In May 1919, a curiously mundane amendment was made to the byelaws of the Geological Society of London. You wouldn’t necessarily guess from the text alone, but it represented the culmination of decades of campaigning by both male and female geologists…
‘Article XXIII. Interpretation – In the interpretation of these Bye-Laws words in the masculine gender only, shall include the feminine gender also.’
Today marks 100 years since the first eight women were elected as Fellows of the Society – on 21 May 1919. They were:
- Margaret Crosfield (1859-1952)
- Gertrude Elles (1872-1960)
- Maria Matilda Gordon (1864-1939)
- Mary Sophia Jonston (1875-1955)
- Mary Jane Donald (1855-1935)
- Rachel MacRobert (1884-1954)
- Mildred Blanche Robinson (1865-1935)
- Ethel Gertrude Skeats (1865-1939)
The campaign to admit women as Fellows began in earnest in the late nineteenth century – but it took until 1919 for the question to finally be settled. Why did it take so long, and what progress took place in the meantime? Here’s a just a few milestones along the way:
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.
Get in touch!
If you’re a female Fellow we’d love to hear from you! Tweet us via #GSLWomen with some information about what you’re up to, or write to us on firstname.lastname@example.org – especially if you’re interested in taking part of our project to interview both new and longstanding female Fellows, or would like to write us a blog about your work.
You can find out more about how we’re marking the 100th anniversary of female Fellowship on our website.