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The Scientist Suffragettes

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On 18 November 1910 over 300 suffragettes marched to Parliament Square led by Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the founders of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). This protest march was in response to Prime Minister Asquith not allowing the Conciliation Bill to pass which would have given approximately 1 million women the right to vote. This resulted in violent clashes with the police and coined the name given to the event, ‘Black Friday’.

This blog was written by Katherine Emery, Assistant Archives Officer.

According to the account of the Parliament police report, 177 arrests were made. Initially none of the ‘disorderly’ women were permitted inside Parliament. It was then decided a deputation of two or three women would be allowed inside to speak with the Prime Minister. However, once taken to Asquith’s office, he then refused to meet with them, and they were escorted back out of the building. These women were Mrs Emmeline Pankhurst, Mrs Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Mrs Hertha Ayrton. As well suffragettes, both Anderson and Ayrton were pioneers for women in the scientific world; Anderson was one of the first female doctors in Britain and Ayrton was a published electrical engineer and inventor.

First page of a handwritten report
Black Friday Police Report, 18 Nov 1910, Parliamentary Archives, HC/SA/SJ/10/12/31

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917)

Elizabeth Garrett was initially inspired by Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in the United States, to pursue a career in medicine. Garrett first applied to several universities for her medical studies but was denied. She was allowed to study through the Society of Apothecaries in 1862, exploiting a loophole in their charter which they soon changed after this. She completed her studies privately and took exams through the Society, obtaining her doctor’s license in 1865. She then learnt French to attend the University of Paris and in 1870 achieved a full medical degree. She got married to James George Skelton Anderson in 1871 but kept working and became a member of the British Medical Association in 1873. Finally in 1876, the Medical Act was passed that allowed medical authorities to license all qualified applications regardless of their gender.

Modern Act of Parliament bound with a red ribbon.
Medical Act 1876                Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1876/39&40V1n239

Anderson founded the St Mary Dispensary for Women and Children in 1866, which was later renamed the New Hospital for Women and Children in 1872. This was a hospital for women with a completely female staff. In 1874 the hospital moved to a larger site and in 1890 it had a purpose-built building for the hospital. The hospital was then re-named after Elizabeth Garrett Anderson in 1918 after she died. She also co-founded the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874, which offered teaching and training for women to become doctors, Anderson was part of the teaching staff and from 1883 to 1902 was also the dean of the school. As part of her role as dean, she also gave evidence to a House of Lords Select Committee on Metropolitan Hospitals in 1890.

“there are about 115 or 120 qualified women on the medical register, and they are nearly all in practice.”

“It is desirable to have a hospital officered by women. It is extremely welcome to the poor women themselves, the patients; they like it very much; and it is of course extremely good for the medical women of London that they should have a place where they can have hospital practice.”
Second Report from the Select Committee of the House of Lords on Metropolitan Hospitals, 1890, Paper no. HL 252.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was involved in the suffrage movement from a young age. Her younger sister Millicent would become Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a significant suffragist (a campaigner using non-militant methods) and wife to blind MP Henry Fawcett. She was also introduced to suffragist Emily Davies when she was 18. Anderson’s daughter, Louisa Garrett Anderson, would also become an active suffragette. A conversation between Emily Davis and Elizabeth is recorded in Anderson’s biography written by her daughter, discussing strong goals for the future. Emily stated:

“It is quite clear what has to be done. I must devote myself to securing higher education, while you open the medical profession to women. After these things are done, we must see about getting the vote.”

Alongside Emily Davies, Elizabeth Garrett as a newly licensed doctor was directly involved with the first mass suffrage petition in 1866. The petition collected 1,499 signatures in total and was presented to parliament by MP John Stuart Mill. She was also a member of the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage in 1899. Later in 1902 she retired to Aldeburgh, Suffolk and in 1908 was elected mayor of the town, the first female mayor in Britain. In the same year she also joined the WSPU and became more active within the suffrage movement, by the time of Black Friday, Anderson was aged 74 and still involved. After 1912, she withdrew from the WSPU and their more militant activity and became a non-militant suffragist, like her sister Millicent Fawcett.

Black and white photograph of two women wearing heavy winter coats. A young man is standing next to them and several police officers can be seen standing behind them.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson; Emmeline Pankhurst
by Unknown photographer
bromide press print, 18 November 1910
NPG x32106
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs National Portrait Gallery


Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923)

Ayrton was originally Phoebe Sarah Marks but went by the nickname Hertha. She was encouraged to apply to Cambridge by friends and others including the author George Elliot, studying mathematics at Girton College, Cambridge 1877-1881. Much of her work focused on electrical engineering, specifically experiments on electric arc lighting. This was a process that produced light by the sparking of a high electric current between two carbon electrodes. This method was widely used for streetlights as well as lighting large buildings before it was eventually replaced by the filament light bulb.

Ayrton went on to marry fellow electrical engineer William Edward Ayrton in 1885 and they would occasionally work together on research projects. She published a series of articles on the properties of the electric arc in The Electrician journal in 1895 and became the first woman to present her own paper to the Institute for Electrical Engineers in 1899 as well as the first woman member of the IEE in the same year. She then published her work ‘The Electric Arc’ in 1902. Ayrton then went on to be the first woman to read her own paper to the Royal Society in 1904 and the first woman awarded the Royal Society Hughes Medal. The medal had only been established in 1902 for discoveries particularly focused on electricity, magnetism, and their applications. Only three women have been awarded this medal in total for the years 1906, 2008 and 2020. Unfortunately, Hertha Ayrton was not allowed membership to the Royal Society because she was a married woman.

In addition to engineering, Ayrton was also an avid inventor with 26 patents under her belt. This included some using her work on electric arc lighting for improvements to anti-aircraft search lights for the British admiralty. But this was not her only invention for the war effort, she also designed the Ayrton anti-gas fan, which was used in the frontline trenches to dispel poisonous gas and was mentioned by Winston Churchill in 1920:

“In May, 1915, Mrs. Ayrton offered to the War Office a fan which she had specially designed for the purpose of repelling gas attacks. […] the invention might be useful at the front for a secondary and less important purpose not originally intended of clearing dugouts and trenches after a gas-cloud had passed, and it was accordingly adopted in February of 1916. The first issues to the service were made on 6th April, 1916. The total number supplied was 104,000.”
Winston Churchill, Poisonous Gas (Dispersing Fan), 18 May 1920, House of Commons Hansard

Alongside her scientific work, Ayrton was also very involved with the suffragette movement, joining the WSPU in 1907 and taking part in many of the rallies and marches between 1910 to 1913, including the Black Friday March. She was also in the Women’s Coronation Procession, on 17 June 1911, organised by the WSPU a week before George V’s coronation. Ayrton was part of the science section of the march with 800 other women graduates in academic dress, which Cambridge women couldn’t officially wear until 1948. She also took part in the 1911 census boycott as well as nursing Emmeline Pankhurst and others in her home whilst recovering from hunger strike before being re-arrested, as per the 1913 ‘Cat and Mouse Act’.

Modern act bound with a red ribbon
Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act, known as the Cat and Mouse Act, 1913, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1913/3&4G5c4

Hertha’s daughter Barbara Ayrton Gould was also a suffragette activist alongside her mother, joining the WSPU in her early 20s in 1906 and becoming a full-time organiser in 1909. She also made her mother ‘very proud’ by being arrested in 1912 as part of the WSPU window-breaking campaign. Later in life, after several unsuccessful attempts, Barbara became Labour MP for Hendon North from 1945-1950.

black and white head shot of a middle aged woman with dark hair.
Mrs Barbara Ayrton Gould, 1945, Parliamentary Archives, PHO/9/1/30/3

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Hertha Ayrton were both important women actively involved within the suffrage movement and both with daughters continuing in their mother’s activist footsteps. Working alongside well-known suffragettes and suffragists, including Emily Davies, Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst. In addition to fighting for the vote, they were also fighting for women’s education and pioneers for women in their respective scientific fields of medicine and engineering. Ayrton and Anderson began to create a path and make space for women in the male-dominated scientific world.


Museum of London – Black Friday

LSE History Blog – 1866 women’s suffrage petition

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson – Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Hertha Ayrton – Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Science Museum Journal, Elizabeth Bruton, Autumn 2018 Issue 10, The life and material culture of Hertha Marks Ayrton (1854–1923): suffragette, physicist, mathematician and inventor

Royal Society Blog – Almost a Fellow

The Institution of Engineering and Technology – Archives Biographies: Hertha Ayrton

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