The other Mary Ward


Newnham Hall students in 1878, Newnham College Archives PH/10/1 (Mary is fourth from left in back row, wearing a white shawl)

Mary Jane Ward (née Martin) (1851-1933) was born in the county of Armagh in Ireland on 6 June 1851, the third of a growing family of twelve children. Her father was a Congregationalist minister, and although money was not plentiful, Mary’s brothers were able to go to school thanks to scholarships for the sons of the clergy. Mary was a studious child and this must have struck her as unjust, but she learned much from her mother who calmly ‘piloted the family ship’ (Lawson Dodd, 39) with a volume of Dante propped up against the mixing bowl and a baby on her lap.

The family moved to England, and when she was fifteen Mary left home and spent a year as a pupil-teacher in Hampstead. From the age of 16 she worked full-time as a governess, teaching and supporting herself while her older brothers studied at Cambridge. But Henry and James did not forget their bright and hardworking sister. Lectures for women had begun at Cambridge, and her brother Henry Newell Martin, by then working as a biologist with Thomas Huxley, promised to support Mary’s living costs if she passed the entrance exam. She did, and in 1876 Mary became a student at Newnham Hall, later College.

Mary was ‘a delicately pretty woman of 25, but looking much younger’ (Lawson Dodd, 40), but her fragile appearance belied her passionately political character. Her ‘quick Irish speech bubbled out when she was excited,’ her daughter observed years later. ‘Life was full of the urge of things to fight for’ (Lawson Dodd, 41). While a student at Newnham, Mary fought for women to have greater access to university education, and to take Cambridge’s final examinations. She was the first woman to gain a first-class honours in the moral sciences tripos, albeit unofficially, as women would not be awarded Cambridge degrees for many years to come. Mary was appointed resident lecturer at Newnham, and she and her colleagues celebrates when in 1881 the University members voted by 366 votes to 32 to open its examinations to women as a right, not as a courtesy. Mary continued to teach and support women students at Newnham after her marriage in 1884. She became a member of the Cambridge Ladies Dining Society in 1890, and in 1891 she was one of the twenty-four signatories of a letter asking the University to give women readers greater access to the University Library.

(If her name sounds familiar, it might be because of her namesake, Mary Augusta Ward (née Arnold) who as Mrs Humphry Ward, became England’s highest-earning novelist after her novel Robert Elsmere was published in 1888. She was awho helped to organize the first women’s lectures at Oxford and llso a social reformer; she belonged to the ‘play centres for children’ movement to enable working-class mothers to go out to work, a legacy that continues in the valuable work of the Mary Ward Centre in London today. But if the ‘Oxford’ Mary Ward, once so famous, is remembered at all today, it is less for her considerable achievements than as being on the wrong side of history. In 1908 she became the leading spokesperson for the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League (see John Sutherland’s article about her, ‘The suffragettes’ unlikeliest enemy’.)

At the same time that the Oxford Mary Ward took up arms to prevent women from getting the vote, the Cambridge Mary Ward was becoming a prominent suffragist. In 1905 she was appointed Honorary Secretary for the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association, as plans became more ambitious for women’s suffrage in the region. In 1911 she helped to found the Eastern Counties Federation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and she held lively meetings at her house. In 1908, as Mrs James Ward, she published her play Man and Woman: The Question of the Day. This lively play was very popular with suffrage societies for the next few years, with the main character, Helen, telling a female anti-suffragist ‘Women may let politics alone, politics don’t let them alone’. Although she disagreed with the militant tactics of the suffragettes, Ward was horrified by the government’s policy of force-feeding prisoners and the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ of 1913, and resigned her long-held membership of the Liberal Party in protest.

Mary Ward never lost her urge to fight for women’s rights. In July 1913, at the age of 62 and beginning to suffer from ill health, she was one of the leaders of the group who marched from Cambridge to London as part of the huge countrywide pilgrimage of NUWSS supporters. She also never lost her Irish accent, her self-deprecating humour, and her interest in others: ‘”now tell me”, she would begin, with shining blue eyes; and then she would listen, appreciatively, relishing all the details, and recounting her own experiences with gusto, all the more gaily if they were disastrous’ (Lawson Dodd, 46).

© Ann Kennedy Smith

Please reference as follows: Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘The other Mary Ward’ day/month/year)


Mary Ward in Newnham College Roll Newsletter, January 1934, frontispiece

Sources: H.M. Lawson Dodd and others, ‘Mrs James Ward (Mary Jane Martin) Newnham Hall 1876-1879’ Newnham College Roll Newsletter, January 1934, pp. 38-47; ‘Ward, Mrs Mary (1851-1933) in E. Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (1999); ‘A Petticoat Pilgrimage’ Cambridge Daily News (21 July 1913); Cambridgeshire Archives CWSA Papers 1884 –1919. With thanks to Newnham College for permission to use the photographs of Mary Ward.

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