The smiling, smartly dressed ‘Avon Lady’, with her tempting case full of cosmetics and gloved finger on the doorbell, was popularized in American television commercials in the 1950s: ‘She’s a good friend, a good neighbour; she’s in the beauty business, representing Avon.’ Ding dong! Avon Calling! became the catchphrase for the company that flourished during the USA’s postwar economic boom, and it’s the name of a fascinating new history book by Katina Manko, which I reviewed in this week’s TLS: see link here.
“Women’s patterns of entrepreneurship and labor follow uniquely gendered paths,” Manko writes, and makes a convincing argument that Avon should be judged by the historical experience and objectives of women (not men) in business. Founded in 1886, Avon was the oldest and largest continually operating direct-sales company in the world, and from its earliest days it was unique in hiring women exclusively to sell its products. The company literature stressed the respectability of a job in which women sold products to other women in their neighbourhood, so that their earning power worked for the benefit of both the family and the individual herself.
It was a formula that appealed to many women who were prevented by the marriage bar from retaining their jobs after they married, and in the early years of the twentieth century Avon was unusual in portraying women’s entrepreneurial ambitions as admirable. They included Miss Susie Robinson, who in 1931 described in the house magazine Outlook how she had sold Avon merchandise from her hospital bed following an operation. She took more than $15 from nurses, doctors, janitors, and even other patients, and used the money she earned to pay her hospital bill.
But despite praising enterprising women like Susie, Avon’s power and profits remained in the hands of its all-male senior management team for almost all of its history. The glass ceiling for women employees stayed firmly in place until the eve of the twenty-first century, when the company at last appointed its first female CEO. But as Manko observes, ‘Avon’s monumental makeover of the late twentieth century was only skin deep’ and the internet age finally brought an end to the Avon Lady’s friendly and businesslike calls.
I’m delighted to say I’ve just been awarded an ‘Independent Researcher Award’ for the coming academic year 2021-22 for my research project ‘Outrageous Proceedings: Women At Cambridge 1882-1914’. I am one of four researchers to be given this award by the Women’s History Network, a national association and charity for the promotion of women’s history and the encouragement of everyone interested in women’s history.
This award provides funding for me to investigate the lives and work of seven pioneering female scholars, college heads, academic wives, townswomen and female students who settled in Cambridge during the late nineteenth century. It was a time when women were not made welcome by many in the traditional male university society here, but their own social networks and societies provided the support and encouragement for these seven women to go on to do some remarkable work.
Some of the women whose stories I plan to explore further are familiar from this blog, including Mary Paley Marshall and Kathleen Lyttelton. Others whose names are less familiar are the Girton scholar Ellen McArthur, who was the first woman to be awarded a doctorate at Trinity College Dublin and helped to establish history teaching in UK schools, and Dr Susila Bonnerjee who, after studying at Newnham in the 1890s, went back to India to establish medical education for women then returned to England to fight for women’s suffrage.
I am very grateful to the Women’s History Network for their generous support. More details on their website below:
By the summer of 1875 Caroline Slemmer Jebb was gradually adjusting to the slow pace of life as a don’s wife in an ancient university town, so different from her home in busy, modernizing Philadelphia. ‘Term is over now, and we have settled down into quietness with a little variety furnished by a set of spiritual séances,’ she told her sister, a tone of exasperation creeping into her letter. Although she was now quite fond of Cambridge, and of her husband Richard Claverhouse Jebb, she could not understand the hold that spiritualism had over his Trinity College friends. For her it was ‘the most arrant nonsense and imposture’ and she mocked Henry Sidgwick and Frederic Myers (‘these great geniuses’) for being so willing to be taken in: ‘both seem as easy to delude and as anxious to believe as any infant.’
The Victorians’ fascination with spirit mediums claiming to channel communication between the living and the dead reached its peak in the mid-1870s. In the name of ‘scientific investigations’ into spiritualist phenomena, groups of learned people were attending séances in elegant drawing-rooms all over the country; in January 1874 Charles and Emma Darwin took part in one at Erasmus Darwin’s London house along with George Eliot and G.H. Lewes. ‘Mr Lewes I remember was troublesome’, recalled Henrietta Darwin, ‘and inclined to make jokes and not sit in the dark in silence’ (Browne, 405).
But despite such scepticism, scholarly interest in analysing spiritualist phenomena was steadily growing. The informal discussion group that Sidgwick and Myers began in Cambridge in 1874 was soon joined by Sidgwick’s former students Edmund Gurney and the future prime minister Arthur Balfour; it was during one of their séances at Balfour’s London house that Sidgwick met Arthur’s sister Eleanor, and they married in 1876. The Cambridge group was a forerunner of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) that was founded in London in 1882 (see Jane Dismore’s guest blog for more about the SPR’s early years). The SPR’s archive at Cambridge University Library featured in an episode of the recent Netflix series ‘Surviving Death’, as reported here.
Women who claimed clairvoyant gifts are the subject of Emily Midorikawa’s new book, Out of the Shadows: six visionary Victorian women in search of a public voice (Counterpoint, 2021). She traces the origins of the Modern Spiritualist movement to a small hamlet called Hydesville in New York County, where two young sisters appeared to be contact with unseen presences. The ‘Rochester rappings’ made Kate and Maggie Fox famous, and soon they and their older sister Leah were giving public demonstrations to large crowds in concert halls throughout North America. The craze soon crossed the ocean to Britain. ‘Table turning particularly caught on among working people in the Yorkshire town of Keighley, with its history of social and political radicalism’, Midorikawa notes, ‘as well as with the leisured classes residing in the nation’s capital.’ Queen Victoria recorded in her diary how, during their spring holiday at Osborne House in 1853, she and Prince Albert had engaged in the practice with their ladies-in-waiting.
But there was more to this era-defining phemomenon than an amusing parlour game or the studies of Cambridge scholars. Out of the Shadows shows how a handful of women made successful careers out of spiritualism on both sides of the Atlantic, by taking their talents as spirit mediums from the private drawing-room to the public stage. Kate, Maggie and Leah Fox, Emma Hardinge Britten, Victoria Woodhull and Georgina Weldon all became ‘grand successes’, and ‘came to wield extraordinary levels of social or political clout in an era when female voices seldom garnered much serious attention.’
It’s a beautifully written and absorbing book that criss-crosses the Atlantic as it reveals how these six women used their spiritualist gifts to gain power, money and remarkable influence. The story of how the British-born Emma Hardinge climbed the social ladder in the USA is particularly engaging. In the mid-1850s she struggled to make a living as an actress in London before, as a last-ditch effort to revive her career, taking up the offer of nine months’ work in a Broadway production. While in New York she met Ada Foye and other luminaries of the early American séance scene. They spotted her talents and encouraged her to give up her stage career and promote spiritualism instead. Her first Spiritualist performance was with a group of fifty singers performing a cantata written by Hardinge but imparted, she claimed, ‘by a power that worked through my organism.’ The New York Herald was impressed, commenting that ‘whoever the Spirits that controlled Emma Hardinge might be, they could at least make good music’. She could be one of the ‘leading musicians and composers of the age’, they added, if she chose to ‘give up the shadow’ of spiritualism.
But Hardinge was clairvoyant enough to predict that her gifts as a ‘spiritualist lecturer’, combined with her stage presence, would take her further. Before long she was travelling around Canada and North America, ‘trance lecturing’ before distinguished male audiences (including priests, lawyers, doctors and reporters, she recalled) and answering their questions. As with her music, she claimed to have no awareness beforehand of what the spirits would tell her to say, which included outspoken (and therefore unladylike) views on controversial topics of female emancipation and the need have sympathy for ‘fallen women’. When it came to speaking out, it might have been easier to tell herself and her audience, as Midorikawa says, ‘that she was merely a mouthpiece for dead – usually male – spirits.’
As her fame grew, Hardinge became more confident in her oratorial skills and in 1864 threw her weight behind the campaign to re-elect Abraham Lincoln as president by giving a speech in San Francisco entitled ‘The Coming Man; or the Next President of the United States’. Lincoln’s committee of supporters was so impressed by the crowds she drew that they asked if she would ‘stump the State for Lincoln’. Her unusual status as a female campaign orator giving a 32-date lecture tour drew the crowds and helped to ensure Lincoln’s resounding victory in California. When Lincoln was assassinated five months later, Hardinge was invited to deliver a eulogy the next day in New York City, the first to be given in the city. Before an audience of over three thousand she gave her Great Funeral Oration on Abraham Lincoln. As Midorikawa writes, ‘that a woman, not American-born, was afforded this honor demonstrates the heights to which the former player of bit parts on Broadway had risen in less than a decade’.
It was well known that the president’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, had held séances at the White House to try to reach their young son Willie, who had died during Lincoln’s first term in office. Later she was photographed by the ‘spirit photographer’ William H. Mumler, with the ghostly presence of Lincoln behind her, his hands resting protectively on her shoulders. ‘The picture, ersatz but powerful, exemplifies the “peace and comfort to the weary soul” that Mumler trumpeted as his hallmark’, Dan Piepenbring writes in the New Yorker. There’s a similar image of Hardinge below.
After Henry Sidgwick’s death of cancer in 1900 Eleanor Sidgwick was convinced that he was also not far away, communicating with her from ‘the other world’. It was a comfort that Caroline Jebb in Cambridge was denied. ‘So many things I would have told him, such love and worship I would have shown him’, she wrote three years after Richard Jebb died. ‘Now he cannot see, he cannot feel or hear, though I spend my days in trying to reach him.’ Perhaps she too reached for spiritualist powers in the end, but sadly without success.
I’m delighted that Frances Baker’s beautiful 1915 painting of her daughter Lettice Ramsey (1898-1985) features in Newnham College’s current ‘Newnham portraits’ online exhibition to mark the college’s 150 year celebrations. As I wrote in my blogpost ‘Woman with a camera: Lettice Ramsey (1898-1985) last year, ‘the determined-looking girl in the painting studied moral sciences at Newnham from 1918 until 1921, worked in Cambridge University’s first Psychological Laboratory and would later pick up a camera to become one of the leading women photographers of the 1930s.’
Along with her photographic partner Helen Muspratt (1907-2001), Ramsey was indeed one of the leading women photographers not just of the 1930s, but of the twentieth century. The women’s creative partnership began when they opened their first studio in Cambridge in 1932, and their business expanded to Oxford after Muspratt married and opened a studio there in 1937. My own interest in Lettice, and the Ramsey & Muspratt business, was sparked by seeing their luminous portrait of Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who gained her PhD at Cambridge before taking up an academic appointment at Oxford. Ramsey & Muspratt’s portrait was displayed side by side with Frances Baker’s 1915 painting of Lettice Ramsey in the Cambridge University Library as part of their ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ exhibition of 2019-20.
Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries are to be congratulated in recently securing Helen Muspratt’s photographic archive, and last year put on an exhibition of her work. As Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden says, by doing this they have ‘put a flag in the sand’, to say that the history of photography, and the history of the city of Oxford, needs to take Muspratt seriously as a photographer.
It’s not surprising, perhaps, that Lettice Ramsey’s early contribution to their professional partnership, Ramsey & Muspratt, is downplayed in the Oxford exhibition: in the video on the Bodleian’s website, Ramsey is described as a sociable Cambridge widow ‘who needed something to do’ rather than a creative artist with a work ethic and brilliance that matched Muspratt’s. Oxford’s understandable wish to claim Muspratt as one of their own overlooks the studio and developing room work that the women did collaboratively in Cambridge in the 1930s and 1940s before they continued their work separately in both university cities from the 1940s onwards.
After all, it’s impossible to say which of the two photographers took their acclaimed solarised photographs, as well as the aforementioned portrait of Nobel prizewinner Hodgkin (see below), because all of their portraits of the time were signed democratically as Ramsey & Muspratt. Both women considered their work in the darkroom to be as important a part of their artistic process as what they did behind the camera; and both women should be equally acknowledged as the groundbreaking photographers and creative partnership that they were.
In 1987 Ramsey’s daughter Jane Burch donated many Ramsey & Muspratt portraits to the National Portrait Gallery in London, and in 2012 the gallery put on an exhibition about Ramsey’s friendship with Julian Bell. But Lettice Ramsey deserves to be be celebrated not just for her associations with the Bloomsbury Group, but in her own right as a pioneering Cambridge photographer. Her portraits of Virginia Woolf, the ‘Cambridge Spies’ and Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes are reproduced all over the world, yet she herself remains comparatively unknown.
The original glass plates and prints that Ramsey stored in her Post Office Terrace studio remain in private ownership, and their future is uncertain. It would be wonderful if Cambridge’s University Library followed in the footsteps of the Bodleian and secured this unique archive for the nation, as it did with the Stephen Hawking archive recently. Then the great twentieth-century photographer Lettice Ramsey might at last be given the recognition – and the Cambridge exhibition – that she deserves.
I wrote about Frances Larson’s Undreamed Shores: The Hidden Heroines of British Anthropology (Granta, 2021) for this week’s Times Literary Supplement– I’m thrilled that it’s highlighted on its beautiful front cover (see below). Undreamed Shores is an excellent group biography of five women who were among the first students to take the diploma in anthropology at Oxford University between 1907 and 1918. (At Cambridge during that time there was only one comparable student, Winifred Hoernle, a South African who went on to become a lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand.) Anthropology was one of a cluster of diploma courses including geography, education and modern languages to offer vocational training beyond Oxford’s traditional degrees, and many were taught by progressive tutors who welcomed female students.
After taking their diplomas, Maria Czaplicka, Katherine Routledge, Beatrice Blackwood, Winifred Blackman and Barbara Freire-Marreco were among Oxford’s first female lecturers. Instead of being content to work in libraries, as most male anthropologists had done, they showed extraordinary determination to travel to remote and inhospitable countries to pursue their research ‘in the field’. ‘Fieldwork was more than a job; it was liberation’, as Larson observes. ‘They went from the periphery into the unknown, and I doubt that any of them felt fully at home in England again.’
These ‘lady anthropologists’ had to fight hard to prevent men from compromising their ambitions. They encountered obstacles at every turn, and perhaps the most tragic story is that of Maria Czaplicka (pictured here), who left her family in Poland for the chance to study at Oxford. As part of her research, she trekked more than 3,000 miles through a frozen Siberian winter to live among nomadic reindeer-herders. Her book My Siberian Year (1916) was critically acclaimed, but she failed to get funding for further research trips and in 1919 she was forced to give up her Oxford lectureship after it was offered to a much less qualified male graduate who had returned from the war. She never recovered from this blow.
Undreamed Shores is a beautifully written book, engaging and enlightening. It also made me very angry to read about how the groundbreaking work of these talented and committed early anthropologists was not recognized during their lifetime. ‘Far from being celebrated as female pioneers in anthropological fieldwork,’ Larson writes, ‘they were almost entirely overlooked by those who followed.’ Her book does much to set this record straight.