Go back to article: The life and material culture of Hertha Marks Ayrton (1854–1923): suffragette, physicist, mathematician and inventor

Suffragette sisters: Ayrton, gender and the suffrage movement

Much of Ayrton’s achievements and successes were the result of the support she received early in her life from an active community of women, feminists and suffragettes. From an early age, Ayrton was supported by her family who enabled her to continue her education until she was sixteen. When she began to consider a further, university education, Ayrton was supported by feminist Barbara Bodichon and a number of her friends including George Eliot and Lady Goldsmid. These women provided financial support for Ayrton’s university education at Cambridge as well as her first patent application in 1884. Ayrton herself was a fighter for social justice, in particular the rights of women, from an early age and was heavily involved in the suffragette movement. She was an active member of the Woman’s Social and Political Union (WPSU): Ayrton and her daughter both joined in 1907 and Ayrton made regular financial contributions to the organisation (Crawford, 2000, p 23).

Ayrton and her daughter both regularly participated in various suffrage rallies between 1906 and 1913. Ayrton was also a founding member of the International Federation of University Women (founded in 1919) and the National Union of Scientific Workers (founded in 1920); she also served as vice-president of the British Federation of University Women and vice-president of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (Tattersall and McMurran, 1995, p 107). In her role as a public and respected figure, Ayrton’s support for social justice was invaluable to this cause. Although it took valuable time away from her scientific research, Ayrton devoted increasing time to women’s and social causes particularly in her later years.

Gender is an illuminating lens through which to view Ayrton’s work and recognition. Ayrton was most probably the first female professional electrical engineer and was elected the first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) in recognition of her research and work in electrical engineering, particularly electric arcs. Ayrton was granted opportunities and advancement few women in her fields of science and electrical engineering would have for another fifty years. However, it was not all success and recognition – the IEE was one of very few professional technical institutions to recognise her work and worth, while in 1902 her nomination as FRS was declined due to her gender. She was, however, the first woman to read her own paper before the society in 1904.

Although she was not directly involved in its establishment, Ayrton was an early member of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) established in 1919, and she was a keen supporter of increased opportunities for women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Ayrton’s wartime work as well as her professional status in electrical engineering was an inspiration for the members of WES, an institution that still exists and continues to support women in engineering careers.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181002/006