Discussing women at Cambridge on Radio 3

Last week, I was delighted to be asked to be a guest on an episode of BBC Radio 3’s Freethinking presented by Anne McElvoy, with Dr Iona Burnell Reilly, Professor Joanna Bourke and Dr Clare Bucknell, who introduced the programme by reading from her fascinating new book The Treasuries: Poetry anthologies and the making of British culture (HoZ, 2023). Bucknell makes the point that anthologies aren’t just part of literary history, but have redrawn the map of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, generating conversations around politics, morality, class, gender and belief.

We discussed the 200-year old history of Birkbeck, University of London which started life in 1823 at a meeting held at the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand. Founded as the London Mechanics’ Institution, it offered educational opportunities via evening classes to working class men and, by 1830, women, who wanted to pursue a university education but could not afford to study full-time. Joanna Bourke’s Birkbeck: 200 Years of Radical Learning for Working People (OUP, 2022) is ‘the story of a unique university but also of higher education of Britain’.

Iona Burnell Reilly spoke movingly about the obstacles that working class academics still have to overcome today, and her new book The Lives of Working Class Academics: Getting Ideas Above your Station (Emerald, 2022) offers accounts by working class academics in higher education – how they got there, what their individual journeys were like and whether they still have to negotiate their identities.

For many years, working class students have had to overcome the prejudice of those who wanted higher education to remain the preserve of the élite, and modern academics still face discrimination today. I talked about some of the difficulties that the first generation of women students at Newnham College and Girton College in Cambridge encountered in accessing university education, including the Irish suffragist Mary Ward (1851-1933) who worked as a governess and was self-educated until she won a scholarship to Newnham in 1876. In the 1890s, despite the progress she and others had made in gaining top grades in the university’s final exams and in publishing their research, women were faced with increasing restrictions on their access to the University Library, as I described in my previous blog post, ‘Locked out of the library’. It was not until 1923 that Cambridge’s women students finally won the right to become readers at the library on the same terms as the men; and it would be another twenty-five years before they were accepted as full members of the University.

In 1912 Virginia Woolf described Cambridge as ‘that detestable place’ in a letter to Lytton Strachey because of its attitudes to women; and when she delivered two lectures to Girton and Newnham students in 1928 Woolf had some of her prejudices confirmed when she was refused entry to Trinity College’s Wren Library, where she wanted to consult a manuscript donated by her father Leslie Stephen. ‘Lock up your libraries if you like,’ she later wrote, recalling the episode, ‘but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.’ (A Room of One’s Own, 1929)

I quoted this unforgettable declaration of female intellectual freedom in this Freethinking episode, thinking about the challenges that the first generation of women at Cambridge overcame in order to make university education accessible to those who followed them there. It was a privilege to have such a stimulating discussion with four wonderful, freethinking women in the BBC’s London studio. The programme is available via BBC Sounds and the BBC ‘Arts and ideas’ podcast, and there are more details about the books and articles mentioned, on BBC Radio 3’s ‘Freethinking’ website below:


Ann Kennedy Smith, 21 January 2023.

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