Maintaining Hope in the Face of Exclusion

Hertha Ayrton was the third child of eight born to a watchmaker and seamstress. Her father died when she was seven and Hertha had responsibility for helping raise her younger siblings. She went to live with cousins when she was nine. This was when she developed an interest in science and math.

She was accepted to Cambridge and had an outstanding academic career in both academics and extracurricular activities. But Cambridge would not award her a degree because women were only allowed to earn certificates. She was awarded a Bachelor’s degree by the University of London by passing an exam.

Hertha earned money by teaching and doing embroidery. She was also the care-giver for her invalid sister. Her first invention was a line divider which would divide a line into any number of equal segments. This was the first of 26 patents she received in her career.  And she had hope for more.

Hertha started taking classes in electricity taught by her future husband. She had a particular interest in electric arcs which were used in public lamps. She discovered the reason for the flickering and hissing of the arcs. Her discovery was presented as a paper to the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE). In 1899, she was to become the first female admitted to IEE (the next woman admitted was in 1958).

Her efforts to join the Royal Society (British equivalent of the Academy of Sciences) were not as successful, but she remained hopeful. When she was proposed to be a Fellow, she was turned down because married women were not eligible. As her reputation as an electrical engineer grew, the Royal Society became more accepting. She was allowed to present a paper at a meeting. She was also presented the Hughes Metal, an annual award for outstanding discovery in the physical sciences. She was the first woman to receive the award. The next woman was recognized 112 years later.

Hertha was a social activist especially voting rights for women. She was a close friend of Marie Curie and actually tutored her daughter, Irene, in math. Hertha and Irene were able to convince Marie Curie to sign a petition in favor of women’s voting rights, something that Marie Curie rarely did.

Later in life, Hertha invented a fan which could keep poisonous gases from killing British soldiers in trenches during World War II. It took a year for the British War office to accept her idea. Hertha then organized the production of more than 100,000 fans.  Her hope for lives saved was fulfilled.

Just imagine how the fight against exclusion was so prominent on Hertha’s life? How many people could have persisted fighting for their rights to be included in the practice of their profession? Just imagine how the practice of exclusion is holding back our society today? While our society has become more inclusive, it seems as if breaking down exclusion barriers is still a challenge.

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“Exclusion is never the way forward on our shared paths to freedom and justice.”
– Desmond Tutu

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