Women at Cambridge: Eileen Power

Power

In an essay called ‘Women at Cambridge’, published in February 1920, Eileen Power recalled being asked by a male Fellow for a ‘woman’s perspective’ on a problem. She argued that ‘a women’s outlook on art and science has nothing specifically womanly about it, it is the outlook of a PERSON.’ In this week’s TLS I review Francesca Wade’s newly published Square Haunting (Faber, 2020; my review ‘Cursed with hearts and brains: female intellectuals and muses of the twentieth century’ is here) which throws new light on the work and lives of two women who began their academic careers at Cambridge: Jane Ellen Harrison of Newnham College and Eileen Power at Girton. (I’m delighted that my review features on the front page – follow link here.)

Everything changed for Eileen Power in 1920, when she was awarded an Albert Kahn Travelling Fellowship which granted £1,000 to scholars for a year’s global exploration. Power, who had been a Fellow in History at Girton College Cambridge since 1913, was the first woman to win this international honour and she was surprised to get it, especially after one suspicious interviewer told her that “she might defeat the objects of the trust by subsequently committing matrimony.” Power travelled to China, Egypt, and India, where she was delighted, as a committed pacifist and Labour Party member, to meet Mahatma Gandhi. She was one of only six Europeans to witness the Nagpur Congress assembly vow to adopt Gandhi’s policy of Non-cooperation. When she discovered that the Khyber Pass was closed to women, she simply put on male disguise and made the crossing anyway.

Power’s easy charm and stylish appearance meant that she stood out against the more sombre hues of the university world. ‘I certainly feel there is something radically wrong with my clothes from an academic point of view’, she told her sister Margery during her time at Girton. Male historians, enchanted by Power’s looks and personality, habitually underestimated her work, but they changed their minds after reading her books. As Wade comments, ‘Power saw no reason why an interest in clothes and a sense of humour could not be combined with professional rigour.’

While in India, Eileen Power received an offer of a lectureship in political science from the newly founded London School of Economics. She hesitated about leaving Cambridge, as she told a friend, “because it would mean a lot more teaching than I’ve done before & the screw is only £500 – but I want to be in London for a bit.” The LSE position was originally intended as a readership, with a salary of £800, but when they offered it to Power they made it a lectureship and reduced the pay. Over the course of her academic career, even after she became a professor at LSE, Power was consistently paid less than her male contemporaries, despite the fact that she was a renowned scholar, invited on international lecture tours and awarded honorary degrees from respected universities. Her book Medieval People was published in 1924, and she co-wrote children’s history books with her sister Rhoda Power, gave public lectures, and presented a World History series for the BBC in the 1930s.

From 1921 until 1940 Power lived in Mecklenburgh Square on the unfashionable eastern edge of Bloomsbury, as did the economic historian RH Tawney, her LSE colleague and friend. Under his influence, Power’s medieval historical research took an overtly political turn. She and Tawney co-edited a book, Tudor Economic Documents, published in three volumes from 1924 to 1927, and were both founding members of the Economic History Society, an international alliance of scholars. Power edited its influential journal the Economic History Review. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s there were regular gatherings of political leaders, journalists, theorists and writers, including Hugh Gaitskell, Evan Durbin and Hugh Dalton at both Tawney’s and Power’s rented flats, yet as Wade observes, today RH Tawney has a blue plaque in Mecklenburgh Square but Power does not. In Testament of Friendship (1940) Vera Brittain describes how, when she and Winifred Holtby were giving up their flat in nearby Doughty Street, one horrified friend asked them, “Why are you leaving the neighbourhood of Tawney and Eileen Power for a place called Maida Vale?”

For most of her life Eileen Power was opposed to marriage as an institution, convinced that its domestic binds were incompatible with a woman’s public ambitions. The ideal wife, she suspected, “should endeavour to model herself on a judicious mixture of a cow, a muffler, a shadow, a mirror.” When in 1937 she decided to marry her former student and LSE colleague Michael Postan, ten years her junior, it was a balance of head and heart.

Sadly, just three years later Eileen Power died suddenly of a heart attack, aged 51, and much of her work was subsequently forgotten. After her death her sister Rhoda endowed a dinner at Girton College in her memory, known as the ‘Power Feast’, where leading historians still gather to celebrate Eileen Power’s work. This week, almost exactly 100 years since the publication of Power’s ‘Women At Cambridge’ essay, there is a colloquium taking place at Girton College on her work as a medieval historian, and on Tuesday evening BBC Radio 3’s ‘Free Thinking’ features Jane Harrison and Eileen Power in an episode called ‘Pioneering women at universities’.

‘The Rising Tide’ free exhibition and events exploring the lives and work of women at Cambridge continues at the Cambridge University Library: find out more here.

Hidden Lives

Clarke

“Women’s lives were meant to be hidden,” Norma Clarke writes in her memoir Not Speaking (Unbound, 2019). Her Greek mother Rena moved from occupied Athens to London when she married a British soldier in 1945. Unable to speak English, far from family and friends, she had to learn how to survive in a society that did not make her welcome. It was no wonder, Clarke writes, that for Rena and women like her, “those lives came to be all about subterfuge. Secrecy, silence, subterfuge.”

Clarke is a retired professor and literary historian who began to understand her mother better only when she started writing about her. Watching “my untaught mother’s scholarly zeal” with religious pamphlets and icons, Clarke realized that they had more in common than she thought. Themes in Clarke’s book Not Speaking (Unbound, 2019) include romantic and family love, historical war and the effects on those who survive it, and the battle to communicate. My review of this moving and insightful memoir appears (with a lovely photograph of Rena) in the first Times Literary Supplement of 2020, and can be read here with no paywall. My next review – of three fascinating new group biographies of 20th-century women’s “hidden lives” – will appear in the next TLS. It’s published on 17 January 2020 and I’m pleased that my review features on the cover.

Good life-writing has the intensity and narrative pacing of fiction, and the best memoirs have a ruthless honesty about them. “A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying,” George Orwell wrote, “since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” In a future blogpost I will list some of my favourite memoirs; I hope you will tell me about yours.

How to write a biography

Virginia-Woolf

 

“My God, how does one write a Biography?” Virginia Woolf wrote in 1938. Her friend Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) had already overturned accepted conventions that all biographies should be serious, worthy, and long; before that, the Dictionary of National Biography, co-founded by Woolf’s father Leslie Stephen, also introduced a new approach to writing short lives. Today there are lots of inventive and imaginative ways to write a biography. As Michael Holroyd, the great biographer of Lytton Strachey, said in 2011: “People are writing lives backwards; people are writing parts of lives. Look on the bright side: biographies are getting shorter.”

About a year ago I started compiling a list of the biographies that changed my own thinking about what biography and life-writing can do. Now I have put together my personal ‘top twenty’ out of these, in a strand I called ‘Life of the day’: here they are listed in no particular order. At Number 20 is the revived digital edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, constantly updated, illustrated and with more focus on women’s lives than ever (available online in public libraries; information about the latest update here). Leslie Stephen might not recognize his original Victorian creation that was published in multiple heavy volumes, but Virginia Woolf would surely approve.

  1. Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (Vintage, 1997), showing new ways of combining scrupulous research,  brilliant writing and inventive structure: “There is no such thing as an objective biography, particularly not in this case.” (Lee)
  2. Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes (Harper Perennial, 1985) – a highly influential and inspiring book about travelling in the footsteps of your biographical subject: “If you are not in love with them you will not follow them – not very far, anyway.” (Holmes)
  3. Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages (1983) is a classic study of love and power, soon to be reissued by Daunt Books: ‘If we managed to suppress marriage, what would we have left to tell?’
  4. A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (Faber& Faber, 1965) by Alethea Hayter is a pioneering biography that brilliantly evokes the searing personal crises of a group of writers and artists over one suffocatingly hot summer.
  5. A Suppressed Cry by Victoria Glendinning (1969; reissued by Virago with a new introduction in 1995): the heartbreaking story of Newnham College, Cambridge student Winnie Seebohm’s short life. ‘I could, had I waited, have written a longer and different book. It might not have been a more telling one. Too much information can blur the issues.’ (Glendinning)
  6. Marianne Thornton, 1797-1887: A Domestic Biography (1956) by EM Forster. A biography of the great-aunt who helped him to become a writer, and Forster’s only published memoir: my Slightly Foxed essay is here. The Times critic observed that ‘Mr. E. M. Forster, one of the most reticent of authors, has adopted an unusual way to tell us something about himself’
  7. Claire Tomalin’s The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens (Penguin, 1990): “This is the story of someone who – almost – wasn’t there; who vanished into thin air.”
  8. Janet Malcolm’s brilliant and acerbic The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes (Granta, 1993): “The biographer at work… is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house.”
  9. Ann Thwaite’s Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife (Faber& Faber, 1996) opened my eyes to the fascinating woman overlooked by most of Tennyson’s biographers: ‘I have always been interested in the lives of nineteeth-century women who managed, in spite of the restrictions they suffered, to live full and fulfilling lives.’ (Thwaite)
  10. Frances Spalding’s sensitive, imaginative and scrupulously researched Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family and Affections (Harvill, 2001): ‘running through her work, both her art and her writing, is a deep sense of the importance of life, and a reverence for the texture and fabric of the everyday world.’ (Spalding)
  11. Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (Faber & Faber 2008): ‘Dorothy walked out of the life that she and others expected of her.’
  12. Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Cape, 2003): ‘Darwin was one of the most human of men … his biography is in part the biography of Victorian family life – of what it was like to make and live with science.’
  13. Grand Pursuits: The Story of Economic Genius by Sylvia Nasar (2010) is about the tragedy and triumph of great economists’ lives 1850-1950 (especially good on Alfred and Mary Paley Marshall and Beatrice Webb).
  14. John Aubrey, My Own Life (Chatto & Windus, 2016) by Ruth Scurr: “Because I chose to write Aubrey’s life in the form of a first person diary, I had to get as close to him as I could, despite the passage of time”
  15. Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World (Virago, 2017) Lyndall Gordon’s group biography of Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf: ‘All were readers before they became writers, which is to say each heard the one before her in a chain of making.’
  16. A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf (Aurum, 2018) by Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney is an enjoyable, beautifully written book; I wrote about it here. Virginia Woolf was, Katherine Mansfield wrote, ‘the only woman with whom I long to talk work.’
  17. Jenny Uglow’s delightful, beautifully illustrated Mr Lear: A Life of Art and Nonsense (Faber & Faber, 2017): ‘If we follow him across land and sea, to the borderlands of self, can we see where the art and nonsense are born?’
  18. Combining research, parody, diaries, interviews, lists and wicked gossip, Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret (4th Estate, 2017) is a skilful, experimental and very funny biography.
  19. Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backwards (HarperCollins 2005), the heartbreaking life of a homeless “chaotic” Cambridge man, told with sympathy and humour: ‘Stuart does not like the manuscript. He’s after a bestseller, “like what Tom Clancy writes.”‘
  20. The revised Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, now in its 58th update with 61,184 articles and 11,724 portraits, researched in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery London. The ODNB has an increasing number entries on women (making up past oversights), and I’m proud to have contributed three of these (about the Ladies’ Dining Society, Caroline Jebb and Mary Martin Ward) in the past three years.

1880s Cambridge brides

 

Darwin 8 Ann KS talk _

Picture credit: Jeremy Peters @JezPete

Last summer I gave a talk at Darwin College as part of Literature Cambridge’s ‘Fictions of Home’ course. I highlighted the work of three women who changed Cambridge: Anne Jemima Clough (the first Principal of Newnham College), Helen Gladstone (a Newnham student, and later its Vice-Principal) and Ida Darwin, whose voluntary work for the Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls from 1883 onwards led to her twentieth-century involvement in mental health.

This week I will be speaking at the University Library about some of the women-led associations that sprang up in Cambridge in the 1880s. It was a time when the fledgling women’s colleges at Girton and Newnham were becoming established, and University statutes requiring Fellows to remain unmarried had been dropped. The change in rules “brought to Cambridge a number of young brides of graduate status with leisure and keenness,” Jessie Stewart later wrote, “and it was no accident that zeal for education brought social awareness.”

It would be many years before women were accepted as equal members of the University; they were not awarded degrees until 1948, and numbers of women students were capped until the 1980s, as the current exhibition ‘The Rising Tide’  shows. But the female students and wives who arrived in the 1880s also brought their own ideas about making Cambridge a better, fairer place. They were inspired by ideas of social reform, women’s suffrage and access to higher education. It wasn’t surprising that they organized their own societies and clubs, providing not only social networks and forums for discussion but also organizations to help local underprivileged girls.

My recent Literature Cambridge blogpost, with an extract from my July talk, is here. I’m delighted to be on their lecturer list, and looking forward to taking part in their summer course ‘Reading the 1920s’ (26-31 July 2020), discussing how Ida Darwin’s social welfare work developed, and had increasing national influence in the field of mental health, in the 1920s.

Ann Kennedy Smith (all rights reserved) 

Sources: Jessie Stewart, ‘Social Welfare in Cambridge’, The Cambridge Review, 5 November 1960

Steamboat ladies

Steamboat ladies

In 1968, Barbara Wright became one of the first women to be elected as a Professor of Trinity College Dublin. To mark the occasion, Dame Ruth Cowen (the Principal of Newnham College Cambridge, where Wright had completed her Ph.D. degree in 1962) gave her a remarkable gift: one of the original academic gowns worn by the 700 women students from Cambridge and Oxford who, by special arrangement between 1904 and 1907 travelled to Dublin to be awarded the degrees they had earned. They were nicknamed ‘Steamboat Ladies’ for the method of transport they used.

It was a remarkable act of generosity on the part of TCD to recognize the achievements of  these students, and the large number of women graduating was an inspiration to Trinity’s own female students. So it’s very moving that Professor Wright has now loaned the gown to be displayed in the excellent new exhibition ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ at the Cambridge University Library. My review of the exhibition has just been published by the Times Literary Supplement, and is free to read online here. As a Trinity student of French and German in the early 1980s, I was fortunate enough to be taught by Barbara Wright, and her inspiring teaching and encouragement was one of the reasons why I decided to come to Cambridge and study for a PhD on Baudelaire’s art criticism.

 

A revolutionary proposal

Churchill

In June 1958, plans were under way to build a new Cambridge college. It would be a memorial to Sir Winston Churchill, and promote teaching and research in science and technology. A campaigning group called the Women’s Freedom League wrote to Churchill directly with a proposal (“you may regard as revolutionary”) that he use his considerable influence to make it Cambridge’s first coeducational college. “You already know that great efforts are being made in all schools and colleges to increase the number of women scientists.” Churchill, 83, thought this sounded like a perfectly sensible suggestion. “I see no reason why women should not participate,” he told his friend, the civil servant Sir John Colville. But Colville, in charge of raising funds for the proposed college, was convinced that donors in British industry would withdraw their support if they heard that Churchill College was planning to admit female students. It would be, he told Churchill, “like dropping a hydrogen bomb in the middle of the University.”

Although women had finally won the right to Cambridge degrees in 1948, they were still very far from being represented equally at the University in the 1950s. Numbers were capped, and for every eleven males there was just one female student: Cambridge still had the lowest proportion of female undergraduates of any university in the UK. To help correct this, a third “foundation” for women students, originally called New Hall, was established in 1954, with just sixteen students in a house on Silver Street. In 1962 New Hall moved to its permanent home on Huntingdon Road, thanks to the generosity of Ida and Horace Darwin’s daughters, Ruth Rees Thomas and Nora Barlow who donated their former family home The Orchard and its grounds so that a college for 300 students could be built. The house had to be knocked down, and most of what Gwen Raverat described in Period Piece as Ida’s “poet’s garden” disappeared beneath the rubble, but it allowed this much-needed third college for women to come into existence, and Ida surely would have approved. The gardens of  Murray Edwards College (as it is now called) are still imaginative and beautiful.

MEC

Churchill’s 1958 letter to Colville (on loan from the Churchill Archives Centre) is just one of the many fascinating items on display in the new exhibition, “The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge” at the University Library, which uses letters, costumes and audio-visual material to tell the story of 150 years of women at Cambridge. Today, all the formerly male colleges are fully coeducational, and Churchill College’s website boasts that it was “in the vanguard of dramatically expanding female participation in Cambridge University” as the first college to vote to admit women in 1972 (the same year that King’s and Clare also became coeducational). In her excellent independent blog, the current Master, Professor Dame Athene Donald (the first woman to hold this post at Churchill College) asks “How many ‘Firsts’ does it take to change a system?’.  She makes the point that, although in 2019 there is gender equality across the University in terms of students, women still hold only 20% of the professorships. “I am pleased to be part of the advancement of women in Cambridge”, Donald writes. “I am not pleased it is still so far from complete. Everyone – most definitely including male leaders – have a part to play in making the progression speed up.” One positive recent development is that out of Cambridge’s 31 colleges, there are now 15 female Heads of House, including the new Master of Jesus College, Sonita Alleyne, the first person of colour to head any college in Oxford or Cambridge. Hers is one of the 27 luminous portraits currently on view in the University Library’s Royal Corridor.

The “Rising Tide” curators Dr Lucy Delap and Dr Ben Griffin plan to add more archival items over the six months of the exhibition, which they describe as “a work in progress” – much like women at Cambridge, in fact. Professor Athene Donald will be speaking at the event closing the exhibition in March 2020, and my own talk “A club of their own: Cambridge women’s societies and associations 1883-1914” is on 5 December 2019 (tickets are free, but you’ll need to book here). And if you are in Cambridge visiting “The Rising Tide”, do go to Murray Edwards College to see the outstanding paintings and sculptures on view there; one of the world’s largest and most significant collections of contemporary art by women.

‘Militant, cussed and determined’: Women at Cambridge

download copy‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ opens on 14 October 2019 at Cambridge University Library, and runs until March 2020. Curated by Dr Lucy Delap and Dr Ben Griffin, this free exhibition marks 150 years since women were first permitted to attend lectures at Cambridge University. As well as letters, portraits and petitions, fascinating objects on display at the UL will include a green Newnham College tennis dress (closely buttoned to the neck and wrists) as well as fragments of the eggshells and fireworks used in violent opposition to female students being awarded degrees in 1897.

To accompany the exhibition, there will be a wide range of events about the past, present and future of women at Cambridge. The curators are taking an inclusive and imaginative approach, telling the stories of different women who since 1869 have studied, taught, worked and lived in Cambridge, “from leading academics to extraordinary domestic staff and influential fellows’ wives” as the University’s website puts it. This includes the struggles of,  in Lucy Delap’s words,“militant, cussed and determined” women, who fought for gender equality in the University, as well as the way in which female students and other women joined forces to share knowledge and bring about change in wider society.

This is the subject of my forthcoming talk ‘A club of their own: Cambridge women’s societies and associations 1883-1914’ which takes place on Thursday 5 December 2019, 5.30pm- 6.30pm at the Cambridge University Library (admission free, booking required). It’s about some of the women-led groups that sprang up in the 1880s and 1890s and gave female students, lecturers and townswomen the opportunity to meet, debate issues of the day, learn about professional careers and forge important networks. These groups were, perhaps uniquely for the time, genuinely “town and gown” in their structure. The largest association was the Cambridge Ladies’ Discussion Society, formed at Newnham College on 17 March 1886 “to bring together ladies who are interested in the discussion of social questions… hearing papers read and discussing subjects arising”.

Originally connected to the (all-male) University Society for the Discussion of Social Questions (USDSQ), the Cambridge Ladies’ Discussion Society (CLDS) later became an independent women’s association but kept in step with the University’s terms and organisational principles. Newnham and Girton students were encouraged to join, with a reduced membership fee, and were among the large numbers who attended talks by a range of speakers including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (pictured above) on ‘The medical professon for women’ and Beatrice Webb on ‘The expediency of regulating the conditions of women’s work’. Active founder-members of the CLDS included Kathleen Lyttelton, Louise Creighton and Eleanor Sidgwick. Together these friends would form a much smaller discussion group, the Ladies’ Dining Society in 1890. In 1913 the CLDS amalgamated with the National Union of Women Workers, and in 1918 became known as the National Council of Women (NCW), which is still active today.

Despite the difficulties and delays in obtaining full membership of the University (degrees were not awarded until 1948), active and determined Cambridge women have always worked together, helping to create the University that exists today. It is worth remembering that their work, like that of the male dons and students, was enabled by an army of (mostly female) domestic staff, and it is right that ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ recognizes their contribution. I will also be discussing the Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls founded by Ida Darwin and Kathleen Lyttelton in 1883, which aimed to help local girls by giving them training opportunities as domestic servants.

Ann Kennedy Smith, 29 September 2019

The full programme of ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ will be available soon, and I will post a link and booking details here when it does.