Born in 1885, Rachel Mary Parsons came from a wealthy family full of brilliant minds—her father invented the steam turbine, her grandfather built giant telescope, and even her grandmother was a known as a pioneering photographer. As for herself, Rachel made significant contributions to the field of engineering and fought tirelessly for women’s rights.
Rachel Mary Parsons, Heiress and Militant
Parsons’s journey into the world of engineering began at a young age. Encouraged by her parents, particularly her mother Katharine, she received an excellent scientific education at Roedean School in Sussex, where she excelled in her studies. In 1910, she became one of the first three women to embark on the Mechanical Sciences Tripos at Cambridge University, breaking barriers and defying societal expectations of women’s roles.
Like many other women of her era, Rachel Mary Parsons was not permitted to complete the course she was enrolled in at Cambridge; in fact, women were not permitted to earn degrees or join the university as full members until 1948. She persisted in pursuing her love of engineering in spite of this.
Rachel Mary Parsons, Leader of Women
During World War I, Parsons became the director of C. A. Parsons & Co., her father’s firm in Newcastle upon Tyne, where she oversaw the training of women workers in the manufacture of steam turbines and other essential war-related items. She guided hundreds of women into roles traditionally held by men and also worked in the training department of the Ministry of Munitions, providing instruction in factories across the country.
Witnessing firsthand the progress made by women who were employed in engineering works, she recognized the potential of women in the field and became a founding member of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) in 1919, alongside her mother—Katharine Parsons—and other influential women.
And so, Rachel Mary Parsons served as the first president of WES from 1919 to 1921, spearheading the organization’s efforts to promote women’s employment rights, equal pay, and training opportunities in engineering. She campaigned against the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Bill, which threatened to restrict women’s employment in the industry. Although they ultimately lost this battle, their collective efforts laid the groundwork for future progress.
WES collaborated with other organizations such as the Electrical Association for Women, founded by Caroline Haslett in 1924, to advocate for gender equality in engineering and pave the way for the equality legislation of the 1970s.
Atalanta Ltd, A Engineering Company Founded by Women
In 1920, Rachel Parsons was one of the eight women who founded the engineering company Atalanta Ltd. She was one of the principal shareholders, working alongside her mother who assumed the position of chairman. Atalanta Ltd was a groundbreaking venture as it exclusively employed women, with Annette Ashberry serving as the director.
The company specialized in the production of surface plates and machine models, contributing to the advancement of engineering practices. Initially, Atalanta Ltd was based in Loughborough, where the employees had the opportunity to receive further education at the prestigious Loughborough College of Technology. This emphasis on continuous learning ensured that the women working at Atalanta had access to the latest knowledge and skills in their field.
Despite its early success and pioneering approach to women’s employment, Atalanta Ltd faced challenges and, ultimately, made the decision to voluntarily wind up its operations in 1928.
Beyond Engineering, the Fight Continued
Parsons’s advocacy extended beyond the engineering sphere. She believed that women needed to organize and unite to achieve victory in the industrial world. She brought her crusade into the political arena, securing a position on the London County Council, where she actively participated in committees related to electricity and highways.
In 1923, she even stood as a candidate for the Conservative Party in the general election, challenging the male-dominated political landscape.
Despite her work and accomplishments, Parsons faced significant challenges and setbacks throughout her life. Disillusioned by the lack of opportunities in the engineering industry and politics, she eventually left those spheres behind. After the death of her parents and the loss of her brother during the war, she inherited her family’s substantial fortune and moved to Newmarket in Suffolk where she became a racehorse owner and breeder. However, even in the racing world, she encountered hostility and adversity as a woman.
Tragically, Parsons’s life came to a violent end in 1956 when she was attacked by a former employee at her racing stable. The sensationalized media coverage focused more on the circumstances of her death than on her achievements as an engineer, activist, and pioneer for women’s rights.
Today, however, we can remember Rachel Parsons as a trailblazer and the Women’s Engineering Society, which she co-founded and led, has endured for over a century, championing the cause of gender equality in the engineering industry.