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Mary Beard Q&A: “Rome would have been ghastly for a woman without a fortune”

The classicist professor at the University of Cambridge talks Brexit, her Mastermind specialist subject and the best advice she’s ever received.

What’s your earliest memory?

Collecting eggs from some rather frisky hens near my home in Shropshire. It gave me a lifelong fear of flapping wings.

Who was your childhood hero? And who is your adult hero?

I had a terrible fondness for the Ladybird book about Florence Nightingale when I was a child. I haven’t really had an adult hero. The more you know, the more (delightfully) flawed any candidate seems.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Dave Goulson’s A Sting in the Tale (which is, as the title puns, about bees). It managed to communicate the potential excitement of that kind of science – something I had never got before.

What political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

In general I think political figures are best not looked up to! But I would very happily spend a long evening with Hillary Clinton.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The reign of the Emperor Nero, 54-68 CE. But I know I would be awful at it.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Most of history is so unattractive as a substitute for the 21st century, and ancient Rome would be ghastly, especially for an ordinary woman without a fortune. Can I opt for the future?

What TV show could you not live without?

I think I could live without TV much more easily than I could live without radio. Life would be pretty unimaginable without the Today programme.

Who would paint your portrait?

I would like to risk the brilliant eye of Jenny Saville (though probably with clothes on).

What’s your theme tune?

I have hundreds depending on the time of day and the mood. But I don’t think I will ever forget “The Man who Waters the Workers’ Beer”.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Have you followed it?

Always say “thank you”, and I certainly try to follow it. Maybe I am just getting old, but I find it really irritating when I spend half an hour answering some random classical query sent by email, and the enquirer doesn’t even bother to acknowledge.

What’s currently bugging you?

Brexit. Say no more.

What single thing would make your life better?

If I can’t have another couple of hours in each day, maybe I could have someone to mark exams for me. I love teaching, but examining is not a pleasant experience.

When were you happiest?

I hope I’m always happiest in the here and now. At the moment it is true that I can’t run around with the same energy that I used to, but I am doing fun things (like television) that I would never have dreamt of, even in my forties.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I did have a fantasy of becoming a judge (of the radical reforming sort), but I’m not sure I’d have been much good at the law.

Are we all doomed?

Of course we are. It’s called the “human condition”.

Mary Beard’s “Women & Power: A Manifesto” is published by Profile Books

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old

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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist