In my previous post I wrote about the 1881 Senate House vote at the University of Cambridge giving women the right, for the first time, to take final exams. Ida Darwin had written to her sister-in-law Henrietta Litchfield (née Darwin) asking her to encourage her husband Richard Buckley Litchfield to travel to Cambridge to support women’s education there. (this charming illustration by Gwen Raverat in her memoir Period Piece shows him being fussed over by Henrietta) As a former student of Trinity College he had the right to vote on University matters. As it turned out, the vote was won by a large majority, although Cambridge degrees were still some way in the future for women, who were not admitted to membership of the University until 1948, when the present Queen’s mother was the first woman to be awarded the Cambridge degree of Doctor of Laws (Honorary).
Samantha Evans is author of the excellent Darwin and Women (CUP, 2017) which I reviewed here. In her book Evans describes how Charles Darwin’s ideas were affected by the women scientists he corresponded with, as well as his wife Emma and daughters Henrietta and Bessy’s active engagement in lifelong learning.
Women in their circle, even without raising an particular banner, were extraordinarily active: 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. (Evans, p. 210)
Last week I came across Evans’ fascinating article (see link here) about Emma Darwin’s attitudes to higher education for women. In March 1881 Emma wrote to her son George about the recent vote.
You heard of the triumphant vote for the girls at Cambridge having their places in the exam. made public. Horace went to tell them about it & was received w. clapping. Afterward they put all their candles & lamps in the windows & ended w. a dance. R. thinks it is the beginning of the end & (I believe), that they will turn out as badly as the Russian young lady Doctors at Zurich.’ (DAR 251: 1002 Emma Darwin to G. H. Darwin, 7 March 1881.)
Horace, Ida’s husband, was so elated with the good news that he rushed to Newnham to celebrate with them, but his brother-in-law ‘R.’ (Richard Buckley Litchfield) felt very differently. Ida had assumed that Richard would share the Darwins’ liberal attitudes to women’s education, but Emma Darwin’s letter reveals that when it came to his former university, he preferred to keep the status quo. He was worried that, by giving women the right to take final exams, Cambridge had already gone too far and it would mean “the beginning of the end” for its continuing success as a university.
In her article, Evans explains that the ‘Russian young lady doctors’ who went to Zurich to study medicine were told in 1873 that they would not be offered appointments in Russia on their return. Effectively, their education would be worthless, and they faced a stark choice of either returning to their home country or continuing with their work abroad. It was a stark choice. Richard Litchfield was arguing (quite reasonably, if rather pessimistically) that there was little point in women trying to get a Cambridge education, because even if they did, they wouldn’t be allowed into the British professions.
Yet Litchfield was himself a forward-thinking educator. In 1854 he was one of the group who founded London’s Working Men’s College at 31 Lion Square in Bloomsbury to provide artisans with the chance for an education. It was one of the first adult education institutions, and its illustrious nineteenth-century teachers included John Ruskin, John Stuart Mill and William Morris. E.M. Forster and Seamus Heaney were among those who taught there in the twentieth century. There’s an informative UCL history project about the college here.
In 1864, Elizabeth Malleson opened the Working Women’s College just round the corner at 29 Queen Square. She wanted the two colleges to merge, but the council of the male college (including Richard Litchfield, who taught there for many years) resisted. Perhaps he felt it would be the beginning of the end for the institution he had done so much to establish. It was only in 1966 that women were admitted to the male college, eight years after the first women gained degrees at Cambridge. Now known as WMC -The Camden College, it provides courses equally to men and women today, particularly for those who have missed out on traditional educational opportunities, including the unemployed, older adults and refugee learners.
It’s a shame that Litchfield feared that by awarding women students their degrees, it was ‘the beginning of the end’ for Cambridge. After all, it was because of the women’s success in final examinations that teaching standards were raised across the University. This year Cambridge celebrates beginnings: ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibitions, events and talks will mark 150 years of women at Cambridge, from 1869-2019.
© Ann Kennedy Smith, 14 July 2019. All rights reserved.