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