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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Calculating women

‘I shall set up chambers in the City, and work at actuarial calculations. Last May I spent
six weeks in London in Honoria Fraser’s chambers in Chancery Lane every day, working away at actuarial calculations for her. I like working and getting paid for it.’
The words belong to Vivie Warren, heroine of George Bernard Shaw’s play Mrs Warren’s Profession. The date was 1894, the same year that the actuarial profession received its first application from a woman: Miss Sarah Alice Hussey from Rochester, New York, who applied to the Institute of Actuaries. She was rejected on the grounds that the Institute’s solicitors advised that, ‘in their opinion the Council had no power to admit ladies as members’.
Both Vivie Warren and Sarah Alice Hussey were the shape of things to come. This was the era of the New Woman with her slightly mannish Gibson Girl outfit, her quest for the vote and for higher education, her bicycle and latchkey giving her increased physical freedom and mobility.
But it was the First World War that finally opened the professional doors for women. As the manpower shortage caused by conscription drew women into male occupations, so women’s ability to perform in these occupations ultimately won the case for entry into the profession.

Margaret Tulloch
One such woman was Margaret Tulloch (18901978) who sat down in her home at Park Avenue, Bedford, on new year’s day 1916, and, in beautiful, flowing handwriting, wrote a letter of application to the Clerical, Medical and General Life Assurance Society: ‘Dear Sir, If you are open to engage lady clerks, I beg to offer you my services. I am 25 years of age and was educated at Bedford High School and Newnham College, Cambridge. I can furnish you with good testimonies and further particulars if you entertain my application. Yours faithfully, Margaret Tulloch.’
We know that Margaret had previously been a schoolmistress teaching maths and English. Perhaps she had had enough of teaching and had made a new year’s resolution to find something else.
The Clerical, Medical and General seems to have had no problem with lady clerks. It replied in two days, enclosing a rather curious application form, a bit like a life assurance questionnaire in some of its questions. From this we know that Margaret was 5ft 4ins, weighed 8st, and wore glasses. She gave her father’s occupation as ‘commercial traveller’. Her education, she wrote, had included ‘Classical Tripos, Cambridge Higher Local Honours in History, Languages, maths incl arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trig, conic’. Plus ‘I am learning shorthand at present’ and she could use a typewriter. She was also keen and efficient: the form was completed and posted back the day she received it.
Margaret was interviewed and given various tests, and the results of the interview are noted: ‘Can use a logbook; knows the decimals of a £; testimonials from heads of various schools, vice principal of Newnham; will live in London although knows no friends to live with’. And finally, ‘Engaged at 30/- a week’. Success!
Margaret’s conditions of employment stated that, ‘Employment terminable by one week’s notice on either side. The Office opens at 9.45am and we leave when the work of the day is finished, generally speaking 5 or 6 o’clock. On Saturdays we leave at 1 o’clock.’ Her new year’s resolution had borne fruit. Margaret qualified as an actuary in 1925, working for 30 years with the company until retirement in 1946. A colleague remembers her as formidable and distinguished, not given to being ‘one of the gang’, and of course to him she was always Miss Tulloch, never Margaret!

Dorothy Davis
Margaret Tulloch’s application is the earliest successful one I have come across but she was not the first woman to qualify as an actuary. That historic figure was Dorothy Davis (18971977). A headmaster’s daughter, Dorothy came down from Cambridge in 1918 with a maths degree to work for the Guardian Insurance Company. She studied towards her actuarial exams in her free time, and her decision to work for Guardian meant some far-reaching choices. As one of her lifelong friends recalled: ‘Henry Spiers, a member of our youth group, wanted to marry Dorothy but at that time Guardian would not employ married woman, so she refused him.’ She has been described as quite a driven woman with perhaps a hint of inner insecurity.
Her determination and sacrifices were rewarded in 1923 when she became the first woman in the UK to qualify as an actuary. She also went on to become the first woman to open the discussion at a sessional meeting three years later, although one does rather wonder what her thoughts were when another actuary (male) stood up immediately after her to say that, ‘those of them who had advocated the admission of women to the Institute had every reason to congratulate themselves’. Perhaps she had a wry smile to herself as she shook out her napkin afterwards at the Gallio Club, where she was the first woman guest, another first for Dorothy Davis.
She was a woman who has left plenty of memories behind her. As a colleague remembers: ‘She had a seat next to me on the table at which a team of four of us worked on surrenders and alterations. Two of us used to share one “Muldivo” hand calculating machine but Dorothy preferred to use two massive volumes of Cotsworth’s Railway Calculating Tables which gave the multiples of any two four-digit numbers, volumes she borrowed from the Institute Library.’ Another male colleague commented: ‘She was a very interesting woman who had very strong views of her own, but being a woman, never had any authority given to her.’
There are further hints of frustration in her working life: ‘As the most senior actuary in the department she expected to be appointed assistant actuary when the post became vacant but instead this went to another.’ Possibly this may have influenced her decision to leave actuarial work in 1931 when she and Henry Spiers were finally married; perhaps it was just that the time was right for them.
For the next ten years she concentrated on family life and bringing up their two sons. In the 1940s when they were growing up she returned to work, initially for Eagle Star and later with Guardian until the mid-1950s. During this time she struggled with her health. She began to experience the gradual loss of the use of her right hand and leg. Her reaction seems to have been stoic: ‘Luckily I have no pain.’ Despite the problems this posed, she comes across as a woman of energy, holding office in the League of Jewish Women as well as being widely read, interested in the arts, and supportive of younger people, as a junior co-worker testified: ‘To me, she was a hard-working and unassuming colleague and encouraged me to believe that I also might one day qualify as an actuary.’ Dorothy died in 1977 and is now recognised in the new Dictionary of National Biography, published in 2004, for her pioneering breakthrough into a male-exclusive profession.

Jessie Ruthven Carmichael
The Faculty of Actuaries had passed a resolution to admit women a few months earlier than the Institute in 1919, but it was not until ten years after the first woman FIA that Jessie Ruthven Carmichael (19062001) became the first woman to qualify in Scotland. Known as Ruth, she became a student of the Faculty in 1924 and, unlike her English counterparts, did not have a university education behind her. When she qualified in 1933 her employers, Scottish Equitable, presented her with a signet ring to congratulate her, and from 1939 onwards she was head of investment, becoming an executive assistant to the company in 1947. During the Second World War she was in charge of the first aid team, which meant attending to casualties during air raids and taking part in fire watching, which gave rise to some teasing years later at her retirement party: ‘In this connection Mr Williams wished to hear from Miss Carmichael what had happened to the bottle of brandy purchased during that time, but sad to say the answer was not altogether convincing.’
She sounds something of a redoubtable character, her colleagues testifying to her ‘idiosyncrasies’, her ‘passion for exactness’, and her attitude that ‘nothing but the best was good enough’. But they also noted her ‘warm Christian heart’ and she had the power to make lifelong friends who kept in touch with her until she died in January 2001, aged 94.

Isabel Laurence
One of Ruth’s compatriots was Isabel Laurence who, like Ruth, began her actuarial studies without a university degree. Isabel enrolled as a student in 1928, working initially with Scottish Widows until she qualified in 1936.
In 1948 she moved away from Edinburgh to a bomb-cratered and austere London to join the Government Actuary’s Department. It may have been because she felt there was more sexual discrimination in Scotland than in England at that time. A colleague comments: ‘I remember her saying that she was a bit put out when it was suggested to her that she might prefer not to attend the Faculty biennial dinner as she might be the only lady there. She was not in the least aggressive but, not unreasonably, did sometimes bristle when slighted.’
He can recall both her working methods and her appearance. ‘Her personal calculator was like a fat rolling pin, one cylinder with another outside which rotated and slid in and out. It appeared to give the right answer! Latterly, she sported a lorgnette. Even in those days, this was a bit unusual. It certainly gave her a presence.’
He sums up: ‘A nice lady; in sequence my boss, my colleague, and then one of my team, always friends and never a cross word!’ Upon retirement Isabel returned to Edinburgh for the remainder of her life.

Fresh challenges
These were some of the women who, through their competence and hard work, helped establish the initial presence of women in the actuarial world. Now there were fresh challenges for a new generation of professional women as they experienced working life during the Second World War.