‘The female club must be regarded as no isolated and ludicrous phenomenon, but as the natural outcome of the spirit of an age which demands excellence in work from women no less than from men’ Amy Levy. (I am delighted that my entry on ‘ The Ladies Dining Society’ is now included in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography ).
They called it the Ladies Dining Society, a name that sounds rather quaint and privileged now. But it was an act of rebelliousness all the same. In 1890, when the club began, Cambridge was still very much a male society with its few female students living in colleges outside the town. University wives were expected to be gracious hosts and guests at dinner parties and provide polite conversation, but they were excluded from their husbands’ college high tables and the intellectual discussions that went on there.
It was a time when professional women’s associations and clubs had begun to spring up around Britain. In May 1890 the first Ladies’ Literary Dinner for women writers took place at the Criterion Restaurant in Piccadilly, London. Later renamed the Women Writers’ Dinner, it was so successful that it became an annual event.
In Cambridge, two of the university wives, Louise Creighton and Kathleen Lyttelton, both published writers, decided to form a dining and discussion club of their own. They invited a select group of between ten and twelve of their women friends to join, and agreed to take it in turn to host the occasion, provide dinner and choose a suitable topic for discussion.
They were, in the words of the economist John Maynard Keynes, ‘a remarkable group’. Most were married to professors or college masters, but all were pioneers and achievers in their own right. Mary Paley Marshall was one of the first women students at Cambridge, and its first woman lecturer in economics. Eleanor Sidgwick became principal of Newnham college, Mary Ward was a suffragist and playwright, and Kathleen Lyttelton was the first editor to publish Virginia Woolf’s work. Ida Darwin was a leading figure in the twentieth-century fight for improved mental health care, while her American sister-in-law Maud Darwin campaigned for the introduction of women police officers in Britain. Maud’s aunt, the irrepressible Lady Caroline Jebb, was immortalised in Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece.
I will explore more of their stories in future posts. The dining society continued until the outbreak of the First World War, for almost 25 years providing a network of friendship and a space for debate, where these women’s voices would be heard.
Further reading: Marshall, Mary Paley What I remember (CUP 1947); The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Women’s Writing ed. Linda H Peterson (CUP 2015); Linda Hughes ‘A Club of Their Own: The “Literary Ladies,” New Women Writers, and Fin-de-Siècle Authorship’ (Victorian Literature and Culture Vol. 35, Issue 1, March 2007, pp. 233-260
Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘A club of their own’, (September 8, 2016) https://akennedysmith.wordpress.com/(Accessed: day/month/year)