Until 1990, to submit a paper to the Society one had to be a Fellow or be acquainted with a Fellow who was willing to communicate a paper on your behalf. The communicators’ role was therefore the first check whether a paper was appropriate for the Society, both to be read and potentially to be published. The Society was therefore not accessible to everyone.
Potential authors who were not (yet) Fellows needed to find a sponsor or patron among those who were Fellows. Prior to the 1847 reforms, such patronage links were often social or familial, and communicating a paper implied vouching for the social credentials of the author. After the reforms, with an increased emphasis on active scientific research, Fellows tended to communicate papers for other people in their fields – junior colleagues or, latterly, PhD students and research fellows – and the act of ‘communicating’ a paper came to imply approval of its contents. By 1900, over half of the papers submitted to the Royal Society were authored by non-Fellows, all of whom had managed to find a contact at the Society to submit it.
This system was clearly easier to navigate for those who were well-networked in British scientific circles, but some international authors (especially colonial authors) and some women certainly did manage to submit papers to the Society.
The earliest paper by a woman is a short letter in 1787 from Caroline Herschel to Charles Blagden describing her observations of a comet. Herschel was acquainted with Blagden, then the Society’s secretary, through her astronomer brother William (FRS). The mathematician Mary Somerville also had a paper published in the Transactions in 1826, but it was not until the 1880s that a small but steady trickle of papers by women were submitted. These women were mostly either related to Fellows, or else graduates of the Cambridge women’s colleges (and thus connected to Cambridge’s scientific networks).
No woman was able to act as a communicator for other authors’ papers until the first female fellows were elected in 1945 (the biochemist Marjory Stevenson, and the crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale).