The Cambridge Ladies’ Dining Society was “ a testament to friendship and intellectual debate at a time when women’s voices went largely unheard” (Ann Kennedy Smith)
This month Wikipedia included a detailed article about the Ladies’ Dining Society. It’s based on, among other sources, an entry that I wrote last year for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and written by one of Wiki’s experienced editors. In the future, other editors and readers may add to the article, and it would be nice if, in time, more information emerges about the group, including what they discussed during their dinners.
Given that the twelve women met regularly from 1890 until 1914 it’s not difficult to make some guesses. Women’s higher education, suffrage, the ‘New Woman’ in fiction and reality – they were all hot topics at the time. But probably the most debated issue in 1890, when the group formed, was ‘the marriage question’. In August 1888 the novelist Mona Caird published an essay called ‘Marriage’ in the Westminster Review, stating that marriage as it existed in Victorian Britain was ‘a vexatious failure’ and calling for equality of marriage partners. The Daily Telegraph took up the issue, and began a series called ‘Is Marriage A Failure?’ Over the following three months the newspaper received an astonishing 27,000 letters on the subject, an avalanche of opinions that filled its columns week after week. ‘The marriage question’, as it became known, continued to be debated in Britain throughout the 1890s, and I think it is very likely that these friends would have discussed it. (I imagined an early meeting of theirs in a previous post.)
Marriage was what brought most of them to Cambridge, or made them choose to stay on there after their studies. One of the attractions of marrying a man from Oxford or Cambridge was the chance to access the educational opportunities that were denied to the majority of women at the time. Many lectures were open to married women, and in the 1870s Caroline Jebb attended lectures in zoology, moral philosophy, law, and German literature. She did not want to appear a bluestocking, though, and claimed that she enjoyed Alfred Marshall’s lectures in political economy because they supplied ‘such good after-dinner conversation’.
Ida Darwin’s husband Horace worked on designing measuring instruments for the university’s new scientific laboratories. After she married him and moved to Cambridge in 1880 they both became involved in supporting the new women’s college at Newnham. Together they helped to galvanize votes for the successful Senate statute in 1881 that allowed female students the right to sit for the university’s final year exams. Horace’s father Charles Darwin called it ‘the triumph of the Ladies at Cambridge’ describing proudly how ‘Horace was sent to the Ladies’ College to communicate the success and was received with enthusiasm.’
Ida was also close to Anne Jemima Clough, Newnham’s first principal, and student (later vice-principal) Helen Gladstone. Several other lecturers from Newnham College were members of the Ladies’ Dining Society, including Margaret Verrall, Mary Paley Marshall and Ellen Crofts Darwin, who had married Ida’s brother-in-law Frank Darwin. Newnham’s second principal was Eleanor Sidgwick, whose marriage to the college’s co-founder Henry Sidgwick helped to establish women’s education at Cambridge.
So, as far as Cambridge was concerned, marriage (which was only permitted for most college fellows after 1882) was a good thing. It brought a wave of women who were passionately committed to improving life for the less privileged people of the town, and for giving equal rights to women workers of all classes across Britain. Louise Creighton was a co-founder of he National Union of Women Workers in 1885, while Kathleen Lyttelton began The Cambridge Association For Women’s Suffrage alongside Millicent Fawcett. The American Maud Darwin campaigned for the introduction of women police officers in Cambridge, and Fanny Prothero and Eliza von Hügel were active in finding homes for Belgian refugees in the town during the First World War.
Virginia Woolf once called Cambridge “that detestable place” because of the university’s long history of preventing female students’ rights to education. Marriage – like women’s education – was an unfair institution in 1890 and for many years afterwards, but the work of the university wives helped to make Cambridge a much better place.
Ann Kennedy Smith, 31 January 2019 (All rights reserved)