Date Published: 24-06-2014

The First World War was a major defining factor for the professional and social status of women engineers.

It was 1916, and at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, London, over 30,000 women were recruited to handle explosives, work on the cranes and assemble weapons. In Barrow, Vickers employed more than 7,000 female workers under well-paid female superintendents. In Tongland, a tiny village in the south-west of Scotland, at a factory dubbed The Feminist Munition Factory, women were making shells.

The world was at war, and the whole of British society was pulling together. Women were manning the Home Front, producing the munitions, driving the transport and helping construct the machinery that would lead to victory. French Field Marshal Joseph Joffre wrote, “If the women in the factories stopped work for twenty minutes, the Allies would lose the war.”

Yet just two years earlier, even a few hundred women having these roles would have been inconceivable. Before 1914, the main purpose of a woman in engineering was as a mere ornament. In early 20th Century Mazda advertisements, a brightly smiling woman holds up the lightbulb. That was thought to be the limits of her technical capabilities. It would take a cataclysm for women to enter technical fields in large numbers.