Women at Cambridge: Eileen Power

Power

In her essay called ‘Women at Cambridge’, published in February 1920, the economist Eileen Power recalled the occasion when, as Director of Studies at Girton College Cambridge, she was asked by a male Fellow for a ‘woman’s perspective’ on a problem. She argued that “a women’s outlook on art and science has nothing specifically womanly about it, it is the outlook of a PERSON.” Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting, out now in paperback (April 2021) throws new light on the work and lives of two women who began their academic careers at Cambridge: Jane Ellen Harrison of Newnham College and Eileen Power at Girton (see my TLS review of last year,  ‘Cursed with hearts and brains: female intellectuals and muses of the twentieth century’). In this post I look briefly at Power’s life and work.

Eileen Power began her studies at Girton in 1907, and became a Fellow in History there in 1913. During the First World War she taught economic history at Girton and LSE, but failed to get the permanent position in Cambridge that she longed for. Everything changed in 1920 when she was awarded the prestigious Albert Kahn Travelling Fellowship, which granted £1,000 to scholars for a year’s global exploration. Power was the first woman to win this international honour and she was told by one suspicious interviewer that “she might defeat the objects of the trust by subsequently committing matrimony.” Power defied her critics, and travelled alone to China, Egypt, and India. As a committed pacifist and Labour Party member she was delighted to meet Mahatma Gandhi, and she was one of only six Europeans to witness the Nagpur Congress assembly vow to adopt Gandhi’s policy of Non-cooperation. She was unfazed by obstacles; when she discovered that the Khyber Pass was closed to women, she simply put on male disguise and made the crossing anyway.

When she was a lecturer at Cambridge, her easy charm and stylish appearance had made her stand out against the more sombre hues of the university world. “I certainly feel there is something radically wrong with my clothes from an academic point of view”, she told her sister Margery during her time at Girton. Male historians, enchanted by Power’s looks and personality, habitually underestimated her work, but they changed their minds after reading her books. As Wade comments, “Power saw no reason why an interest in clothes and a sense of humour could not be combined with professional rigour.”

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Eileen Power in 1922

While in India, Eileen Power received an offer of a lectureship in political science from LSE. She hesitated about leaving her beloved Cambridge, as she told a friend, “because it would mean a lot more teaching than I’ve done before & the screw is only £500 – but I want to be in London for a bit.” The LSE job was originally intended as a Readership, with a salary of £800 (for a man), but when they offered it to Power (a woman) they made it a lectureship and reduced the pay. Over the course of her academic career, even after she became LSE’s Chair in Economic History in 1931, Power would consistently be paid less than her male colleagues, despite the fact that she was a renowned scholar, invited on international lecture tours and awarded honorary degrees from respected universities. Her books include Medieval English Nunneries (1922), Medieval People (1924) and Medieval Women (reissued in 1975). She co-wrote children’s history books with her sister Rhoda Power, gave public lectures, and presented a World History series for the BBC in the 1930s.

From 1921 until 1940 Power lived in Mecklenburgh Square on the unfashionable eastern edge of Bloomsbury, as did the economic historian RH Tawney, her LSE colleague and friend. Under his influence, Power’s medieval historical research took an overtly political turn. She and Tawney co-edited a book, Tudor Economic Documents, published in three volumes from 1924 to 1927, and were both founding members of the Economic History Society, an international alliance of scholars. Power edited its influential journal the Economic History Review. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s there were regular gatherings of political leaders, journalists, theorists and writers, including Hugh Gaitskell, Evan Durbin and Hugh Dalton at both Tawney’s and Power’s rented flats, yet as Wade observes, today RH Tawney has a blue plaque in Mecklenburgh Square while Eileen Power does not. Yet during her lifetime she was as famous as he was. In Testament of Friendship (1940) Vera Brittain describes how, when she and Winifred Holtby gave up their flat in nearby Doughty Street in the 1930s, one horrified friend asked them, “Why are you leaving the neighbourhood of Tawney and Eileen Power for a place called Maida Vale?”

“I like people to be all different kinds,” Power told a friend in 1938, explaining why she had not applied for a prestigious history professorship back in Cambridge. “I like dining with H.G. Wells one night, & a friend from the Foreign Office another, & a publisher a third & a professor a fourth.” Power valued her independence, and for most of her life was opposed to marriage as an institution, convinced that domestic binds were incompatible with a woman’s public ambitions. The ideal wife, she suspected, “should endeavour to model herself on a judicious mixture of a cow, a muffler, a shadow, a mirror.” When in 1937 she finally decided to marry her former student and LSE colleague Michael Postan, ten years her junior, it was a balance of head and heart. Sadly, just three years later she died suddenly of a heart attack, aged just 51.

After her death much of her work in economic history was gradually forgotten, while the reputation of Postan and Tawney grew. To keep her memory alive, Eileen Power’s sister Beryl Power endowed a dinner at Girton College in her memory – “because men’s colleges had feasts and why should not women’s?”. Leading historians gather for the ‘Power Feast’ every ten years; the most recent Feast took place in January 2020, almost exactly 100 years after Eileen Power’s ‘Women At Cambridge’ essay.

Sources: Francesca Wade, Square Haunting (Faber, 2020); Maxine Berg, A Woman in History: Eileen Power (1889-1940) (CUP, 1996); ‘Eileen Power’ LSE website (accessed 29 April 2021); ‘Pioneering women at universities’ (Radio 3); ‘The Rising Tide: Women At Cambridge’, University Library exhibition website (accessed 29 April 2021).

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