Looking for Fictional Women Engineers, Part 1 – Print
Having spent many years researching the real, but largely forgotten, history of women’s work in engineering, it occurred to me how rarely we see depictions of either male or female characters in films, TV or books who are engineers. If part of my original purpose in bringing to light the stories of real women engineers was to encourage a wider public to recognise the value of engineering careers for girls in particular, surely fictional women also have a role to play, both literally and metaphorically?
My first inspiration for this new direction for my research was the recollection from childhood comics of Professor Jocelyn Peabody, the scientific advisor foisted on a reluctant Dan Dare in the eponymous cartoon adventure in Eagle comic. We will come back to her, even though she was not an engineer.
Indeed I soon realised that women engineers were going to be even thinner on the fictional ground than they were in real life, and I expanded my criteria to allow some fun women scientists under the barrier too. Wikipedia seems to agree, as there is currently only a joint page for fictional scientists and engineers, with the latter much in the minority. So, to start this work-in-progress blog with the women I found in books, I thought there might be stories about women in munitions work in the 2 world wars but was soon put in touch with experts in girls’ novels of the mid-20th century including the short-lived career novel genre. Other ideas emerged from friends and friends of friends online, including a play, several older novels, a girls’ story I loved when I was a child and some modern sagas that promised much and delivered little.
Three very different ‘professions’
The oldest example of a woman engineer in print was actually the first to be suggested to me: Miss Vivie Warren, the key character in Bernard Shaw’s controversial play “Mrs Warren’s Profession” (1893). Vivie has been raised with the best education that Mrs Warren’s profession can buy, but she has had no idea of what her mother did to earn that money. Vivie has graduated in maths at Cambridge equivalent to that of the Third Wrangler (The male maths student with the 3rd highest finals marks, at a time when women were not granted actual degrees). In 1893 her achievement would have placed her on a level with the real 3rd Wrangler, Charles Sanger
She works freelancing doing maths calculations for engineers, although aspires to the law. So, really we would have to say that she works in engineering rather than as an actual engineer herself, but Vivie is a practical person, whose ‘chatelaine’ on her belt includes a penknife and fountain pen. She rides a bicycle, another mark of the practical modern woman of the period.
However the public and the government censor, the Lord Chancellor, were as scandalised as Vivie Warren by the nature of her mother’s profession and the play was banned. The first performance was given privately in 1902 (image above from the V&A is of Madge McIntosh playing Vivie in that performance).
The next engineer, chronologically by publication, is Lady Amanda Fitton, in the Albert Campion detective series by Margery Allingham. She first appears in Sweet Danger (1933) at the age of 18, then of course considered still a child. Although she reappears later in the series and eventually marries Campion, this first appearance contains the most engineering of her contributions to the various tortuous plots. She is a competent practical mechanical and electrical/radio engineer, running the local flour mill and building radio equipment which is instrumental in catching the baddies. In later novels, such as The Fashion in Shrouds (1938) which anticipates WW2, she is working in the design office of an aeroplane factory, but this seems to have no particular contribution to the plot.
In 1936 Noel Streatfield published her enormously popular girls’ novel, Ballet Shoes, about three girls who are adopted by an absent man and raised by a set of unlikely people. They all take acting and ballet lessons, from which the oldest (Pauline) becomes an actress, the youngest (Posy) a ballet dancer but the middle girl (Petrova) hates both acting and dancing and is only interested in cars and planes. Although a child, she finds sympathetic men who will help her learn about cars and engines and the end of the book sees the absent Great Uncle return with lots of money and he will help her achieve her dream of working with engines and learning to fly.
Ballet Shoes continues to be a very popular novel and has spawned a number of‘fan fiction’ tales about Petrova, many of which see her mature into a pilot flying for the Air Transport Auxiliary in WW2.
I felt I had to at least take a look at these, because of their titles. The Shipyard Girls (Nacy Revell) series of 7 stories is set in Sunderland in WW2 and follows a group of women, some of whom are welders in the shipyard. However, the 7 novels are formulaic family/romance sagas with almost no mention of the girls’ work, let alone evidence of any engineering. One peripheral character, Hannah, a jewish refugee, has made the leap from welding to the drawing office but that is as far as it goes engineering-wise.
Similarly, The Brooklands Girls, the middle of the Maitland Trilogy (Margaret Dickinson), has if anything even less engineering than The Shipyard Girls books do. There would have been the potential for Philippa Maitland to have done some basic repairs as part of her interest in racing cars at the eponymous race track. But no, nothing at all and actually hardly any racing either.
Munitions Women stories
I found just 3 contemporaneous books relating to women working in munitions in the two world wars. These books are extremely rare and difficult to find outside of the British Library.
From WW1 I found Munition Mary (Brenda Girvin) and A Girl Munition Worker (Bessie Marchant). Girvin’s book is intriguing in that she dedicates it to “Margaret Kemp-Welch. My munition friend”, implying that even if Girvin herself had perhaps not experienced munitions work, she had gleaned some reality from talking with a friend who had. A very telling piece of reality in the story is when it is discovered that the girls’ efforts to produce shells accurately are being deliberately sabotaged by the factory foreman who doesn’t approve of women workers. Our heroine reveals this plot and the women’s reputation for good work is restored.
The other WW1 book, A Girl Munition Worker, is broadly similar to the modern sagas described above, in that there is precious little engineering taking place in what is really a wartime adventure thriller for older girls. Spies, explosions, secrets revealed, a bit of romance etc.
The WW2 novel, Feud in the Factory (Lorna Lewis), an illustration from which is at the head of this blog, has rather more engineering work in it, which is not surprising as this and another book (about a mobile canteen) are both based on the author’s own war work experiences. Highly fictionalised of course and wrapped in the usual mysteries and romances, this book nevertheless has more engineering in it than the two from WW1 and the end of the book sees our heroine, Rosie Henderson, getting her reward for good work by visiting the big aircraft factory to which her factory’s components are going. The implication could be seen as that she may have aspirations to do more than run a lathe all day.
Career Novels of the Mid-20th Century
Finally, for this blog, I will mention the career novel genre which was popular from the 1940s to 1960s and indeed I can remember enjoying this sort of book when I was at primary school. Kay Clifford is the acknowledged expert on this short-lived genre and was kind enough to let me see a private copy of her book which I believe is soon to be published in an enhanced edition. Several of the books mentioned in this blog I was only able to track down because they were mentioned in her book.
Only 3 books really warranted seeking out: Crazy Mary, Anne in Electronics and Eve at the Driving Wheel. Crazy Mary is an American tale of a girl following her boyfriend from High School to College, where she soon discovers how useless and misogynist he is, and the end of the book sees Mary wisely realising her talent for maths, science and practical matters should take her towards a course change to engineering.
Eve at the Driving Wheel (Moie Charles) is a British career novel about a girl who is desperate to earn a living driving. She only does the most minimal of mechanical work on any cars during the course of the book: at the start when she finds a local chauffeur to teach her some basics. She does various paid and (mostly) unpaid stints of driving but ends up marrying a wounded serviceman with whom she sets up a motel and garage, which ultimately employs a man to do the mechanical repair work.
In general I thought this book, whilst a jolly enough tale of an adventurous girl, was very weak if we assume it was meant as a career guide, since Eve gets paid and unpaid work in such a happenstance way. She makes no effort to find formal training in say car mechanics, which would have been possible, even for a girl, at a Tech college at that time. Nor does the book even suggest other driving careers, such as the civil service limousine chauffeuses who drove (still drive???) government ministers around. These women wore a green chauffeur’ type uniform, but were not military. They used to be a common sight in London. Other options which she could have considered even if she rejected them, would have been the military, where women drivers continued to be a trade even after the war.
As a piece of writing, I felt it was very patchy. The sections which rang the most true, by far, were where we got descriptions of post-war life and locations, and the Mille Miglia race, with the one female racer, perhaps based on Maria Avanzo. The other stuff, especially her romantic relationships, seemed like an afterthought, and was never really believable. No ‘chemistry’, as we would say if it was in a film. It is almost as though the book was written by two people and only vaguely knitted together.
On the other hand, Anne in Electronics, 1960 from the same publisher, was an astonishingly well put-together description of an actual scheme running at that time in various large engineering companies, for “Special apprenticeships” to train bright school leavers not for the shopfloor but for technician roles in the Research and Development Departments.
Whilst the only illustration, of presumably a real woman working in electronics, is not exactly thrilling, the story works very well, with ups and downs of factory friendships and romances, apprentice social clubs etc, interspersed with accurate descriptions of the practical work and college training of such a scheme.
But the really amazing discovery was to find that a real woman engineer had written about almost exactly this type of training scheme in some detail in The Woman Engineer in 1958. Evelyn Murray (later Lenthall) had not only had this training (at Marconis) but had gone on to have a full career in engineering, largely in the USA, where she helped set up the Society of Women Engineers. Whilst we don’t know how Anne’s career pans out, at the end of the book she is a senior engineer in the R&D department and married to a supportive engineer husband who had also been an apprentice in the same factory. This outcome seems pretty much unique in that she continues with her career after marriage at a time when this was very rare in any field in real life.
Many thanks are due….
I am not personally particularly interested in either literature or in the academic study of literature. Indeed, as a stroppy teenager in the 1960s, I refused to take English Literature at my rather academic girls’ school. My fiction-reading habits tend to the trashy detective novel end of the library shelf. Hence I had to reach out to family members, friend, networks and a kind of reverse of the popular“6 degrees of Kevin Bacon” extended linkage through colleagues of colleagues. I am, as usual, most grateful for the generosity of strangers in guiding me to potential sources for looking for fictional women in engineering, especially Kay Clifford.
I will continue this topic in later blogs on Soviet Russian and German books, sci-fi, steampunk, plus examples of fictional women from comics and films.
I recently recorded a Zoom presentation on this topic, now available on Youtube, here.