8th March 2017: International Women's Day

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There is an early instance of women at the Society in 1797, but there is no further record until nearly 100 years later. In April 1900 one woman began to knock at the Society’s door, and the knocking continued until the door was opened; it was Mrs Marian Sarah Ogilvie Farquharson FLS FRMS (née Ridley in Northamptonshire, 1846). She was particularly interested in higher cryptogams, authoring A Pocket Guide to British Ferns in 1881. Two years later she married Robert F Ogilvie Farquharson (1823-90), a diatomist of Haughton, Aberdeenshire. She was a Fellow of the Royal Microscopical Society, which did not allow its women Fellows to attend meetings at that time.

Marian Farquharson
Marian Sarah Ogilvie Farquharson

On 18 April 1900, Mrs Farquharson submitted a petition to the President and Council of the Linnean Society, in which she craved that “duly qualified women should be eligible for ordinary Fellowship and, if elected, there should be no restriction forbidding their attendance at meetings”. Mrs Farquharson submitted her petition again on 7 June, this time through a supporter, Sir John Lubbock, Lord Avebury—former President from 1881 to 1886. The Council resolved that it was unable to accede to the proposal, as it was doubtful whether the Society’s Charter could be held to apply women. In April 1901, Mrs Farquharson returned to the attack, this time submitting her case through F DuCane Godman, then a member of Council, and G B Howes, then Zoological Secretary. By the end of 1903, the petition for a Supplementary Charter that included the admission of women was prepared and the Charter granted on 8 April 1904. The revision of the Bye-Laws was next undertaken and passed on 3 November 1904. At last, after several years of hammering, the door was open.

On 17 November 1904, the names of 16 women were presented to the meeting for election. They included the Duchess of Bedford, Mrs Catherine Crisp, the wife of the Treasurer; Mrs Mary Anne Stebbing, the wife of the Zoological Secretary; Mrs Constance Percy Sladen, the widow of a former Zoological Secretary; Dr Margaret Benson; Dr M Ogilvie Gordon; Miss G Lister; and Mrs Farquharson. 


At the ballot on 15 December, 15 out of the 16 were elected. Mrs Farquharson had been blackballed. She reappeared as a candidate in March 1908 and was finally elected. Her poor health prevented her from being formally admitted, dying in Nice in 1912.

To this day, only 22% of our Fellows are female. There is still a lot of work to do, but we should not forget Mrs Farquharson for her campaign of women’s rights to full fellowship of learned societies. 

Extracted from GAGE, A., T., and STEARN, W., T. (1988). A bicentenary history of the Linnean Society of London. Academic Press for the Linnean Society, London.

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