Locked out of the Library

Stanley Library, Girton College: illustration in Girton College by E.E.Constance Jones (1913)

Last week, Cambridge University Library (the U.L.) unlocked its doors and welcomed its first visitors back into its reading rooms, book stacks and archives. ‘The library is made by its readers’, the UL Librarian Dr Jessica Gardner has generously said. She is only the second female in the history of the institution to hold this prestigious role; there will be unanticipated challenges for her and all UL staff, as the Covid-19 pandemic means that the reopened physical library will have to change. Time slots will need to be booked in advance, and certain library services and spaces will be limited, at least for the time being. These restrictions are, of course, necessary to protect the safety of library staff and users. This blogpost is about a time when, for less valid reasons, women were locked out of the library, and how one remarkable group tried to gain entry in 1891.

For many years the University Library 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 UL, alongside the university’s lecture halls and laboratories, was bound up with the status of women at Cambridge between 1869 and 1923. She gave a fascinating talk, ‘Lock up your libraries’, as part of ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibition and events earlier this year, and I am very grateful to her for alerting me to a remarkable letter that was sent to the University Library Syndicate in November 1891 (and for sending me a copy of it).

Nowadays, the UL is based in the spacious Gilbert Scott-designed building that opened in 1934 in the west of the city. For centuries before then, it 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 a Special Collections blogpost (with some excellent photographs). Her research shows how there were women readers at the university library even before the women’s colleges were established. These included a ‘Miss Henslow’, one of the daughters of Professor Joseph Stevens Henslow who had taught Charles Darwin in the 1820s. This was probably Frances Harriet 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 UL’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 Ella Bulley (later Ella S. Armitage), one of Newnham’s ‘first five’ students who lived in the college’s earliest premises, a gloomy rented house in Regent Street. She was 30 years old, and so was permitted a year-long card (all of the library’s readers then had to be over 21). Three years later she became Newnham’s first research student and, after her marriage to Rev. Armitage, she continued her work, teaching at Owens College, Manchester and publishing several books on medieval history. Her library card was preserved by the UL and was displayed in ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibition of 2019-20, curated by Dr Lucy Delap and Dr Ben Griffin.  

(Ella Bulley, UL library card, 1871)

One of the other five students was Mary Paley Marshall (née 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, and was the college’s first resident lecturer.

By the 1880s, women at Cambridge seemed to be gaining ground. In 1881 women gained the right to take the Tripos exams on equal terms to 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 female 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. Women students had now proved that their intellectual ability was equal to that of their male counterparts, and conservative forces at the University became uneasy.

This was reflected in a tightening of the rules permitting access to the University Library. The hours that readers who were ‘non-members’ (i.e. women) could use it 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 be limited 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 (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’ (156).

By this time Girton and Newnham had been established for over twenty years, and their success as colleges had been proven by the excellent exam results of their students, as well as the research record of their lecturers and tutors, who could now only use the library on extremely limited terms. In November 1891, exactly twenty years after Ella Bulley’s reader’s card was issued, a letter was delivered to the University Library Syndicate. The letter asked for the new proposal 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 were happy to pay the proposed fee, they said, but respectfully requested permission ‘to work in the Library with the same freedom as heretofore’, explaining politely that for ‘some of us who have morning engagements’ the reduced hours meant that it was now almost impossible for them to use the library for their research.


In ‘History of the Library’, vol. V, 1886-1900, UL classmark ULIB 6/5/5

It’s plain from the list of the signatories that their ‘morning engagements’ meant work: the letter is signed by lecturers and librarians, researchers and laboratory demonstrators, star students and scholars. They include the linguists Margaret Janson Tuke (Dame Margaret Tuke, D.B.E.), the Newnham lecturer who would later found 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, 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 would work closely with Bateson after 1897. ‘Saunders had several years of independent research under her belt when she started to collaborate with William Bateson,’ writes Susannah Gibson in The 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 famous recent graduate 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 had returned to lecturing in economics at Newnham after teaching male and female students at Bristol and Oxford Universities. The letter is also signed by two of her fellow Ladies’ Dining Society members and ‘sometime’ 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.

Most of these women are connected to Newnham College, but the letter is also signed by E.E. Constance Jones, who was then a lecturer in Moral Sciences at Girton College as well as its librarian, and would become Mistress of Girton from 1903 until 1916. One of the two women who organized the petition was economic historian Ellen A. Mc Arthur (Hist. Tripos 1885) who was a Girton lecturer and the first woman to receive the degree of ‘Doctor of Letters’ from the University of Dublin (see my ‘Steamboat ladies’ post). The other person who arranged the letter was the Newnham historian and lecturer Mary Bateson, a sister of William Bateson. Their mother Anna Bateson, and sister Anna, co-founded the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association in 1884, and Mary was also an active suffragist.  She became a Newnham Fellow in 1903, was instrumental in the foundation of the College’s first research fellowships, and worked closely with the legal historian F.W. Maitland.

The 1891 petition offers a snapshot of twenty-four extraordinary women from two Cambridge colleges who had studied, researched, taught and published during the previous twenty years. Ironically, their books were welcomed by the UL even if 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) – her An introduction to general logic would be acquired in 1892. These and many more of their books and scholarly papers can be consulted there today.

In 1891 these women had already achieved much – and would go on to do much more – but the tide had turned against Cambridge women who dared to excel, and their request for greater access to the library fell on deaf ears. The Syndicate’s policy became more, not less restrictive, and in May 1897, after thousands protested outside the Senate House against the vote to allow women degrees, the UL Librarian Francis Jenkinson confirmed that non-members’ access to the library would be limited until midday only.

Locked out of the University Library, 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 and George Eliot were early supporters of Girton College Library, and there is more about the history of Newnham College’s library here.

In 1923, Cambridge women finally won the right to become readers on the same terms as the men. Two years later, Mary Paley Marshall, who had been Newnham’s first librarian over fifty years previously, co-founded the Marshall Library of Economics and worked there as librarian until her late eighties. 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 it was equally useful, and accessible, to male and female readers.

Like the UK’s other major research libraries, the UL did not close during lockdown (see this excellent LRB article by Bodleian Librarian, Richard Ovenden). While the building was closed to protect staff and readers, Cambridge University Librarians shifted their work online, making many more collections available digitally and using their research skills to support researchers. The physical Library has begun to re-open safely this month thanks to the hard work put in during the past months by its staff, who continue to help readers to have ongoing access to the collections in all their forms.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, 19 August 2020. All rights reserved.



Girton College by E.E.Constance Jones (1913); available at the UL (Cam.c.913.2)

SOURCES: My thanks to Jill Whitelock and 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); Susannah Gibson The Spirit of Inquiry (OUP, 2019) (see my TLS review here); Rita McWilliams-Tullberg Women At Cambridge (CUP, 1998); Jill Whitelock ‘M.R. James and the ghosts of the old University Library’, Cambridge University Library Special Collections blog https://specialcollections-blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=18923; more about Ellen McArthur in King’s College’s ‘Women At King’s’ online exhibition here: https://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/archive-centre/online-resources/online-exhibitions/women-at-kings

Celebrating The Ladies’ Dining Society

University-Arms-hotels-refurbished-bar

This month, to mark International Women’s Day on 8 March 2020, a new cocktail called ‘The Ladies’ Dining Society’ will be launched in the Parker’s Tavern Bar at the beautifully renovated University Arms in Cambridge. The ingredients are still under wraps, but it will feature on a prestigious list of cocktails named after Darwin, Byron and others.  It’s a wonderful, celebratory tribute to the intellectual discussion club that twelve women began in 1890, and the unique contribution they made to the city’s life and culture.

It’s funny that one of the things known about the dining club is that the women didn’t over-indulge in alcohol. ‘The hostess not only provided a good dinner (though champagne was not allowed),’ recalled Mary Paley Marshall, ‘but also a suitable topic of conversation, should one be required, and she was allowed to introduce an outside lady at her dinner; but it was an exclusive society, for one black ball was enough to exclude a proposed new member.’

Despite such stern-sounding rules, the women were welcoming to guests, and their conversations were lively and wide-ranging. The freedom of talking openly in the relaxed setting of like-minded, trusted friends was heady, it seems. Eleanor Sidgwick, who became Principal of Newnham College in 1892, was usually seen as a rather reserved, slightly aloof figure. But the Ladies’ Dining Society dinners brought out her lighter side. ‘I have never anywhere else seen her more alive & interested,’ her friend Louise Creighton wrote. ‘She used to quite flush with excitement.’

So perhaps it was a good thing that champagne was not introduced into the already sparkling mix. The twelve women were not the only hosts who agreed that it was best for guests not to overdo it, at least before dinner. A note by Charles Dickens, acquired by the Dickens Museum recently, throws light on how meticulous he was about his own dinner party arrangements twenty years before the Ladies’ Dining Society. “No champagne before supper,” he told his butler, “and as little wine as possible, of any sort, before supper.”

Dickens_Gurney_head

During their meal Dickens’s guests could drink as much wine and champagne as they liked, of course – the idea was that they shouldn’t over-indulge beforehand. None of the Ladies’ Dining Society would, I imagine, have risked Dickens’ rather lethal home-made ‘gin punch’, nor would it have been offered to them (or any other guest). He instructed his staff to keep it hidden under the table (in ice) during his dinners, and only give it to himself and his friend Mark Lemon, the founding editor of the aptly named Punch.

I am sure the new Ladies’ Dining Society cocktail will be delicious, and bear no resemblance to anything Dickens might have dreamed up. I am looking forward to celebrating it with friends at the University Arms from 8 March 2020 onwards.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 1 March 2020 (all rights reserved)

Sources: M.P. Marshall, What I remember (1947); L. Creighton, Memoir of a Victorian Woman ed. J. T. Covert (1994); ‘Dickens treasure trove goes to London museum’ The Guardian 7 Feb 2020

Clubs of their own

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“We were a very lively buzzing community, pushing along our way, very much amused with ourselves,” Blanche Athena Clough wrote of her time as a Newnham College student in the 1880s (she later became Principal). As well as studying Classics, she had lots of college clubs to choose from, including the Shakespeare Reading Society, the Browning Society, several French societies and the ever-popular debating society. Both Newnham and Girton had a rich associational life, as the section on ‘Social Life’ in the ongoing ‘Rising Tide’ exhibition at Cambridge University Library reveals. Most of the University’s student-run societies that began in the 1870s were exclusively male, as Clough confirms. “We had no part or lot in University societies except the Ladies Discussion Society and I think C.U.M.S. [Cambridge University Music Society]… in any case the University generally were hardly aware of our existence.”

I believe that the women-led societies that began in the 1880s and lasted for so many years helped to make Cambridge a better, more inclusive place. These were not University societies, but associations begun in most cases by women married to professors, masters and college fellows after the University dropped its celibacy requirements. I’ve been talking quite a bit about these clubs recently. I was invited to speak to Selwyn College alumni about Kathleen Lyttelton and ‘The Women who changed Cambridge’ at the rather splendid Oxford and Cambridge Club in London last November. Then I gave a talk called ‘A Club of Their Own’ at the University Library in December, connected to the ‘Rising Tide’ exhibition. This month I gave another version of that talk to the Friends of Milton Road Library in a bright and welcoming new library setting.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to talk in such a variety of places, particularly as the societies that I discussed brought ‘town and gown’ women together in such an active, outward-facing social network. The Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls (founded in 1883) was practical and philanthropic in nature, helping underprivileged girls; it was co-founded by Ida Darwin and a small committee of married townswomen and dons’ wives.

downloadIn 1884 Selwyn Master’s wife Kathleen Lyttelton (pictured here) co-founded the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association with Millicent Garrett Fawcett, leading to the town becoming one of the major centres in the campaign for women’s votes. The Ladies’ Discussion Society, mentioned by B.A. Clough above, was founded in 1886 by Mary Paley Marshall and others with the aim of bringing University wives, townswomen and female students together to discuss social questions. Speakers included Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify as a medical doctor in England. In December 1892 she came to Cambridge to give a talk on the medical profession for women, and was ‘pelted with questions’ by Newnham and Girton students, according to a report in the Cambridge Independent Press.

IMG_8985Today, anyone who is interested in finding out more about these societies can access their extensive original archives in the Cambridgeshire Archives in a brand new, purpose-built site in Ely. It’s a bit harder to find out about the fourth club that I talked about, and have written about in this blog for the last few years. The exclusive Ladies’ Dining Society did not, as far as I know, keep minutes of their conversations or record details of the dinners they shared once or twice a term for almost twenty-five years. There are only intriguing snippets about the club in a couple of memoirs, and a handful of references in letters and diaries. It’s understandable that the women wanted to keep their conversations private, including from future researchers like me. The fact that it lasted for so many years shows that the Ladies’ Dining Society was deeply significant at a time when women’s voices and contributions to debate went largely unheard. I think that it’s a club worth celebrating, as we approach International Women’s Day on 8 March 2020.

‘Even to form a ladies’ social club was a mild assertion of women’s right to public space’, as Doughan and Gordon write. Below I have listed their useful book, along with archive sources and a selection of excellent books, essays and articles on women’s clubs.

The University has not always been welcoming to women, but the excellent Rising Tide exhibition and events show what women at Cambridge have achieved despite all the obstacles. The exhibition closes on 21 March, so do grab the chance to see it if you’re in Cambridge (and if you are not, my TLS review is here). The Friends of Milton Road Library provide a year-round programme of stimulating and varied talks: more information here.

©Ann Kennedy Smith 17 February 2020 (all rights reserved)

Cambridgeshire Archives: Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society minute book, 789/Q139; Cambridge Association for Social Welfare (1883-1985) [formerly CACG]  R106/097; Cambridge Ladies Discussion Society minute book, 789/Q139; CWSA Papers to 1919: 455/Q16-57, 59-60, 62-79; archives held at the Cambridgeshire Collection (in Cambridge Central Library) and the Museum of Cambridge.

Secondary sources: Elizabeth Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (1999) and ‘Rooms Of Their Own: Victorian And Edwardian Women’s Clubs: Hesitant Beginnings‘ & other articles on ‘Woman and her Sphere’ website (accessed 16 Feb 2020); Louise Creighton, Memoir of a Victorian Woman: Reflections of Louise Creighton, 1850-1936 ed. James Thayne Covert (1994); D. Doughan and P. Gordon, Women, clubs and associations in Britain (2006); Linda Hughes, ‘A Club of Their Own: The “Literary Ladies,” New Women Writers, and Fin-de-Siècle Authorship’ Victorian Literature and Culture  35:1, March 2007, pp. 233-260; (1947); Amelia Hutchinson, ‘The “Hidden Histories” of women at Trinity’ unpub. dissertation (2019) https://www.trin.cam.ac.uk/news/amelia-hutchinson-on-the-hidden-histories-of-women-at-trinity/ (accessed 16 Feb 2020); Mary Paley Marshall, What I remember (Cambridge, 1947); G. Sutherland ‘Girton for ladies, Newnham for governesses’ in Teaching and Learning in Nineteenth-Century Cambridge, eds. Jonathan Smith and Christopher Stray, 2001) pp.139-149 and In Search of the New Woman: Middle-Class Women and Work in Britain 1870-1914 (Cambridge, 2015); Christina Paulson-Ellis, The Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls: Social Work with Girls and Young women in Cambridge 1883 -1954 (2008); Ann Phillips, A Newnham Anthology (Cambridge, 1979); Tamsin Wimhurst, The Development, Importance and Influence of a Local Network of Women c. 1886 – 1930: unpub. MA dissertation, University of Cambridge 2007 (soon to be made available at Milton Road Library)

The education of Mary Paley Marshall

This year marks 150 years since Cambridge University opened its doors to women for the first time. Girton College‘s founder Emily Davies was clear that ‘the College is intended to be a dependency, a living branch of Cambridge.’ In October 1869, however, its connections to the University were still uncertain. Davies herself insisted that her college should be based at Hitchin, far enough away to keep her students safe from the unwanted attention of male students.

There was another, equally significant event for women’s education at Cambridge that year. In December 1869, what historian Rita Mc Williams-Tullberg has described as ‘a momentous meeting’ took place in the Brookside drawing-room of Millicent Fawcett and her professor husband Henry Fawcett. The Cambridge Higher Local Examination for Women had come into being not long before, primarily to establish standards for women over eighteen who wanted to become teachers or governesses. But the Fawcetts and a small group of supporters of women’s university education, including Henry Sidgwick, wanted to take it further. They decided that the Higher Local Examination should be used as a stepping stone for women to attend lectures in the town itself, and within a few months of this meeting, Cambridge’s first series of Lectures for Women began. This blogpost is about one of the first women who passed that entrance examination in 1871, and found herself staying in Cambridge for longer than she or anyone else expected.

Mary Paley Marshall

Mary Paley was the great-granddaughter of the eighteenth-century theologian and philosopher William Paley. She 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 memoir What I Remember. Her mother Judith, by contrast, was ‘full of initiative and always bright and amusing’. Summers at the rectory were idyllic for Mary and her brother and sister, who spent happy days playing croquet and rounders in the garden and looking after their Shetland pony, rabbits and hens. Visitors came to stay for weeks on end and there were outings to Scarborough and Hunstanton. Winters were dull, especially after their brother was sent off to boarding school. The muddy country roads around the rectory were impassable and there were few interesting people to see. Their bright German governess left when Mary was thirteen, and she and her sister were expected to fill their time with Sunday school teaching and keeping their mother company in visiting the poor and sick.

Fortunately for Mary, her father had an unusual attitude to learning. Reverend Paley did not see why his daughters’ education should stop at age thirteen or be limited to certain subjects. ‘We had a father who took part in work and play and who was interested in electricity and photography’, Mary recalled. He even entertained the whole village occasionally with his scientific demonstrations. At home in the evenings he read aloud to his children 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. Mayor wrote in The Rector’s Daughter, a wonderful evocation of a similar Victorian upbringing published in 1924.* Reverend Paley’s strong religious principles meant that there were limits, however. He disapproved of the novels of Charles Dickens and once threw his Mary and her sister’s beloved dolls into the fire: ‘he said we were making them into idols and we never had any more.’

When her sister left home to get married, Mary’s own duties seemed duller than ever. To give his bright daughter something to do, and perhaps dissuade her from marrying an army officer, Reverend Paley encouraged her to enter for the Cambridge Higher Local Examination. He set about coaching Mary in divinity and mathematics and they studied Potts’ Euclid’s Elements of Geometry together. Although she wept over the ‘Conic Sections’ paper, Mary passed the examination with distinction in the summer of 1871, and was awarded a small scholarship to attend the University’s Lectures for Women on condition that she resided in Cambridge.

At the time, the idea that single women might live apart from their parents and attend lectures was, as Mary said herself, ‘an outrageous proceeding’. Fortunately for her, her father had met Anne Jemima Clough, whom Henry Sidgwick had asked to take charge of the house at 74 Regent Street near the centre of Cambridge (later it moved to Newnham and, like Girton, became a college). Mary would be one of five students living there. 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, and he gave Mary permission to leave home.

In her memoir Mary described how she came to Cambridge for ‘general cultivation’ and only expected to stay for three terms. She chose to study Latin, History, Literature and 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 Alfred Marshall, she changed subjects to study Moral Sciences (Political Economy, Politics and Philosophy).  Nothing was ever the same again for Mary Paley Marshall, or for the generations of women who have followed her to gain a Cambridge education.

In 1874 Mary Paley was one of the first two women to take Cambridge University’s Moral Sciences Tripos, and she became the university’s first residential woman lecturer in economics at Newnham College in 1875. In 1924, as Mary Paley Marshall, she co-founded the University’s Marshall Library of Economics where she also worked until she was 87. See also my previous blogpost on Mary Paley Marshall’s life and work,  ‘How to use a library’, here.

Ann Kennedy Smith, May 2019

Sources: Rita McWilliams Tullberg, Women at Cambridge: a men’s university, though of a mixed type (1975); Mary Paley Marshall, What I Remember (1947); F.M. Mayor, The Rector’s Daughter (Virago Modern Classics, 1924, reissued by Virago in 1987). The Rector’s Daughter one of the ‘overlooked classics’ recommended by Susan Hill in The Novel Cure (2013). 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. The fictional Mary did not sit for Cambridge’s Higher Local Examination or marry, so there was no escape from her rector’s daughter’s duties: “On the whole she was happy. She did not question the destiny life brought her. People spoke pityingly of her, but she did not feel she required pity.” F.M. Mayor herself attended Newnham College, Cambridge in the 1890s where she read History. It is likely that she met Mary Paley Marshall who was teaching economics while she was there.

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)

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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