It is hard to overstate the impact the First World War had on every aspect of life, from technology to politics to travel to social norms. The lives of ordinary women started to open up like never before, we take a look at how this change impacted engineering.

Caroline Haslett & WES

Caroline Haslett was born in 1895. Her father was a railway fitter and an activist in the co-operative movement. Caroline obtained a scholarship to Haywards Heath School in 1906 but did not excel and instead looked at traditional career paths available to young women at the time. She moved to London to attend a commercial college with the view to going into secretarial work, having rejected nursing and teaching.

In early 1914, Caroline started as a junior clerk for the Cochran Boiler Company. The company was run by family friends and provided the ideal environment for Caroline to find her footing. By 1918 she was running Cochran’s London office. Caroline asked the company to give her some practical engineering training and in 1918 she spent some time at the engineering works in Annan, Scotland, learning how to design boilers. Her father had already taught her how to use tools, and she was aware that everyday problems which could be solved by engineering. 

Caroline joined the suffragettes in 1914 and daringly chalked some slogans on the pavement in Whitehall. A kindly policeman suggested that the 19 year old was too young to be arrested and told her to run along – and she did!

Unlike other early women engineers who had gained experience in the War, Caroline did not pursue a professional engineering career despite the opportunities at Cochran’s. Many engineering companies were not able to continue employing women after 1918 but Cochran’s seemed to be enthusiastic about keeping Caroline. However, she had spotted an advert in Engineering for a "Lady with some experience in engineering works as organizing secretary for a women’s engineering society". Although apparently she wasn’t confident about her chances, she answered the advert and was interviewed by Lady Parsons, one of the founders of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES).  To her surprise, she was offered the job.

WES was founded in 1919 to help those women who, after gaining technical experience in the War, wanted to continue a career in engineering. It covered all forms of engineering and technical work.

The decision not to pursue a traditional engineering career was an excellent one for Caroline. While her contemporaries struggled to establish their post-war careers, she used her formidable administrative skills to quickly progress in WES, going on to be President. She was a founder of the Electrical Association for Women, and spokesperson for women in engineering in the UK establishment and internationally. Among many other posts, Haslett was appointed as the first woman member of the British Electricity Authority and was the first woman Council member of the British Institute of Management. She would be a prominent voice in the organisation of women in munitions in the Second World War and was asked by the Government to travel to Germany and advise on post-war reconstruction. She was awarded a CBE in 1932 and a DBE in 1947.

Description of Caroline's time at Annan
Description of Caroline's time at Annan.
Dame Caroline Haslett, standing at ships wheel

Dame Caroline Haslett, standing at ships wheel

by Karyn French | 25 Oct, 2018

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Women, Legislation & the Institutions 


It was during the First World War that many women had their first experience of engineering work; although women did work in factories before this, it was largely in operating machinery rather than in building or maintaining it. Women were trained in engineering work under the policy of dilution; women carried out many tasks that had previously been done by skilled men. By 1918 almost 1 million women were working in engineering and munitions. Although it was shown that trained women performed extremely well, the 1919 Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act forced women to give up their jobs to men returning from military service. Unions such as the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) were against female engineers, viewing them as competition for their members; the forced loss of women’s jobs was part of the terms of an ASE negotiated Government agreement. We have to remember the context of course - these men had left jobs to fight and were returning having experienced unfathomable distress, they now had to support themselves and their families.

Cleone de Heveningham Benest wrote to the Institution of Automotive Engineers (IAE) asking if women can enter as Graduates in 1907. It was decided against but that interested ladies could receive reports of Proceedings in the meantime” . In 1914 IAE Member Lucien Alphonse Legros put the matter before Council, arguing that women should be admitted. In the same year Dorothée Aurélie Marianne Pullinger applied as an Associate as the bye-laws stated a “person” could apply. However, on advice from the Royal Society it was advised that a person meant a man - Legros and Pullinger were duly refused. Another request, on the basis that women’s war work had altered things, was put forward internally in 1916 but it was again denied. Things changed in 1920, IAE accepted a request from WES to accept women. The first two to join were Benest and Pullinger, they were admitted in the same session in 1920.

IAE merged with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) in 1947. Founded in 1847, the bye-laws explicitly excluded women. However, they changed their outlook in 1920 following the passage of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. This specifically stated that sex or marital status could not be a bar to admission to any incorporated society and forbade Universities from regulating the admission of women. IMechE’s lawyer advised that he, him and his” now had to read he or she” in the bye-laws etc. He added that all other qualifications required for membership remained unchanged – a female applicant for membership would have to meet the same technical and educational standards as male applicants. It was presumably with this advice in mind that IMechE Minutes contain a footnote stating that the decision in December 1920 not to elect Miss Verena Holmes as a member “was made strictly on the merits of the case, and without prejudice on account of the candidate’s sex”. Holmes was elected in 1924, becoming the IMechE’s first female Member. The first woman member of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) was Dorothy Donaldson Buchanan in 1927. 

Although it took pressure from WES and legislation to ease the passage of women into some institutions, others were ahead of the issue. The Institution of Engineering and Technology's (IET) first female Student, Graduate and Associate Member was Gertrude Entwisle (1916, 1919 and 1920). However, Hertha Ayrton was their first female member in 1889.

Both Pullinger and Holmes were active members of WES. It was formed in 1919 by women who wanted to resist the pressure to leave engineering following the War and to promote engineering as a suitable profession for women. WES was active throughout the inter-war years, and was instrumental in mobilizing large numbers of women to enter engineering during the Second World War. It was able to take steps to ensure that women engineers were not subject to the same post-war pressures after 1945.

Cleone de Heveningham Benest
Cleone de Heveningham Benest.

Verena Holmes, application form
Verena Holmes' application form.
Credits/footnotes:

Haslett papers and image IET Archives.