Engineer of the Week No. 61: Ray Strachey (nee Rachel Pearsall Conn Costelloe) (4th June 1887 - 16th July 1940)
On the 79th anniversary of her death, we remember Ray Strachey, who started out to be an engineer but spent most of her life campaigning for women’s rights.
Ray Strachey, born Rachel Pearsall Conn Costelloe (4 June 1887 London – 16 July 1940) is best known as a politician and writer. However she had a strong interest in engineering and was planning to study it before she was diverted by her marriage to Oliver Strachey in 1911.
Ray studied mathematics at Newnham College, Cambridge. During her studies she became involved with the campaign for women’s suffrage through her friendship with Philippa Strachey. Ray joined what became known as the Mud March in February 1907, and addressed meetings during summer 1907. She took part in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies caravan tour in July 1908.
[Text by guest EOTW author, Katherine Kirk]
Like several other female Mathematics graduates of the time, Strachey developed an interest in engineering. It is clear that she was strongly discouraged from pursuing an engineering career by her mother, Mary Berensen, in favour of “a life of Culture”.
Nevertheless Strachey took an electrical engineering class at Oxford University in 1910 and planned to study electrical engineering at “the Technical College” (City and Guilds of London Institute). She wrote to her aunt "I have decided to go to London next winter for my engineering". She also wrote that Hertha Ayrton had encouraged her and sent a letter of recommendation to the college on Strachey’s behalf.
She worked with Philippa Strachey at the London Society for Women’s Suffrage, later the Fawcett Society. During this time she was involved in setting up the Society of Women Welders and its school for Oxy-Acetylene Welding. Strachey described this in her book “Women’s Suffrage and Women’s Service” which was published in 1927. The book was reviewed in The Woman Engineer, which described her as “Mrs Strachey, who is no doubt well known to all our readers”, and mentioned an illustration of the Woman Welders’ School.
Strachey campaigned after the First World War on behalf of the Society of Women Welders when, along with other women in engineering jobs, they faced exclusion from their jobs under the Restoration of Pre-war Practices Act of 1919. The SWW were working on an amendment to the bill to exclude new trades and processes. However under the law which was passed it became illegal to employ women in engineering and allied trades, even in new industries and new techniques such as aircraft manufacture and welding.
Strachey’s most famous book was “The Cause”, a history of the women’s movement published in 1928 (also reviewed in The Woman Engineer). Strachey stood for parliament for the constituency of Brentford and Chiswick in the General Elections in 1918, 1922 and 1923 but was not elected. In 1931 she became parliamentary secretary to Nancy Astor. Ray Strachey is commemorated on the plinth of the 2018 statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square, London.