Women in History: The World of Work
Updated: Mar 4, 2022
From medieval queens to healthcare heroines in the First and Second World War, the role of women in the workplace throughout UK history has often been overlooked. This article aims to highlight the overshadowed successes of women and celebrate the victories of those who transcended beyond the “so-called” gender boundaries.
Empirical evidence demonstrates prominent gender inequality in the field of science. Before the 20th century, women were mainly represented as a support to science rather than as pioneers. This is, indeed, a reflection of the patriarchal society in which they lived. The gender gap in science was heightened due to the belief that women were inferior to men in both academia and the professional world.
However, the 20th century saw the defiance of gender dichotomies as women achieved the right to vote, the right to higher education and to work in industries heavily dominated by males.
Let’s take a look at some scientific role models in UK history.
Mary Anning (1799-1847)
Mary Anning greatly contributed to the scientific community, yet failed to receive credit for her contributions and struggled financially for much of her life. Anning dedicated her life to the study of fossils and previous life forms in geologic periods. Her discoveries include the skeleton of Jurassic marine reptiles and the fossils of important fish.
Despite her enormous contribution to paleontology, gender and social class prevented her from representation in the early 19th century scientific community. Nowadays, Anning is a significant figure within palaeontology as a result of hard work and perseverance during a time in which women were perceived as the “the weaker sex”.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917)
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first English woman to qualify as a doctor. In 19th century Britain, female physicians were unheard of. Although numerous medical schools rejected her applications, she persevered until gaining her medical certificate through the Society of Apothecaries. She went on to gain a medical degree from the University of Paris, though the British Medical Register refused to recognise her qualification.
Nonetheless, Anderson’s determination led to pioneering change. In 1872, she founded the New Hospital for Women in London, which was staffed entirely by women.
Anderson paved the way for women, and in 1876 an act was passed enabling women to enter medical professions. Anderson went above and beyond as she became the first female mayor in England in addition to her prominence as a suffragette. The struggles she faced encapsulate the extent of gender inequality in her era.
How many women can you name in the history of tech? Not enough is probably the answer, and that is because women are largely underrepresented in the world of technology.
With the rise of technology in Britain following World War II, despite contrary belief, women were very much present in the early decades of the computing world. During the technological revolution, particularly from WWII to the 1960s, most of the computer operators, programmers, systems administrators and analysts were women. In fact, at the dawn of the digital age, computing jobs were not considered ‘good’ jobs for men.
However, with the integral role and advancement of computers in businesses and governments, this transformed. Consequently, women began to suffer from poor working conditions, lower pay and exclusion from managerial roles. By the 1970s, there was a shift in mindset as women were no longer welcome in this industry. Gender discrimination meant that women were systematically phased out, and in turn replaced by their male counterparts who enjoyed better pay and job titles.
Here are some women who defied the norm, gaining prominence in the world of technology.
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)
Ada Lovelace was a writer and mathematician who created what is recognised as the precursor to the modern computer. Lovelace is often referred to as “the first programmer”, as she wrote an algorithm for a computing machine in the mid-1800s.
Though this algorithm only existed on paper, she was the first as a woman in the 1840s and her inspirational story is one every woman should know about.
Karen Spärck Jones (1935-2007)
Karen Spärck Jones was a pioneering British computer scientist. Her intellect and skill in the field led to the concept of inverse document frequency. This technology formed the basis of most modern search engines. Jones was also a major figure in information retrieval (IR) and natural language processing (NPL).
The New York Times published her obituary naming her “a pioneer of computer science” in order to document the success of a remarkable woman whose story was overlooked. In fact, when she passed away in 2007 she did not receive an obituary in The Times whilst her husband, a pioneer in security software, did when he passed away in 2003.
Despite contrary belief, female entrepreneurship is not as recent as we think. In fact, in the 1700s, there was nothing unusual about businesswomen in Britain. Women were important members of trade families, with occupations such as furniture makers, printers, and goldsmiths. For example, the Sleepe sisters Marta, Esther and Mary who, having learnt the ropes from their mother, ran a successful fan shop whilst bearing 15 children. Each sister went on to open their own shop on Cheapside, London.
Nevertheless, the dominance of businesswomen in 18th century would later be inconceivable. In the 19th and 20th centuries women continued to work, predominantly in the clothing industry and personal services. Even so, they endured long working hours, low pay and gender discrimination. There was no room for female entrepreneurship; women were expected to marry young and become housewives. Fortunately, the valuable work of women in WWI, in addition to the rising success of the Suffragettes movement, paved the way for change.
The 20th century saw legendary female entrepreneurs push boundaries and strive for success. For example, in 1976 Dame Anita Roddick opened The Body Shop establishing trade in more than 20 countries alongside her focus on environmental activism.
In short, women are often overlooked in UK history. Although they may not be celebrated in history books, their contributions have greatly impacted society as we know it. Women fought hard and endured gender discrimination first-hand. May this be a recognition of the success of the legendary women who triumphed in the face of hardship.
For more articles on women, head to our dedicated Feminism and Gender Issues section.