The 1881 vote

Women at Cambridge

On the 19 February 1881 Ida Darwin sat down in her home in Hills Road, Cambridge to write an urgent letter to Henrietta Litchfield, her sister-in-law. They had been friends for years, long before Ida had married Henrietta’s brother Horace just over a year before, and often wrote to one another. But this letter was different. It was not about either of them, but about women’s rights in the future. ‘There is great excitement at Newnham & Girton about the voting which is to take place next Thursday’, Ida told her,

which will decide the fate of women up here for some time to come. I have sent a circular about it to Frank [Darwin] who says he will come up if he can. Could & would Richard come too? If the women do not get the certificate granted to them this time, their position will be worse than it has been, as they will lose the privilege of being examined by the University examiners.

Ida was referring to the Senate vote – about to take place on 24 February 1881 – on whether Cambridge University’s final year Tripos examinations should be opened to female students by right, not by favour as had been the case until then. Every M.A. (male graduate) who could attend the vote counted, so Ida was attempting to round up as many of the Darwins’ extended family as she could.

Since 1874 twenty-one women had been granted special permission to take the Tripos, and all had succeeded, with four being placed in the First Class. By 1881, even though there was still no question of female students being awarded degrees, pressure had been building on Cambridge to give some sort of formal recognition to its female students, particularly since London University had opened its degrees to women three years before. In 1880 a petition known as the Newcastle Memorial had obtained over eight thousand signatures from across Britain calling for Cambridge University to grant ‘to properly qualified women the right to admission to the Examinations for University Degrees’.

The Memorial had come as a surprise to the leaders of both of the women’s colleges, but Newnham College’s Henry and Eleanor Sidgwick and the college Principal Anne Jemima Clough felt that the time was right to move forward. Emily Davies at Girton argued that the proposal did not go far enough, but reluctantly accepted that Girton had to support it. She knew that if the vote was defeated it might mean the end of the women’s colleges’ tentative relationship with the University.

Ida Darwin had made many friends at Newnham, including Helen Gladstone, the Prime Minister’s daughter and Ellen Crofts, a young lecturer in English. Horace’s mother Emma Darwin knew Anne Jemima Clough well, and his sisters Henrietta and Bessy attended lectures at London University. Before she married, Ida had wanted to study at the newly founded Somerville College at Oxford; now that she found herself in Cambridge as a wife, not a student, she wanted to help others, and was determined that more doors into higher education should be opened to women in the future.

On 24 February the Senate House was packed with about 400 M.A.s and Henry Sidgwick was pleasantly surprised when it dawned on him that almost everyone there was in favour of the women’s vote. ‘Ultimately, with great trouble, I discovered the enemy seated in a depressed manner on a couple of benches in one corner, about thirty in number,’ he later wrote.

The Graces allowing women students to take the Tripos were passed by 366 votes to 32: Ida and others’ efforts to round up supporters had worked. In Kent, Charles and Emma Darwin rejoiced when they heard the news. ‘You will have heard of the triumph of the Ladies at Cambridge’, Charles told his son George. ‘Horace was sent to the Lady’s [sic] College to communicate the success & was received with enthusiasm.’

But in their celebrations of February 1881 neither the Darwins, nor Ida and her Newnham friends, could have known that their optimism about women’s status at Cambridge would not last. From then on, women’s progress towards recognition by the University was increasingly blocked by those who were reluctant to change its status quo as a university for men. The photograph on the cover of Rita McWilliams-Tullberg’s book above shows the thousands of male undergraduates and M.A.s who gathered to protest against the Senate’s 1897 vote to grant degrees to women students, who would not win the right to degrees and full membership of Cambridge University until 1948.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 1 July 2019

Sources: Ida’s letter to H. Litchfield is Add.9368.1: 5977, C. Darwin’s letter is DAR 210.1:103, both from the Darwin Papers held at Cambridge University Library; other quotes are from Rita McWilliams-Tullberg’s chapter ‘1881 Admission to Examinations’ in her excellent Women At Cambridge (CUP, 1998) (pp 70-84). See also my post ‘The Ascent of Women at Cambridge’ and the excellent Cambridge University Library online article here: https://www.cam.ac.uk/TheRisingTide

The education of Mary Paley Marshall

Mary Paley Marshall

The economist Mary Paley Marshall was the great-granddaughter of the eighteenth-century theologian and philosopher William Paley. She was born on 24 October 1850, and grew up in a rose-covered rectory in the village of Ufford in Northamptonshire, about forty miles north of Cambridge. Her father, the Reverend Thomas Paley, was a strict Evangelical clergyman whose powerful sermons shook the little church and baffled the congregation, as Mary wrote in her beautiful memoir What I Remember published posthumously in 1947 (see my recent blogpost here). Mary’s mother Judith was ‘full of initiative and always bright and amusing’, and summers at the rectory were idyllic for the three young Paley children. Mary and her brother and sister spent sunny days together playing croquet and rounders in the garden and looking after their Shetland pony, rabbits and hens; visitors came to stay for weeks at a time, and there were family outings to Scarborough and Hunstanton. But after their brother was sent off to boarding school, the winters seemed dull and endless for Mary and her sister, as the muddy country roads around the rectory were impassable and there were few interesting people who came to visit. Their much-loved German governess left them when Mary was thirteen, as for most middle-class families, that age marked the end of lessons for girls. The Paley sisters were expected to fill their time with Sunday school teaching, reading and keeping their mother company while visiting sick parishioners.

It was fortunate for them that their father had a markedly unusual attitude to his daughters’ education. Reverend Paley did not see why this should stop in early teenagehood, or be limited to certain ‘lady-like’ subjects. ‘We had a father who took part in work and play and who was interested in electricity and photography’, Mary recalled, describing how he entertained the whole village occasionally by putting on scientific demonstrations in the church hall. At home, after supper in the evenings, he read aloud to the family: everything from The Arabian Nights, Gulliver’s Travels and the Iliad to Shakespeare and Walter Scott, ‘those fireside bulwarks of the old-fashioned home evenings’ as F.M. (Flora) Mayor wrote in The Rector’s Daughter, her wonderful evocation of a similar Victorian upbringing published in 1924 (see my blogpost here). Reverend Paley’s strong religious principles meant that there were limits to his tolerance of worldly things, however. He disapproved of the novels of Charles Dickens and once threw his daughters’ dolls into the fire, because, as Mary wrote, ‘he said we were making them into idols and we never had any more.’

What I Remember

When her sister left home to get married, Mary’s daughterly duties seemed duller than ever. To give her something to do (and perhaps dissuade her from marrying the army officer she was engaged to) Reverend Paley encouraged her to enter for the new Cambridge Higher Local Examination, recently introduced for women over eighteen who wished to train to become teachers. He set about coaching Mary in divinity and mathematics, and they studied the Cambridge tutor Robert Potts’ Euclid’s Elements of Geometry together. Mary struggled with maths, and recalled how she wept over the ‘Conic Sections’ exam paper in the summer of 1871. However she passed the overall examination with distinction, and was awarded a small scholarship to attend Cambridge University’s new scheme of ‘Lectures for Women’, to be given by Henry Sidgwick and other college fellows in favour of bringing higher level education to the general public. 

The scholarship came with one condition: that Mary must reside in Cambridge for the duration of one academic year. At the time, the idea that an unmarried woman might live apart from her parents in order to attend lectures was, as Mary said herself, ‘an outrageous proceeding’. Cambridge, like Oxford, was a male university. Fortunately for her, her father knew and liked Anne Jemima Clough, the much respected educator whom Sidgwick had asked to look after five women students at 74 Regent Street. Reverend Paley’s admiration for Miss Clough’s commitment to women’s higher education and his pride in his daughter’s achievements helped him to overcome his misgivings, so Mary Paley became one of Newnham’s ‘first five’ students.

In What I Remember Mary describes how she came to Cambridge for ‘general cultivation’ and only expected to stay for three terms. She chose to study Latin, History and Literature along with Logic, which Reverend Paley thought of as ‘such a safe subject’. But if he thought that his daughter would be unchanged by a Cambridge education he was mistaken. In her first term Mary obediently attended evangelical services and taught at St Giles’s Sunday school, as her father wished. But soon, she said, ‘Mill’s Inductive Logic and Ecce Homo and Herbert Spencer and the general tone of thought gradually undermined my old beliefs’, and with the encouragement of her lecturer, the economist Alfred Marshall, she changed subjects to study a new degree course, Moral Sciences (Political Economy, Politics and Philosophy).

With Marshall’s encouragement, in 1874 Mary Paley sat for the Moral Sciences Tripos, the first of two women to take Cambridge’s final exams. The following year she became Newnham College’s first residential lecturer. Mary Paley was a young, unmarried woman living independently and doing a professional job that she loved, something almost unheard of in Victorian times.

Fifty years later, in 1924, Mary Paley Marshall co-founded Cambridge University’s Marshall Library  where she also worked as Honorary Librarian until she was 87. On her death in 1944 she bequeathed £10,000 to the University “for the development and increased usefulness of the Marshall Library”. From the beginning the Marshall Library was equally useful, and accessible, to male and female readers.

I wrote about Paley Marshall’s memoir for ‘Neglected Books’ here. See my previous blogpost  ‘How to use a library’, here.

Ann Kennedy Smith

Rector's Daughter

Sources: Rita McWilliams Tullberg, Women at Cambridge: a men’s university, though of a mixed type (CUP, 1975, reissued in paperback, 1998); Mary Paley Marshall, What I Remember (CUP, 1947). F.M. Mayor, The Rector’s Daughter  (1924, reissued by Virago in 1987). Flora Macdonald Mayor’s character, coincidentally also called Mary, is the unmarried 35-year-old daughter of elderly Canon Jocelyn, a clergyman in a small East Anglian village. Flora Mayor herself was a student at Newnham College, Cambridge in the 1890s, where she read History, and it is possible that she met Mary Paley Marshall there; F.M. Mayor became lifelong friends with her former History tutor, Mary Bateson.

A testament to friendship

The Cambridge Ladies’ Dining Society was “ a testament to friendship and intellectual debate at a time when women’s voices went largely unheard” (Ann Kennedy Smith)

kathleen-lyttelton-portrait-older

Kathleen Lyttelton; photograph reproduced with the kind permission of Andrew Wallis

This month Wikipedia included a detailed article about the Ladies’ Dining Society. It’s based on, among other sources, an entry that I wrote last year for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and written by one of Wiki’s experienced editors. In the future, other editors and readers may add to the article, and it would be nice if, in time, more information emerges about the group, including what they discussed during their dinners.

Given that the twelve women met regularly from 1890 until 1914 it’s not difficult to make some guesses. Women’s higher education, suffrage, the ‘New Woman’ in fiction and reality – they were all hot topics at the time. But probably the most debated issue in 1890, when the group formed, was ‘the marriage question’. In August 1888 the novelist Mona Caird published an essay called ‘Marriage’ in the Westminster Review, stating that marriage as it existed in Victorian Britain was ‘a vexatious failure’ and calling for equality of marriage partners. The Daily Telegraph took up the issue, and began a series called ‘Is Marriage A Failure?’ Over the following three months the newspaper received an astonishing 27,000 letters on the subject, an avalanche of opinions that filled its columns week after week. ‘The marriage question’, as it became known, continued to be debated in Britain throughout the 1890s, and I think it is very likely that these friends would have discussed it. (I imagined an early meeting of theirs in a previous post.)

Marriage was what brought most of them to Cambridge, or made them choose to stay on there after their studies. One of the attractions of marrying a man from Oxford or Cambridge was the chance to access the educational opportunities that were denied to the majority of women at the time. Many lectures were open to married women, and in the 1870s Caroline Jebb attended lectures in zoology, moral philosophy, law, and German literature. She did not want to appear a bluestocking, though, and claimed that she enjoyed Alfred Marshall’s lectures in political economy because they supplied ‘such good after-dinner conversation’.

Ida Darwin’s husband Horace worked on designing measuring instruments for the university’s new scientific laboratories. After she married him and moved to Cambridge in 1880 they both became involved in supporting the new women’s college at Newnham. Together they helped to galvanize votes for the successful Senate statute in 1881 that allowed female students the right to sit for the university’s final year exams. Horace’s father Charles Darwin called it ‘the triumph of the Ladies at Cambridge’ describing proudly how ‘Horace was sent to the Ladies’ College to communicate the success and was received with enthusiasm.’

Ida was also close to Anne Jemima Clough, Newnham’s first principal, and student (later vice-principal) Helen Gladstone. Several other lecturers from Newnham College were members of the Ladies’ Dining Society, including Margaret Verrall, Mary Paley Marshall and Ellen Crofts Darwin, who had married Ida’s brother-in-law Frank Darwin. Newnham’s second principal was Eleanor Sidgwick, whose marriage to the college’s co-founder Henry Sidgwick helped to establish women’s education at Cambridge.

So, as far as Cambridge was concerned, marriage (which was only permitted for most college fellows after 1882) was a good thing. It brought a wave of women who were passionately committed to improving life for the less privileged people of the town, and for giving equal rights to women workers of all classes across Britain. Louise Creighton was a co-founder of he National Union of Women Workers in 1885, while Kathleen Lyttelton began The Cambridge Association For Women’s Suffrage alongside Millicent Fawcett. The American Maud Darwin campaigned for the introduction of women police officers in Cambridge, and Fanny Prothero and Eliza von Hügel were active in finding homes for Belgian refugees in the town during the First World War.

Virginia Woolf once called Cambridge “that detestable place” because of the university’s long history of preventing female students’ rights to education. Marriage – like women’s education – was an unfair institution in 1890 and for many years afterwards, but the work of the university wives helped to make Cambridge a much better place.

Ann Kennedy Smith, 31 January 2019 (All rights reserved