A public space: Kathleen Lyttelton’s campaigning journalism

In my recent guest post for Something Rhymed, Emily Midorikawa’s and Emma Claire Sweeney’s inspiring blog on women’s literary friendships, I described how Kathleen Lyttelton was the first editor to publish Virginia Woolf’s writing, beginning a warm professional relationship. Here I take a closer look at Kathleen’s work as a journalist.  

In June 1903, when she was 47, Kathleen Lyttelton became the editor of a new supplement of a long-established Anglican clerical newspaper called The Guardian. It seems that it was her idea to start a special section of women’s pages in a publication that otherwise was aimed squarely at clergymen, with articles such as ‘The Church at Home and Abroad’ and advertisements for prayer-books and suitcases that were suitable for cassocks. Arthur Lyttelton, Kathleen’s husband was the Bishop of Southampton, and she had been reviewing books anonymously for The Guardian for years (she was a published short-story writer). After his death in early 1903 she moved to Bloomsbury with her daughter Margaret, and began to earn her own living as a journalist.


Mary Kathleen Lyttelton (née Clive) by Eveleen Myers (née Tennant), platinum print, 1890s: NPG Ax68772 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Editorship of the Guardian woman’s pages allowed Kathleen to cover issues that had a direct impact on women’s lives, and to bring them directly into the homes of respectable clergymen and their families. From the beginning, her focus was on the new opportunities opening up for women of different social classes to study and work, as it had been since co-founding Cambridge’s first women’s suffrage association in the 1880s. There were articles on women as school managers and, in the field of public health, much-needed sanitary inspectors. Or what about a career as a nurse, an elementary school teacher or in the printing trade? The ‘well-educated gentlewoman’ who read The Guardian was encouraged to consider a professional occupation other than teaching, and to cater for the working woman’s needs, there was a feature on ‘A restaurant for busy women’ that had recently opened in Manchester Square, London.

By 1904 Kathleen was writing editorial leader columns every week. She was outspoken about the need for women to earn money on the same terms as men, including in her own profession of writing. She was aware that, as she put it, ‘in spite of Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen’ women writers were still seen as overstepping a boundary if they were paid on equal terms to men. ‘Even when Charlotte Yonge achieved her first success, it was not considered the right thing for her to receive a pecuniary reward for her labours’, she noted with asperity, ‘and the difficulty was overcome by handing the proceeds to a charitable society.’ Lyttelton did not envy the limited life choices of Jane Austen’s women characters:

We wonder how these unemployed young women managed to while away the long weary hours of the day. Had Elizabeth Bennett been born in our happier time she would certainly have left the family home…to carve out a career for herself. Mary, the learned, would have been sent to college to have been cured or not, as the case may be, of her priggishness.

At the turn of the twentieth century, ‘in our happier time’, things were different for the daughters of the middle- and upper-classes: they did not have to wait at home for a suitable gentleman to propose, but had opportunities to go to university and earn a salary in a range of professions. Lyttelton put her principals into practice by hiring an inexperienced twenty-two-year-old writer to review books for the paper: and for the rest of her life Virginia Woolf never forgot the thrill of receiving her first pay cheque from the woman she called ‘My Editress’ (see my post about their working friendship in Something Rhymed here).

In a series of specially commissioned articles, Lyttelton also directed her readers’ attention to financial and legal issues affecting women in other countries. One article called ‘What women are doing in Germany’ described the growing call for women to have equal access to professions: ‘In Germany the woman question – as it is in England- is no mere matter of abstract right; considerations of daily bread come into the account… There are in the Empire a million more women than men’.

Her friend Millicent Garrett Fawcett (writing as Mrs Henry Fawcett) contributed an article on ‘Women’s Suffrage in the Australian Commonwealth’, and in March 1904 Kathleen published ‘Indian Women’ by Cornelia Sorabji, who had studied at Somerville College in Oxford, then taken law qualifications in London and Bombay. Sorabji described how she wanted to use her training to ensure the legal rights of purdanashins, women prohibited from communicating with men, but she was not permitted to represent them in court. Three months later, however, Kathleen was happy to report that Sorabji had been appointed as the Indian government’s legal adviser on the issue; later she would go on to win the right for purdanashins to train as nurses.

Injustices closer to home were also highlighted. In July 1904 Lyttelton reported on Mrs Higgs who, as a precursor of George Orwell, had published a series of articles about her experience of spending five days as a tramp, sleeping in workhouses and grim common lodgings known as ‘tramp wards’. After the tramp ward, men and women no longer fear prison,’ Mrs Higgs wrote, and as a direct result of her articles, Lyttelton wrote, local governments in Lancashire and Yorkshire took action to improve conditions.

In another report, Kathleen wrote about the ‘crying need of an ambulance service in London’ rather than the usual practice of calling a cab to take people injured in the street to hospital, and she passionately supported the cause of Dr Ethel Vernon, a competent and well-liked doctor who was sacked from Westminster Hospital simply because one male consultant did not want to work with a woman. In another leader column, she argued for a greater knowledge of the laws that existed to protect working women and girls, instead of the fund-raising philanthropic approach favoured by her well-meaning, wealthy friends. Lyttelton’s work as a campaigning journalist threw light on issues affecting women of all classes, and when she died after a short illness in 1907, at the age of 51, her friend and fellow suffrage campaigner Millicent Fawcett described it as ‘a grave loss… to every cause which concerns the welfare and the progress of women… it is hard to lose such a companion and fellow-worker.’

Lyttelton Room

Kathleen Lyttelton’s campaigning work began when she moved to Cambridge in 1882 as the wife of Selwyn College’s first Master, Arthur Lyttelton: she was one of the founders of the Cambridge Association for Women’s Suffrage in 1884, and became President of the National Union of Women Workers in 1899. Her book Women and Their Work was published in 1901, and her portrait  is included in the portraits of 74 influential ‘Suffragettes and Suffragists’ at the National Portrait Gallery, London. In autumn 2018 Selwyn College in Cambridge renamed a room in the tower as the ‘Kathleen Lyttelton Room’ (photo above with Lyttelton’s descendants; with thanks to Andrew Wallis) marking both the centenary of the extension of the women’s franchise in 1918 and Kathleen’s twenty-five years of campaigning for political equality. She is the first Master’s wife to have been honoured by a Cambridge college in this way.

More about Lyttelton in ‘A testament to friendship’ here, and ‘Clubs of their own’ here.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 2018, all rights reserved

K Lyttelton Room

With thanks to  Andrew Wallis, Jean Chothia and Carolyn Ferguson for additional research, and to Selwyn College archivist Elizabeth Stratton for all her generous help. 

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