‘You will have heard of the triumph of the Ladies at Cambridge’, Charles Darwin, aged 72, wrote to his son George in February 1881. ‘Horace was sent to the Lady’s [sic] College to communicate the success & was received with enthusiasm.’ Women students had just won the right to take final examinations at Cambridge University, and Charles and Emma Darwin rejoiced with them. Ida Darwin (married to their youngest son Horace) was a keen supporter of Newnham, the ‘Lady’s College’ that Darwin refers to, and a future daughter-in-law, Ellen Crofts Darwin, studied and lectured there.
Charles Darwin is not always known for his feminist sympathies. In Descent of Man (1871) he stated that ‘the average standard of mental power in man must be above that of women’. As Dame Gillian Beer writes, in regard to women Darwin ‘failed to observe in this one field the pressures of environment that were elsewhere fundamental to his arguments.’ She has contributed the foreword to a revealing new book, Darwin and Women by Samantha Evans (my review of it is here). This selection of letters from the team behind the Cambridge Darwin Correspondence Project shines light on many of the remarkable women with whom Darwin corresponded with interest and intellectual involvement over his lifetime.
Many of the women scientists, journalists and writers who wrote to the great scientist were involved in the promotion of women’s education. Although Darwin’s daughters Henrietta and Elizabeth (Bessy) did not enrol at the new women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, they attended lectures at London University and shared a keen interest in education with their friends. ‘Women in their circle, even without raising any particular banner, were extraordinarily active’, Evans writes, ‘they learnt mathematics and physics; they hired tutors; they took examinations; they watched debates in the House of Commons from the ladies’ gallery; they attended university lectures if they were open to women.’
The ‘triumph of the ladies’ in 1881 did not mark the beginning of their ‘ascent’ to imminent acceptance by the University of Cambridge, as the Darwins and others had hoped. Although women students had won the right to sit for final exams, there was to be no membership of the university, no degrees and not even the right to attend lectures for many years to come.