“We were a very lively buzzing community, pushing along our way, very much amused with ourselves,” Blanche Athena Clough wrote of her time as a Newnham College student in the 1880s (she later became Principal). As well as studying Classics, she had lots of college clubs to choose from, including the Shakespeare Reading Society, the Browning Society, several French societies and the ever-popular debating society. Both Newnham and Girton had a rich associational life, as the section on ‘Social Life’ in the ongoing ‘Rising Tide’ exhibition at Cambridge University Library reveals. Most of the University’s student-run societies that began in the 1870s were exclusively male, as Clough confirms. “We had no part or lot in University societies except the Ladies Discussion Society and I think C.U.M.S. [Cambridge University Music Society]… in any case the University generally were hardly aware of our existence.”
There’s no doubt that the women-led societies that began in the 1880s and lasted for so many years helped to make Cambridge a better place. They certainly made it more socially inclusive for the women involved. These were not University societies, but associations begun in many cases by academic wives and townswomen who worked closely with Newnham and Girton college heads Anne Clough and Emily Davies. I’ve been talking quite a bit about these clubs recently. I was invited to speak to Selwyn College alumni about the college’s first Master’s wife, Kathleen Lyttelton; and about ‘The Women who changed Cambridge’ at the rather splendid Oxford and Cambridge Club in London last November. Then I gave a talk called ‘A Club of Their Own’ at the University Library in December, connected to the ‘Rising Tide’ exhibition. This month I gave another version of that talk to the Friends of Milton Road Library in a bright and welcoming new library setting.
It felt appropriate to have such different settings for my talks, as the 1880s societies I discussed were the first to bring ‘town and gown’ women together in an active, outward-facing social network. Jessie Stewart writes that it was not surprising that, influenced by the feminist social reformer Josephine Butler, the Cambridge women’s ‘zeal for education brought social awareness’. The Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls (founded in 1883) was practical and philanthropic in nature, helping underprivileged girls to find employment as domestic servants; it was co-founded by Ida Darwin and other married townswomen and dons’ wives. ‘For some of the younger women, lately married, the “Care of Girls” served as a launch pad into national organizations, local government and the magistracy – they were a talented and ambitious generation,’ Christina Paulson-Ellis writes. In 1956 it became the Cambridge Association for Social Welfare.
There were other more overtly feminist groups. In 1884 Selwyn Master’s wife Kathleen Lyttelton (pictured here) co-founded the ‘Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association’ with Millicent Garrett Fawcett, which was the beginning of Cambridge becoming one of the major centres in the long campaign for women’s votes. The ‘Cambridge Ladies’ Discussion Society’, mentioned by Blanche Athena Clough above, was a large discussion society founded in 1886 by Mary Paley Marshall and others with the aim of bringing University wives, townswomen and female students together to discuss social questions. Speakers included Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a medical doctor in England. In December 1892 she came to Cambridge to give a talk on the medical profession for women, and was ‘pelted with questions’ by Newnham and Girton students, according to a report in the Cambridge Independent Press.
Today, anyone who is interested in finding out more about these societies can access their extensive original archives in the Cambridgeshire Archives in a brand new, purpose-built site in Ely. It’s a bit harder to find out about the fourth club that I talked about, and have written about in this blog for the last few years. The twelve members of the Cambridge Ladies’ Dining Society did not, as far as I know, keep minutes of their conversations or record details of the dinners they shared once or twice a term for almost twenty-five years. There are only intriguing snippets about the club in a couple of memoirs, and a handful of references in letters and diaries. It’s understandable that the women wanted to keep their conversations private, including from future researchers like me. The fact that it lasted for so many years shows that the Ladies’ Dining Society was deeply significant at a time when women’s voices and contributions to debate went largely unheard. ‘Even to form a ladies’ social club was a mild assertion of women’s right to public space’, as Doughan and Gordon write. Below I have listed their useful book, along with archive sources and a selection of excellent books, essays and articles about Victorian women’s societies.
The University has not always been welcoming to women, but the UL’s excellent Rising Tide exhibition and events show the remarkable things that women at Cambridge have achieved despite all the obstacles, and the Friends of Milton Road Library provide a year-round programme of stimulating and varied talks: more information here.
©Ann Kennedy Smith (all rights reserved)
Cambridgeshire Archives: Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society minute book, 789/Q139; Cambridge Association for Social Welfare (1883-1985) [formerly CACG] R106/097; Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society minute book, 789/Q139; CWSA Papers to 1919: 455/Q16-57, 59-60, 62-79; archives held at the Cambridgeshire Collection (in Cambridge Central Library) and the Museum of Cambridge.
Secondary sources: Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (1999) and ‘Rooms Of Their Own: Victorian And Edwardian Women’s Clubs: Hesitant Beginnings‘ & other articles on ‘Woman and her Sphere’ website (accessed 16 Feb 2020); Louise Creighton, Memoir of a Victorian Woman: Reflections of Louise Creighton, 1850-1936 ed. James Thayne Covert (1994); D. Doughan and P. Gordon, Women, clubs and associations in Britain (2006); Linda Hughes, ‘A Club of Their Own: The “Literary Ladies,” New Women Writers, and Fin-de-Siècle Authorship’ Victorian Literature and Culture 35:1, March 2007, pp. 233-260; (1947); Amelia Hutchinson, ‘The “Hidden Histories” of women at Trinity’ (unpublished dissertation, 2019: https://www.trin.cam.ac.uk/news/amelia-hutchinson-on-the-hidden-histories-of-women-at-trinity/ )(accessed 16 Feb 2020); Mary Paley Marshall, What I remember (Cambridge, 1947); Sue Slack, Cambridge Women And The Struggle For The Vote (Amberley, 2018); G. Sutherland ‘Girton for ladies, Newnham for governesses’ in Teaching and Learning in Nineteenth-Century Cambridge, eds. Jonathan Smith and Christopher Stray, 2001) pp.139-149 and In Search of the New Woman: Middle-Class Women and Work in Britain 1870-1914 (Cambridge, 2015); Christina Paulson-Ellis, The Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls: Social Work with Girls and Young women in Cambridge 1883 -1954 (2008); Ann Phillips, A Newnham Anthology (Cambridge, 1979); Jessie Stewart, ‘Social Welfare in Cambridge’, The Cambridge Review, 5 November 1960; Tamsin Wimhurst, The Development, Importance and Influence of a Local Network of Women c. 1886 – 1930: unpublished MA dissertation, University of Cambridge 2007