Look at Life: Women's Work

25th January 2019

On the Shoulders of Giants

By Deborah Mulhearn

There are plenty of strong men in my family. But when my 89-year-old aunt died last autumn, six of her nieces carried her coffin. It seemed appropriate that she should have women pallbearers.

She was a primary school teacher in an era when women in the public sector were expected to stay single, despite being paid less than male colleagues. Although the marriage bar was lifted in the 1940s, many men (and some women) still frowned upon married women ‘taking’ men’s jobs. The law may have changed but attitudes took a lot longer. She loved her job, so she didn’t marry.

The quaint phrase ‘maiden aunt’ conjures an image of someone at best eccentric and at worst flaky and unworldly. Of course our aunt was none of those things. When she retired she looked after our grandparents until they died, and then cared for her unmarried sister, another teacher, until she too died.

I’m not sure I’d call her ‘strong’, though; it’s an adjective I find irksome applied to women. It’s often used to criticise and censure women who are unconventional or ‘feisty’. It also implies other women, whatever their status, must be weaker, which is of course rubbish.

Each generation builds on the gains (and failings) of the previous one, and brings new assumptions and attitudes. My generation benefitted from the expansion of education and the Women’s Liberation movement; young women today will be buoyed by the unstoppable currents of #MeToo and Time’s Up. It must seem preposterous and risible to today’s young women, after all, that their forebears were once barred from entering certain professions, from being properly educated or indeed from voting.

CERN scientist Alessandro Strumia was sacked for claiming women are no good at physics. But women have always worked in science. It’s just that their achievements have almost always been overlooked, and credit taken by fathers, brothers, husbands and male colleagues.

Caroline Herschel is one of the best known of many unsung women astronomers. Sophia Brunel, sister of the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, loved engineering too, but was relegated to writing their famous father’s biography. The Scottish Sang sisters contributed to their father’s work on logarithms, but were uncredited. Hedy Lamarr, famous as a Hollywood beauty, invented spread spectrum technology.

Who has heard of Anna Atkins, a chemist who in 1843 published the first ever book with photography? And Sarah Acland, who was experimenting with colour photography six or seven years before the Lumière Brothers invented their autochrome technique in 1907?

People like Strumia don’t understand that one of the main barriers to girls studying science is lack of confidence in their own abilities. This is too often interpreted as ‘not being clever enough’, not only by peers, parents and teachers but also by themselves. You are choosing to be in a minority, after all – a hard choice to make for a teenager.

Change may be slow, but it is coming. 2018 saw not one but two female Nobel Prize winners, Donna Strickland (Physics) and Frances Arnold, (Chemistry) who pleaded ‘don’t leave this wonderful, fun work for the men.’ Women rightly see opportunities when in the past they may have seen obstacles. The daughters of my friends, siblings and cousins have good jobs in traditionally male-dominated sectors. One is a footballer; one a urologist; others work in biosciences and astrophysics. For their daughters it will hopefully be even more natural and normal to choose science or ‘male’ professions.

My aunt was not a feminist. She deferred to men and respected the societal expectations and norms of her time. She blazed a trail in a quieter way. When we converged on her Liverpool home for her funeral, we were slightly anxious about lifting the coffin onto our shoulders. She was tiny, but surely the coffin would be heavy?

In the end there was no difficulty, and we all agreed it was an empowering experience. My aunt happened to die the weekend the Giants street theatre spectacular was visiting the city, and my cousin, in his eulogy, called her a tiny giant. We may have carried her on our shoulders, but we all knew we were standing on hers.

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