The 1897 protests, part 2: the women in the photograph

A female effigy wearing a white blouse, blue bloomers and striped stockings, riding a bicycle, has been suspended above the entrance to the Macmillan & Bowes bookshop in Cambridge. It’s a misogynistic caricature of a female student that represents everything that over ten thousand men have gathered on King’s Parade to protest against on 21 May 1897. When, later that day, the university voted against allowing women the title of a Cambridge degree, the figure was torn apart and burnt on a huge bonfire in Market Square, as rioting continued into the night. The Cambridge Weekly News recorded the events in a gleeful special edition called ‘The Triumph of Man’.  

In Chapter 1 of a new book about the history of women cyclists, Revolutions: How Women Changed the World On Two Wheels, Hannah Ross describes the bloomer-clad Cambridge effigy as embodying the independent and ambitious ‘New Woman’ of the 1890s, and its violent disposal was a warning that women should never again dare to challenge the all-male status of Cambridge University. Ross describes among the crowd ‘a few women students, looking a bit apprehensive’. Yet, looking more closely at the people standing by the bookshop, it’s clear that several of the women spectators were not students, and I believe they were anything but fearful.

The cyclist effigy photograph was taken from the tower of Gonville & Caius College by the Cambridge photographers Thomas Stearn & Sons. ‘His wife, sons, niece, and other family members worked in the firm, which finally closed in 1970,’ according to an article from the Graphic Arts Collection at Princeton University. (The Stearns also took the image of the sea of male undergraduate boaters filling King’s Parade featured in my previous post, ‘No women at Cambridge’ Part 1.) I am going to look in more detail at two close-up images of the women in the photograph, and investigate their connection to the women’s degree campaign.

UA Phot.174/4, Cambridge University Library digital archive

In this detail of the photograph, made possible thanks to Cambridge University’s digital library, a male photographer can be seen on the balcony of Great St Mary’s Church opposite Caius. He’s standing behind his camera, along with his male assistants and a handful of young women wearing white blouses and dark skirts and holding onto their straw boaters. These could be his female assistants but seem likely to be Girton or Newnham students who are viewing the scene with one of the few male undergraduates who supported women’s degrees, perhaps a brother or a friend. But who is the woman in the dark dress and more formal hat with her back to the camera, talking to one of the students?

In the second close-up by the bookshop (see below), more women and girls are visible. Some are with male companions, but most of the women who are gathered by the bookshop door look as if they have arranged to be there together. As on the balcony of St Mary’s, some of the group appear to be students, while others are older, wearing dark dresses and elaborate bonnets or hats. They could be there to chaperone the younger women, of course, particularly in this rowdy crowd of male undergraduates. But I think that many of these women were active supporters of the campaign to secure women’s degrees, perhaps due to their ongoing connections with Newnham and Girton, or as part of societies promoting women’s suffrage and access to the professions that had sprung up in 1880s Cambridge. The women’s identities are still a mystery, but we can make some educated guesses.

In the doorway of the bookshop, in a dark dress and hat and looking up at the camera, might be the Irish suffragist Mary Ward, then aged 46. She won a scholarship to Newnham in the 1870s and was a politically active student, campaigning for women to have access to university education on equal terms to men, and to be admitted to the University’s Tripos examinations. In 1879 she gained a first class honours in the Moral Sciences Tripos, the first woman to do so. She was a resident lecturer at Newnham until her marriage in 1884 to James Ward, a fellow of Trinity College and a keen supporter of women’s education. Mary continued her close ties with Newnham after her marriage, lecturing and supervising students, as well as becoming an active member of the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association (CWSA) founded in 1884.

I’ve been trying to work out who might be standing close beside her. Another former Newnham student who actively supported the women’s degrees cause was the botanist and geneticist Edith Rebecca Saunders. Known to her friends as Becky, in 1897 she was 32 and the Director of the Balfour Biological Laboratory for Women. She also worked closely with the biologist William Bateson, 36, whose sister Mary Bateson, 32, was a Newnham scholar of medieval history and for the previous two years had been one of the leaders of the campaign to secure women’s degrees at Cambridge. Mary was an active suffragist, along with her mother Anna Bateson (the CWSA’s co-founder) and journalist sister Margaret (Heitland). It’s hard to believe that no one from this extraordinary Cambridge family was there that day.

Some clues to the other women present might be found in a letter written six years earlier (see ‘Locked out of the library’ here). Mary Ward, Becky Saunders and Mary Bateson were among the twenty-four Newnham and Girton scholars who in 1891 politely requested greater access to the university library just as greater restrictions on non-university members’ use of it were under discussion. The library syndicate’s negative reaction to their request was ‘a clear warning of a growing reluctance to grant the women further privileges’, Rita McWilliams-Tullberg writes. It did not prevent these determined women from continuing their activism on behalf of women at Cambridge, however, notably Girton’s librarian and scholar E. Constance Jones; Bertha Skeat, the first resident lecturer at the Cambridge Training College for Women Teachers (the university’s oldest graduate college, later renamed Hughes Hall); and the historian Ellen A. McArthur who from 1896 ran the first hostel for postgraduate women students in Cambridge. Were they among the crowd that day?

Another 1891 signatory was Philippa Fawcett whose First Class in the Mathematical Tripos in 1890 made national news, proving women’s intellectual ability in subjects that until then had been considered as the preserve of men. In 1897 she was 29 and conducting research in fluid dynamics at Newnham, the college co-founded by her mother Millicent Fawcett who made clear her support for women’s degrees at Cambridge. Agnata Frances Butler (née Ramsay) was the only person to gain a First in the Classics Tripos of 1887. Although she gave up her work on Herodotus soon after marrying the Master of Trinity College, Montagu Butler, the following year, they both continued to be closely involved in the campaign to admit Cambridge women to the titles of degrees. In early May 1897 Montagu told Agnata that he was helping Henry Sidgwick to hold an urgent meeting in Trinity College’s Lodge to boost support for the women’s cause. He and Henry were in the Senate House voting on 21 May, and it’s possible that Agnata may have joined the women outside to lend her support.

Other possibilities are Elizabeth Welsh, then Girton Mistress; Ida Freund, an active suffragist and the first woman to become a chemistry lecturer in the UK; and Blanche Athena Clough, among others. Not all of the women’s supporters were connected with the colleges, however. Newspaper columnist Catharine Tillyard wrote scathingly about the undergraduates’ lack of good manners in the Cambridge Independent Press, so she may well have witnessed the rotten-egg throwing at close quarters. There is more information about her in the ‘Lost Cambridge’ blog here.

Mary Paley Marshall, Maud Darwin, Ida Darwin and Caroline Jebb were among the women and men who, whether present that day or not, continued to back the work of Newnham and Girton students and staff. But although the identities of many of the women in the photograph may never be known, what’s important was the steadily building groundswell of support for the women’s colleges throughout the UK and beyond. This would be much needed for the next fifty years as, without the university’s assistance, the growth of the women’s colleges depended entirely on private donations to fund residential buildings, libraries and research grants. It was thanks to the generosity of their many friends that, after this dark day in 1897, women at Cambridge continued to flourish and grow.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved. With thanks to Carolyn Ferguson.

Sources: ‘Effigy of woman undergraduate…’ (UA Phot.174/4), Cambridge University Library digital archive, https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/PH-UA-PHOT-00174-00004/1; ‘Cambridge boys celebrate…’, Graphic Arts Collection blog, Firestone Library, Princeton University: https://graphicarts.princeton.edu/2018/02/22/cambridge-boys-celebrate-when-women-are-refused-degrees/ ; Sue Slack, Cambridge women and the struggle for the vote (Amberley, 2018); Rita McWilliams-Tullberg, ‘Women and Degrees at Cambridge’ in Martha Vicinus, A Widening Sphere: Changing Roles of Victorian Women (Methuen, 1977)

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