Beginnings

RBLIn my previous post I wrote about the 1881 Senate vote at the University of Cambridge giving women the right, for the first time, to take final exams. Ida Darwin had written to her sister-in-law Henrietta Litchfield (née Darwin) asking her to encourage her husband Richard Buckley Litchfield to travel to Cambridge to support women’s education there. ( Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece shows him being fussed over by Henrietta) As a former student and tutor of Trinity College he had the right to vote on University matters. As it turned out, the vote was won by a large majority, although Cambridge degrees were still some way in the future for women, who were not admitted to membership of the University until December 1947. The present Queen’s mother was the first woman to be awarded the Cambridge degree of Doctor of Laws (Honorary) in October 1948.

Samantha Evans is author of the excellent Darwin and Women (CUP, 2017) which I reviewed here. In her book Evans describes how Charles Darwin’s ideas were affected by the women scientists he corresponded with, as well as his wife Emma and daughters Henrietta and Bessy’s active engagement in lifelong learning.

Women in their circle, even without raising an particular banner, were extraordinarily active: they learnt mathematics and physics; they hired tutors; they took examinations; they watched debates in the House of Commons from the ladies’ gallery; they attended university lectures if they were open to women. (Evans, p. 210)

Even so, Emma Darwin was not in favour of complete equality. Last week I came across Evans’ fascinating article (see link here) about Emma Darwin’s attitudes to higher education for women. In March 1881 Emma wrote to her son George about the recent vote.

You heard of the triumphant vote for the girls at Cambridge having their places in the exam. made public. Horace went to tell them about it & was received w. clapping. Afterward they put all their candles & lamps in the windows & ended w. a dance. R. thinks it is the beginning of the end & (I believe), that they will turn out as badly as the Russian young lady Doctors at Zurich.’ (DAR 251: 1002 Emma Darwin to G. H. Darwin, 7 March 1881.)

Horace, Ida’s husband, was so elated with the good news that he rushed to Newnham to celebrate with them, but his brother-in-law ‘R.’ (Richard Buckley Litchfield) felt very differently. Ida had assumed that Richard shared the Darwins’ liberal attitudes to women’s education, but when it came to his old university it seems that he wanted to keep the status quo. He was worried that by giving women the right to take exams Cambridge had gone too far and it would mean “the beginning of the end” for its continuing success as a university.

In her article, Evans explains that the ‘Russian young lady doctors’ who went to Zurich to study medicine were told in 1873 that they would not be offered appointments in Russia on their return. Effectively, their education would be worthless, and they faced a stark choice of either returning to their home country or continuing with their work abroad. It was a stark choice. Richard Litchfield was arguing (quite reasonably, if rather pessimistically) that there was little point in women trying to get a Cambridge education, because they wouldn’t be allowed into the British professions in any case.

Yet Litchfield was himself a forward-thinking educator. In 1854 he was one of the group who founded London’s Working Men’s College at 31 Lion Square in Bloomsbury to provide artisans with the chance for an education. It was one of the first adult education institutions, and its nineteenth-century teachers included Ruskin, John Stuart Mill and William Morris. EM Forster and Seamus Heaney were among those who taught there in the twentieth century. There’s an informative UCL history project on the college here.

In 1864, Elizabeth Malleson opened the Working Women’s College just round the corner at 29 Queen Square. She wanted the two colleges to merge, but the council of the male college (including Richard Litchfield, who taught there for many years) resisted. Perhaps he felt it would be the beginning of the end for the institution he had done so much to establish. It was only in 1966 that women were admitted to the college, eight years after the first women gained degrees at Cambridge. Now known as WMC -The Camden College, it provides courses equally to men and women today, particularly for those who have missed out on traditional educational opportunities, including the unemployed, older adults and refugee learners.

Litchfield was wrong to fear women students as he did, and believe it was ‘the beginning of the end’ for Cambridge. This year Cambridge University celebrates beginnings: ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibitions, events and talks will mark 150 years of women at Cambridge, from 1869-2019. The future looks bright.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 14 July 2019. All rights reserved.

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 longed 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 at Cambridge would not last. From then on, women’s progress towards equal membership of the University was increasingly blocked by the forces of reaction in the University who feared that the status quo would be changed. 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 recognition of women’s degrees; women finally won the right to degrees and full membership of Cambridge University in 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 UL timeline here: https://www.cam.ac.uk/TheRisingTide

Helen Gladstone, dutiful daughter

At about 20 minutes to 12 the body was brought out of the Chapel of St. Faith, through the Chapter-house vestibule, into the west cloister, and the procession was formed. The coffin was covered with a black velvet pall edged with white silk. On it were laid many wreaths of beautiful white flowers… (‘The funeral of Mr Darwin’, The Times, 27 April 1882)

Helen-Gladstone

On Wednesday 26 April 1882, thirty-two year old Helen Gladstone attended the funeral of Charles Darwin at Westminster Abbey. She went in the place of her father, Prime Minister William Gladstone, who was busy that day giving a speech on the Irish question, she told her friend Ida Darwin. It was true that this was a time of crisis for the government: increasing political violence in Ireland had led to secret negotiations that, two weeks later, would see the Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell released early from Kilmainham Gaol. But there may have been other, more tactical reasons for Gladstone’s absence that day. As a leading light in the Church of England, it might have been seen as inappropriate for him to attend the funeral of a great naturalist whose theory of natural evolution had nothing to do with God.

“Rather a tall person, in black” was Helen Gladstone’s typically diffident description of herself, which, according to one former student of hers, was “not at all suggestive of that vivid and compelling personality with its alert and vigorous carriage and striking distinction of features and expression”. She was 28 when she moved to Cambridge to study at Newnham Hall (later Newnham College), the oldest of 25 students there. At first she worried that she was neglecting her “home duties” by choosing to study, but told herself that her presence in Cambridge would help to break down prejudices about women’s colleges. “The fact of a daughter of Papa… being sent here ought to have a good influence”, she wrote.

Gladstone himself was not in favour of higher education for women, but he made an exception in his youngest daughter’s case. Of all his seven surviving children, Helen was thought to resemble him most, and he often found his way into her thoughts and conversations: “certainly one could not be ten minutes in her company without knowing that he was her father”, a Newnham student commented years later.

Indeed I think one of the things that kept her such a very “unmarried” person was her ingrained attitude of daughter. This went beyond her earthly father, through to God.

Helen was deeply religious, and regularly attended services at Selwyn College – her family donated generously towards building the new chapel – as Newnham had no religious affiliation. She had intended only to stay in Cambridge for a year, but ended up studying for three years, and took the higher local examination in political economy. After finishing her studies she became secretary to the Principal, Nora Sidgwick, and in January 1882 she accepted the post of Vice-Principal of Newnham, with her father’s blessing.

She met Charles and Emma Darwin for the first time less than two years previously, introduced by Horace, Darwin’s youngest son. He and his wife Ida had moved to Cambridge after their marriage in January and were both active supporters of the new college at Newnham. When Charles and Emma came to Cambridge in August 1880 on their first visit to see Horace and Ida, they were introduced to their new friend Helen Gladstone. They all got on famously, so much so that Helen was invited to the Darwins’ family home in Kent the following summer. She was a little nervous at the prospect of being a guest at Down House, and asked Ida, who was also going to be there, to take her under her wing. They all met up again in Cambridge in October that year.

Charles Darwin’s death six months later came as a shock, and Helen grieved for the family. Her attendance at his funeral in Westminster Abbey was a more sincere expression of sorrow than her father’s would have been. Darwin was buried in the north aisle of the nave of the Abbey, not far from Isaac Newton, and the Times reported a long list of the names of distinguished, and mostly male, guests. Ida Darwin stayed at Down House to comfort Emma, who could not bring herself to attend the grand occasion.

In 1886 Helen was offered the post of Principal of the new Royal Holloway College for women in London. William Gladstone was deeply proud of his daughter’s achievements despite his continuing opposition to the “invasion” of women students at Oxford. He wrote her a heartfelt letter urging her to accept the position.

Your life has a distinct purpose. After all we have heard and seen, there can be no doubt that you have upon you the marks of a distinct vocation. The call is from on high and I really do not think you have a right to overlook, or not to follow the marks of it…

Helen was touched by her father’s tribute to her work as a God-given vocation, but, after much thought, she decided that her “home duties” were more important and that the work at Holloway would be too demanding. She stayed on as Vice-Principal of Newnham for another ten years.

In 1896, before she gave up her job to take care of her ageing parents at Hawarden, she asked her father to sign an official memorial calling for women to be granted degrees “in some form” at Cambridge University. There is no evidence that Gladstone ever signed it, and the memorial was heavily defeated in any case. It would be another fifty years before women were admitted to degrees at Cambridge, but for Helen Gladstone, it was perhaps enough to feel she could expect her father’s support.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 26 April 2018

Photograph of Helen Gladstone by Barraud; reproduced with permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Sources Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Anne Isba, Gladstone and Women (Hambledon Continuum, 2006);Newnham College Roll ‘Letter’ Jan 1926; Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (Pimlico, 2002); Emma Darwin’s diaries 242:44-7 and Ida Darwin’s Papers (Cambridge University Library); BBC Witness (9 mins, accessed 25/4/18). With thanks to CUL Manuscripts; Anne Thomson, Newnham College archivist; Elizabeth Stratton, Selwyn College archivist.

 

The ascent of women at Cambridge

 

9781107158863When women were given the right to take examinations at Cambridge University in February 1881 Charles Darwin, aged 72, rejoiced. ‘You will have heard of the triumph of the Ladies at Cambridge’, he wrote from his home in Kent to his son George. ‘Horace was sent to the Lady’s [sic] College to communicate the success & was received with enthusiasm.’ Darwin is not usually celebrated for his feminist sympathies. In Descent of Man (1871) he stated that ‘the average standard of mental power in man must be above that of women’. As Dame Gillian Beer writesin regard to women Darwin ‘failed to observe in this one field the pressures of environment that were elsewhere fundamental to his arguments.’ She has contributed the foreword to a revealing new book, Darwin and Women by Samantha Evans (my review of it is here). This selection of lively letters from the team behind the Cambridge Darwin Correspondence Project shines light on many of the remarkable women with whom Darwin corresponded with interest and intellectual involvement over his lifetime.

Many of the women scientists, journalists and writers who wrote to the great scientist were involved in the promotion of women’s education. Although Darwin’s daughters Henrietta and Elizabeth (Bessy) did not have the opportunity to enrol at the new women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, they attended lectures at London University and shared a keen interest in education with their friends. ‘Women in their circle, even without raising any particular banner, were extraordinarily active’, Evans writes, ‘they learnt mathematics and physics; they hired tutors; they took examinations; they watched debates in the House of Commons from the ladies’ gallery; they attended university lectures if they were open to women.’ Darwin’s daughter-in-law Ida Darwin (married to Horace) was a keen supporter of Newnham, the ‘Lady’s College’ that Darwin refers to, and a future daughter-in-law, Ellen Crofts Darwin, studied and lectured there.

The ‘triumph of the ladies’ at Cambridge in 1881 was short-lived. Although women had won the right to sit for final exams, there was to be no membership of the university, no degrees and not even the right to attend lectures for many years to come.