It’s still shocking to think that while Cambridge was one of the first universities to offer women residential university education (Girton College opened its doors in 1869, Newnham in 1871) it was the last UK university to award them degrees, in 1948. Women students, lecturers, postgraduate scholars and scientists were denied not only Cambridge degrees but also research funding and scholarships, and had only restricted access to the University Library for many years.
Recently I was pleased to give a talk to the Cambridge Archivists’ Group highlighting the work of two campaigning historians, Mary Bateson at Newnham and Ellen McArthur at Girton from the late 19th to the early 20th century. I discussed how they not only succeeded in their own academic research and campaigned for the title of degrees to be awarded to women in 1897, they also actively promoted women’s scholarship at Cambridge and left legacies that continue today.
My thanks to the group for inviting me; below is a link to their excellent blogpost about my talk.
This week I’m delighted to be taking part in a panel discussion organized by St John’s College FemSoc on the theme of Women In Academia with University Librarian Dr Jessica Gardner and Professor Helen McCarthy, author of the prize-winning Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood (2020). As well as the history of women at Cambridge, wider issues to be discussed include the experiences of women in different professional settings and the importance of remembering histories to inform our future. For their support of my research this year I am personally grateful to the Women’s History Network, the national association for historians with a passion for women’s history. To mark the occasion I’m reposting my blog ‘Locked out of the library’ (below) about Cambridge University’s pioneering women scholars who were denied access to the University Library in the 1890s. I’m pleased to say it’s a welcoming space for all scholars and researchers today, both within the academy and beyond.
‘Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.’ Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)
For many years the University Library (known as the U.L.) was ‘a contested space’ for women at Cambridge, as Dr Jill Whitelock, Head of Special Collections at the University Library, puts it. She has been researching how the control of access to the U.L., alongside the university’s lecture halls and laboratories, was bound up with the status of women at Cambridge between 1869 and 1923, and gave a fascinating talk, ‘Lock up your libraries’, as part of the ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibition and events of 2019-20 (curated by Dr Lucy Delap and Dr Ben Griffin). I am very grateful to Dr Whitelock for alerting me to a remarkable letter that was sent to the University Library Syndicate in November 1891, and for sending me a photograph of it. My blogpost below is about some of the women who signed the 1891 letter; there is much more background in Whitelock’s excellent recent article ‘”Lock up your libraries”? Women readers at Cambridge University Library, 1855–1923’ now published in Library & Information History, (Volume 38 Issue 1, Page 1-22, ISSN 1758) and free to read online.
Nowadays, the U.L. is based in the striking Gilbert Scott-designed building that opened in 1934 in the west of the city (see Whitelock’s blogpost ‘The abandoned library’ here). Before 1934 the University’s library was situated in the Old Schools building, by the Senate House. The Old Library was ‘a chaotic but atmospheric medley of disparate rooms, uneven floors and dark places for which readers could borrow lamps to light their way,’ as Whitelock writes in ‘M. R. James and the ghosts of the old University Library’ here. It was chiefly a space for male academics and researchers, but Whitelock’s research shows that there were also women readers who used the university library for their research long before the first ‘ladies’ college’, Girton, was established in 1869. These included a ‘Miss Henslow’, one of the daughters of Professor Joseph Stevens Henslow who had taught Charles Darwin in the 1820s. Miss Henslow was probably Frances Harriet (later Mrs Hooker), who in 1851 married Darwin’s friend Joseph Hooker; her translation of Maout and Decaisnes’ A General System of Botany, Descriptive and Analytical from French into English was published in 1873 and can be consulted in the U.L.’s Rare Books Reading Room (MD.40.65).
Girton College was founded in 1869, Newnham College two years later. That year, following a vote by the Syndicate, the first woman reader’s card was issued to Newnham’s Ella Bulley (who would become renowned later as the scholar and archeologist Ella S. Armitage). In 1871 she was one of the ‘first five’ students who lived in the Newnham College’s earliest premises, a rented house in Regent Street. Because she was 30 when she began her studies, she was permitted a year-long card (all of the library’s readers then had to be over 21). Three years later, she would become Newnham’s first research student and, after her marriage to Reverend Elkanah Armitage, with whom she had two children, she continued her academic work, teaching at Owens College in Manchester (which became part of the University of Manchester) and publishing several books on medieval history. Her library card was preserved by the U.L. and was displayed in ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibition of 2019-20.
One of the other five students was Mary Paley Marshall (then Mary Paley) who took charge of the small collection of books that students could borrow. She was, in effect, Newnham College’s first librarian. In 1874 she became the first of two women to take the Cambridge Tripos (final year exams) in Moral Sciences, along with Ella’s younger sister Amy Bulley. A year later Paley Marshall became Newnham’s first resident lecturer, teaching Political Economy ‘from a philanthropic woman’s point of view’, as a former student, Winnie Seebohm wrote.
By the 1880s, women at Cambridge seemed to be gaining ground. In 1881 female students gained the right to take the Tripos exams on equal terms to the male students (see my blogpost here), and in 1887 the University Library’s age restriction for readers was dropped, allowing women under 21 to use the library for the first time.
Coincidentally, this was also the year that a Cambridge woman student made the national headlines. In 1887 Agnata Frances Ramsay (later Butler) of Girton College was the only student to be placed in the first class of the Classical Tripos. Three years later, Newnham College was in the spotlight when Philippa Fawcett, Millicent Fawcett’s daughter, outperformed all of the male students in the 1890 Mathematics Tripos. Their success in the two subjects that were traditionally considered as the preserve of men -Classics and Mathematics – caused a sensation. Cambridge women had now proved that their intellectual ability could be superior to that of their male counterparts, and conservative forces at the University were becoming uneasy that they would invade other, traditionally male, spaces.
This was reflected in a tightening of the rules permitting access to the University Library. The hours that readers who were University ‘non-members’ (which included women) could use the library were reduced from 10 until 2pm (from 4pm previously), and in autumn 1891 it was proposed that a fee should be introduced. Non-members would now be permitted to use the library only from 10am until 2pm, and were restricted to certain areas. As Rita McWilliams-Tullberg points out in Women At Cambridge (revised edition 1998), this restriction ‘was most hardly felt by the staffs of the women’s colleges who, whatever their degree of scholarship, could only use one of the world’s finest libraries on the same conditions as members of the general public’ (p. 156).
Crucially, by now Girton and Newnham’s academic success had been proven not only by the excellent exam results of their students, but also by the research record of their lecturers and tutors, who had published books and academic papers. Regardless of their achievements, they could now only use the library on extremely limited terms. In November 1891, twenty years after Ella Bulley’s reader’s card was issued, a petition in the form of a letter was delivered to the University Library Syndicate. The letter politely asked for the new library rules to be reconsidered, and was signed by twenty-four women who described themselves as ‘former Students of Girton and Newnham Colleges who have obtained places in Various Triposes’. They respectfully requested permission ‘to work in the Library with the same freedom as heretofore’, explaining politely that for those who had ‘morning engagements’ (that is, teaching students) the reduced hours meant that it would now be almost impossible for them to use the library for their research.
The letter was signed by twenty-four women lecturers and librarians, researchers and laboratory demonstrators, star students and scholars from the first twenty years of Girton and Newnham. They include the linguists Margaret Janson Tuke(Dame Margaret Tuke, D.B.E.), the Newnham lecturer who would later head Bedford College in 1907 (now merged with Royal Holloway, University of London) and Bertha Skeat, the first resident lecturer at the Cambridge Training College for Women Teachers (now Hughes Hall).
Scientists who signed the letter include Ida Freund, who was the first woman to become a chemistry lecturer in the UK; Dorothea F.M. Pertz, who had co-published papers on geotropism and heliotropism in plants with Francis Darwin; and the botanist and geneticist Edith Rebecca Saunders, who worked closely with the biologist William Bateson. ‘Saunders had several years of independent research under her belt when she started to collaborate with William Bateson,’ writes Susannah Gibson inThe Spirit of Inquiry (2019) ‘she was not a junior colleague, but very much his equal.’ Saunders conducted her groundbreaking plant experiments at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, and with Bateson co-founded the Genetics Society in 1919. Christine Alexander, librarian of Cambridge University’s Plant Sciences Department, has compiled a fascinating online collection about Saunders’ influential work.
The 1891 group also included Newnham’s most famous student, Philippa Fawcett (Mathematics tripos Parts 1 & II 1890-1), as well as one of the first women to sit for the Tripos almost 20 years previously, Mary Paley Marshall (Moral Sciences Tripos 1874). She was now back in Cambridge after some years teaching male and female students at Oxford and the newly founded Bristol University, where 30 years later she would be awarded an honorary doctorate for her contribution (see post here). The letter is also signed by two of her fellow Ladies’ Dining Society members and ‘sometime’ (i.e. previous) Newnham lecturers Ellen Wordsworth Darwin and Mary Ward; like Paley Marshall, they were active in promoting higher education and suffrage for women, and continued to research and write. The letter is also signed by E.E. Constance Jones, then a lecturer in Moral Sciences at Girton, who would become Girton College Mistress (head) from 1903 until 1916.
The two women who organized the 1891 petition One was the Girton economic historian Ellen A. Mc Arthur (History Tripos 1885), who would become the first woman to receive an honorary ad eundam doctorate from the University of Dublin, based on her academic publications (see my ‘Steamboat Ladies’ post here). The other person was the Newnham historian and lecturer Mary Bateson (History Tripos 1887) a sister of William Bateson. Her mother Anna Bateson and sister Anna, had co-founded the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association in 1884, and Mary was also an active suffragist as well as a serious scholar. She worked closely with the legal historian F.W. Maitland and was instrumental in the foundation of Newnham’s first research fellowship in 1903. As Dockray Miller writes, Mary Bateson ‘firmly believed, twenty-five years before Virginia Woolf addressed the faculty and students of Newnham College about the necessity of “a room of one’s own,” that women could not pursue serious scholarship without the financial and professional support of an academic institution.’
The 1891 petition offers a snapshot of twenty-four extraordinary women who had studied, researched, taught and published at Cambridge during the past twenty years. It is ironic that their books were welcomed by the U.L. even though they were not – including Paley Marshall’s The Economics of Industry (1879), co-written with Alfred Marshall, and E.E. Constance Jones’s Elements of logic as a science of propositions (1890). (Jones’s An introduction to general logic would be acquired in 1892; W. Cunningham and Ellen A. McArthur’s Outlines of English Industrial History in 1895; Mary Bateson’s Mediaeval England, 1066-1350 in 1903) . These and many more of their books and scholarly papers can still be consulted there today.
In 1891 these women had already achieved much – and would go on to do much more – but it was a period when the tide had turned against Cambridge women who dared to excel. Their request for greater access to the library fell on deaf ears, and the Syndicate’s policy became more, not less restrictive. In May 1897, after thousands gathered outside the Senate House to protest against the vote to allow women the title of degrees, the U.L. Librarian Francis Jenkinson confirmed that non-members’ access to the library would be limited yet again, until midday only.
So, locked out of the University Library as they were, staff and supporters of Girton and Newnham raised funds to build up their own magnificent college libraries, which today have around 100,000 books each. Tennyson, Ruskin, George Eliot and many others were early supporters of Girton College’s Stanley Library, and Newnham College’s beautiful Yates Thompson Library, see below. It was not until 1923 that Cambridge women students finally won the right to become readers at the U.L. on the same terms as the men.
SOURCES: My thanks to Jill Whitelock and to Carolyn Ferguson for their generous help. Any remaining errors are my own. Christine Alexander, ‘My Colleague, Miss Saunders’; E. Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (1999); Mary Dockray Miller, ‘Mary Bateson (1865-1906): Scholar and Suffragist’ in Women Medievalists and the Academy, edited by Jane Chance (Wisconsin, 2005); Susannah Gibson, The Spirit of Inquiry (OUP, 2019) (see my TLS review here); Rita McWilliams-Tullberg Women At Cambridge (CUP, 1975; revised edition 1998); Jill Whitelock, ‘”Lock up your libraries”? Women readers at Cambridge University Library, 1855–1923’ in Library & Information History, Volume 38 Issue 1, Page 1-22, ISSN 1758-3489 (available online Apr 2022)
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.
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.
At the beginning of this academic year, Professor Linda Doyle took up office as Provost of Trinity College Dublin (TCD), the first woman to lead the university in its 429-year history. ‘Another glass ceiling has been shattered’, said Simon Harris, Irish Minister for Further and Higher Education. To celebrate the occasion – and mark the autumn graduation ceremonies taking place at Trinity this week – I am re-posting my new and improved ‘Steamboat Ladies’ blogpost about the moving historic connections between women at Trinity College Dublin and Cambridge women.
Women were first admitted to Ireland’s oldest university, Trinity College Dublin, in 1904 and one of the most important episodes to raise Irish women’s academic reputation was the awarding of ad eundem gradum degrees to their predecessors at Cambridge and Oxford. Girton College was the UK’s first residential institution offering university-level education for women 1869, and Newnham was founded two years later. But although women had been studying and sitting for final exams at Oxford and Cambridge since the 1870s, they continued to be refused degrees at those universities. Between 1904 and 1907, over 700 ‘Oxbridge’ women travelled to Dublin by special arrangement to be given the degrees at Trinity instead. Among them were distinguished headmistresses, teachers and academics, who wanted to be able to prove their degree status and were nicknamed ‘Steamboat Ladies’ for the cheap ferry transport they used to to cross the Irish Sea from Holyhead.
Inviting these women to attend a formal graduation ceremony on the same terms as male students was a remarkable act of forward thinking on the part of Trinity College Dublin. Yet it happened almost by accident, as Susan M. Parkes writes in her book A Danger to the Men? A History of Women in Trinity College Dublin 1904-2004 (Lilliput Press 2004). The Trinity Board had presumed only a handful of Irish women who had studied at Oxford and Cambridge would take up the offer, and were surprised when hundreds of women arranged to make the journey to Dublin. ‘These distinguished women of varying ages were the leaders of women’s secondary and higher education in Britain’, Parkes writes. ‘Trinity was honoured by their presence, and though the majority of the “Steamboat Ladies” probably never returned to Dublin, they remained proud holders of University of Dublin degrees’.
Seeing so many distinguished women gathered together must have provided inspiration to Trinity’s first generation of female students, who on regular occasions from December 1904 onwards watched the women proceed from the Provost’s house (where they had been given lunch) to the college’s gracious Front Square where they posed for photographs on the steps of the Dining Hall. The last ‘Steamboat Ladies’ ceremony took place in 1907 and the revenue generated by the fees paid by these Oxbridge women enabled the purchase of TCD’s much-needed hall of residence for women, Trinity Hall in south Dublin. Its first Warden (and for the next thirty-two years) was Elizabeth Margaret Cunningham, who had studied modern languages at Girton College in the 1890s. She was herself one of the original ‘Steamboat Ladies’, travelling back to Ireland from her post as a lecturer at Royal Holloway College London. In 1908 she gave up her promising academic career to return to Dublin and make Trinity Hall a welcoming place for TCD’s female students. She wanted them to have the chance to experience the atmosphere of encouragement and support that she had enjoyed while studying at Girton.
Sixty years later, in 1968, Barbara Wright (née Robinson) became one of the first four women to be elected to the Fellowship of Trinity College Dublin. To mark the occasion, Dame Ruth Cowen (then Principal of Newnham College Cambridge, where Wright had completed her Ph.D. degree in 1962) gave Professor Wright a remarkable gift: one of the original graduation gowns worn by one of original Newnham’s Steamboat Ladies. ‘I thought that was really moving that they wanted to mark the full accession of women to all stages in Trinity, in gratitude for what Trinity had done for them’, Wright said in a 2019 broadcast. ‘These were very important women, in society, and in the world of learning, and it was extremely important that they should be recognised as such.’
It was wonderful to see this historic gown on display in last year’s Cambridge University Library exhibition ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ (my review in the Times Literary Supplement is free to read here) As a TCD student in the early 1980s I was fortunate enough to be taught by Professor Wright and it was partly thanks to her inspiring teaching and encouragement that I came to Cambridge to study for my own Ph.D. in French Literature in 1985. It’s lovely that such historic, tangible connections exist between the first women at Trinity College Dublin and at Cambridge University.