Today, as part of International Women’s Day, we’re taking part in ‘Inspirational Women of the Learned Societies’. The tour takes visitors around the Burlington House courtyard, taking in some of the stories of the women who have worked in the sciences and arts since the foundation of the Learned Societies, and long before.
At each Society, a similar theme emerges – women knocking on the doors for decades before they were finally given access. The Geological Society first admitted female members in May 1919, following a curiously mundane amendment to the byelaws:
‘Article XXIII. Interpretation – In the interpretation of these Bye-Laws words in the masculine gender only, shall include the feminine gender also.’
It was a major victory in a long campaign by female geologists to be recognised by their peers.
The first ‘lady geologist’
One of the first known female geologists is Etheldred Bennett (1775-1845), who is the subject of a new archive exhibition at the Society. On 19 February 1813, Bennett made the first of many donations to the Geological Society’s museum, of ‘Siliceous petrifactions from Tisbury, Wiltshire.’
With her unusual first name, and significant scientific achievements, Benett was often mistaken for a man – most notably by Tsar Nicholas I, who granted her a Doctorate of Civil Law from the University of St Petersberg at a time when women were not admitted into higher education institutions.
Benett’s independent wealth meant she was in a position to pursue her interest in fossils and build up a collection of high quality specimens, carrying out important research into molluscs and sponges, and producing the first measured sections of the Upper Chicksgrove quarry near Tisbury – which was published, without her permission, by James Sowerby.
The first paper
‘An Account of some Effects of the late Earthquakes in Chili’ was read before the Society on 5 March 1824. The first paper by a woman to be published in one of the Society’s journals, it was written by Maria Graham (1785-1842), a prolific travel writer and illustrator.
Her observations included the fact that large areas of land have risen out of the sea – an observation included in Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology in 1830 as evidence for the mountain building power of earthquakes and volcanoes. When the Society’s President, George Bellas Greenough, questioned that theory, he did so by publically ridiculing Graham, rather than Lyell directly.
When both her husband and her brother responded by threatening to duel Greenough, Graham – now Lady Callcott via her marriage – responded, ‘Be quiet, both of you, I am quite capable of fighting my own battles, and intend to do it.’
She went on to write a scathing reply to Greenough’s objections.
The first awards
It took until 1893 for a woman to be given one of the Geological Society’s awards – the Lyell Fund, awarded to Catherine Raisin (1855-1945), ‘in recognition of her researches in petrology and other branches of Geological Science.’
Raisin specialised in petrology and mineralogy, and was the first woman to be the academic head of a geology department in Britain, at Bedford College, London.
As a woman, she was not permitted to attend Society meetings, and so was not able to collect her award in person.
In 1900, the Lyell Fund was awarded to Gertrude Elles (1872-1960), ‘as an acknowledgement of the value of her contribution to the study of the Graptolites and the rocks in which they occur, and to encourage her in further research.’
Elles, too, was banned from receiving her award in person, despite several attempts by Fellows to overturn the rule. On 16 February, her awarded was collected on her behalf by her Cambridge professor Thomas McKenny Hughes, whose acceptance speech commented,
‘I am glad to have been asked to receive the Award from the Lyell Fund for transmission to Miss Elles, who is debarred by circumstances over which she has no control from standing here to receive for herself this mark of recognition which the Council of the Society have bestowed upon her.’
The first attendees
In 1901, after various motions and counter motions, the issue of women’s attendance at meetings was settled by Sir Archibald Geikie – former President of the Society and by then the country’s most well known geologist – who simply brought two women with him to the OGM.
On 9 November 1904, Maud Healey became the first woman to be present at the reading of her own paper, ‘Notes on Upper Jurassic Ammonites with special reference to specimens in the University Museum Oxford II.’
The first members
Towards the end of 1901, a Special Committee was appointed to investigate the question of allowing female members, and decided to seek legal opinion.
In May 1902, Richard Burdon Haldane, KC, gave his opinion that, based on current law and the Society’s Charter, only single women would be eligible to join the Society. Married women no longer held the ‘status of separate persons in law.’
On 7 April 1908, a motion was passed, ‘That it is desirable that women should be admitted as Fellows of the Society, assuming that this can be done under the Present Charter.’
A poll was taken of all UK Fellows. Of the 477 answers received, 342 were in favour, with 248 of those agreeing women should be admitted as full Fellows rather than Associates. A motion was taken to a Special General Meeting, and the proposal was rejected by 50 votes to 40.
Very little further progress was made until after the First World War, when so many women worked in fields traditionally reserved for men. Eventually, the 1918 Representation of the People act led to an acceleration of the process, and in December 1918 the Council appointed a committee to consider ‘The most convenient and expeditious way of effecting the admission of women into the Society.’
The simple amendment was made to the byelaws, and on 21 May 1919, eight women were elected as Fellows of the Geological Society – including Gertrude Elles.
There was still a long way to go. It would be several decades before the Society’s first female President – Janet Vida Watson (1923-1985) in 1982.
And in science, as in society, there is still progress to be made – in all areas of diversity. But without the tenacity and strength of the earliest female geologists, we could not have come so far.
- Many thanks to the Geological Society’s archivist Caroline Lam, for providing historical details.
- Visit TrowelBlazers for more stories of pioneering female geologists
- The Etheldred Benett exhibition will be in the Society’s Lower Library until 31 May, and is available for anyone to view between 9.30am and 5pm.