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)

Independent Researcher Award

Dr Ellen McArthur (1862-1927)

I’m delighted to say I’ve just been awarded an ‘Independent Researcher Award’ for the coming academic year 2021-22 for my research project ‘Outrageous Proceedings: Women At Cambridge 1882-1914’. I am one of four researchers to be given this award by the Women’s History Network, a national association and charity for the promotion of women’s history and the encouragement of everyone interested in women’s history.

This award provides funding for me to investigate the lives and work of seven pioneering female scholars, college heads, academic wives, townswomen and female students who settled in Cambridge during the late nineteenth century. It was a time when women were not made welcome by many in the traditional male university society here, but their own social networks and societies provided the support and encouragement for these seven women to go on to do some remarkable work.

Some of the women whose stories I plan to explore further are familiar from this blog, including Mary Paley Marshall and Kathleen Lyttelton. Others whose names are less familiar are the Girton scholar Ellen A. McArthur, who, in recognition of her academic publications, was the first Oxbridge woman to be awarded an honorary doctorate at Trinity College Dublin, and Dr Susila Bonnerjee who, after studying at Newnham in the 1890s, went back to India to establish medical education for women then returned to England to fight for women’s suffrage.

I am very grateful to the Women’s History Network for their generous support. More details on their website below:

https://womenshistorynetwork.org/whn-independent-researcher-awards-2021-22/

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, 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 2019 TLS review, ‘Cursed with hearts and brains: female intellectuals and muses of the twentieth century’). In this post I will look briefly at Eileen Power’s life and work.

Eileen Power began her studies at Girton in 1907, where she was taught by the influential Dr Ellen McArthur, a scholar who did much to establish the teaching of history in the early twentieth century. Power herself became a Fellow in history at Girton in 1913. During the First World War Power taught economic history at both Girton and the London School of Economics (LSE) but after the war she 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.” She defied her critics, and those who assumed marriage was every woman’s chief ambition, 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. Power 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 worked as 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 College. Male historians, enchanted by Power’s looks and personality, habitually underestimated her work, but they changed their minds after reading her thoroughly researched 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.”

220px-Eileen_Power,_1922_(2)
Eileen Power in 1922

While in India, Eileen Power received an offer of a lectureship in political science from the 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 the position to Power they made it a lectureship and reduced the pay. As Wade points out, 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 who was regularly 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 BBC radio 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 there, 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 prepared to give 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.” Her regular “kitchen dances” in Mecklenburgh Square were attended by economists, politicians and writers: at one party Virginia Woolf recalled sharing a packet of chocolate creams with a civil servant. 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 carefully considered decision, 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: ‘About Ellen McArthur’ Amy Louise Erickson, University of Cambridge History website (accessed 29 April 2021); 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).