette. She received the Hughes Medal in 1906 from the Royal Society for her work on electric arcs, and her studies on water and sand ripples. . She was a founder of the International Federation of University Women and the National Union of Scientific Workers, was active in the suffragette movement of the 1900s, and was a member of the Woman’s Social and Political Union.
Hertha Marks Ayrton and the Royal Society
Even though she was an accomplished physicist, had studied at Cambridge, and was the first female member of the Institute of Electrical Engineers Hertha Marks Ayrton wasn’t allowed to become a Fellow of the Royal Society.
However, if she was around today, this most certainly would not be the case. In fact in the video above, “The Fight for Fellowship” from Royal Society YouTube channel Objectivity, they look at some of the objects and documents they have at the Royal Society relating to Hertha Marks Ayrton—including her application for Fellowship.
These also include a photograph of her in her laboratory and a report she wrote in 1901 about electrical arcs. As a mark of her brilliance the reviewers, the Referee’s Reports, all agree that the paper should definitely be published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the science journal associated with the Fellowship. And it was published in it a year later.
But regarding her becoming a Fellow, the world wasn’t quite as progressive. The video does show that she was nominated to become one by John Perry, a pioneering engineer and mathematician, who also submitted her electrical arc paper to the Royal Society. The Society even has her ‘Certificate of a Candidate for Election’ including a write up of who she was and her accomplishments, which indicates that there were people who really wanted her to become a Fellow.
So what happened? Why wasn’t she made one? Well, the next step the Royal Society did was take legal advice to see if they could actually elect a woman. And the answer came back that, no, on legal advice they couldn’t elect a married, or unmarried, woman. So we can blame the lawyers for stopping Hertha Marks Ayrton becoming a Royal Society Fellow. It’s always the lawyers.
Fortunately, as the years went on things began to change. Letters from The Women’s Engineering Society and others kept asking if scientifically qualified women were now eligible for Fellowship. And, eventually, due to them constantly referencing the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, and threats pf lobbying, the Royal Society took legal advice once again and were advised that, yes, women were now allowed. That wasn’t until 1945.