‘No women at Cambridge’: the 1897 protests

Part 1 The men in the photograph

On the morning of 21 May 1897, all along King’s Parade, thousands of men stand waiting. The view from a first-floor window shows a sea of straw boaters stretching into the distance. Most of the men in this photograph are Cambridge University undergraduates, some looking nonchalant with their hands in their pockets, others pressing against the railings that surround the Senate House. There are also serious-looking older men in dark suits and bowler hats in this vast crowd, and boys in flat caps who smile up at the camera. ‘The scene will never be forgotten’, one onlooker wrote, recalling ‘the excitement of the undergraduates who assembled in great numbers, the spectators at every window and on the tops of houses and St Mary’s Church, and fireworks in the Senate House Yard’. We can imagine the chatter and shouting to friends, the whistles and catcalls: a festive mood, that later would turn into ugly, anti-women violence.

The tensions had been building for months. The previous year, a special University Syndicate was appointed to discuss the case for Cambridge degrees to be awarded to suitably qualified women students. Since 1881, the two ‘ladies’ colleges’ of Newnham and Girton had awarded their own certificates to students who had fulfilled the University’s degree requirements and taken its final ‘Tripos’ exams. But by the 1890s many women were finding it difficult to compete in the professional workplace, where B.A.s and M.A.s were expected. Girton and Newnham students had already proved women’s intellectual ability, especially with the outstanding results of Agnata Frances Ramsay and Philippa Fawcett (see my ‘Locked out of the library’ post). The conferring of the title of degree would be ‘to the University at least unharmful’, the Principal of Newnham College Eleanor Sidgwick wrote, ‘and to women an unmixed gain’.

To begin with, the upcoming vote was discussed behind closed academic doors, with those in favour and against women’s degrees expressing their views in polite speeches. But soon the dons’ disagreements became a topic of polarised public debate, and daily newspapers ‘reported each thrust and counter-thrust in a fashion reminiscent of war-reporting’, the historian Rita McWilliams-Tullberg writes. The Times and the Morning Post did not need to give any reasons why women should be excluded from the responsibilities and benefits of the University: it was simply held to be self-evident, as shown by Oxford’s recent refusal to change its statutes. Many former Cambridge students (known as the M.A.s) suspected that giving women degrees would change the fundamental character of the ancient university and be ‘the thin end of the wedge’, leading to further invasions of male-held privilege.

The fact that the Cambridge vote was carefully worded to grant women the titles of degrees, and nothing more, made little difference to men like the Professor of Political Economy, Alfred Marshall. Despite his wife Mary Paley Marshall‘s ongoing teaching commitments at Newnham, and his own support for women’s education twenty years earlier, Marshall now wanted to have no women at Cambridge, and in 1897 he seized the chance to get excitable young men on his side. ‘Some opponents of the College used their influence with the undergraduates, and especially the athletic element,’ the historian Alice Gardner wrote in 1921, and ‘the voice of “sweet reasonableness” was drowned in angry clamour’. The views of undergraduates, athletic or otherwise, were not usually taken into account by their professors, but now male anger became a politically useful tool. Meetings were held and posters and daily flysheets printed and displayed around the town, with inflammatory slogans such as “Down with Girtonites! Non plus the Newnhamites!!”

Like the Trump supporters who attacked the United States Capitol in January 2021, many Cambridge men in 1897 – undergraduates and professors, as well as the non-resident M.A.s – had convinced themselves that others were about to steal something that rightfully belonged to them. When, in the afternoon of 21 May 1897, it was announced that the move to award women degrees had been defeated by a huge majority, 1713 votes to 662, the huge roar of male voices could be heard for miles around. ‘Pandemonium broke loose’, the eye-witness recalls, and a hail of fireworks and rotten eggs were thrown at the dons in celebration, and crude effigies of women students were torn down and pulled apart. Students perching on the roof of Newnham College, waiting to hear the news, heard the shouting grow louder and more threatening as a mob ran towards Newnham and attempted to break down the gates of the college. Only the firm words of Eleanor Sidgwick, as she and other women staff stood guarding the gates, stopped the men in their tracks.

In May 1897 most of the visible damage was done to property, with boards and shutters torn from shop windows to build a huge bonfire in Market Square. The damage done to the confidence of the women’s colleges was harder to repair. Although everything continued much the same as before, the Newnham and Girton college leaders could not forget the precariousness of their existence, and they became extra-vigilant about their students not giving offence or making any demands. It meant that for many more years the best women teachers, scholars and staff would continue to be excluded from research and participation in Cambridge University, at an ongoing cost to the university itself for another fifty years.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, January 2022, all rights reserved. Part 2, The women in the photograph, to follow shortly.

Sources

‘Crowds gather…’ : Cambridge University Library (UA Phot. 174/3) https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/PH-UA-PHOT-00174-00003/1

Alice Gardner, A Short History of Newnham College Cambridge (1921)

Ann Kennedy Smith, ‘The Road to the Senate House, TLS October 2019: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/road-senate-house-women-cambridge/

Rita McWilliams-Tullberg Women At Cambridge (CUP, 1998)

Gill Sutherland, ‘History of Newnham’, https://newn.cam.ac.uk/about/history/history-of-newnham/

‘The Rising Tide: Women At Cambridge’: https://www.cam.ac.uk/TheRisingTide

‘No Gowns for the Girtonites!’: Cambridge University Library https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/PR-UA-01897-POSTER/1

Independent Researcher Award

Dr Ellen McArthur (1862-1927)

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

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

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

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

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

The marvellous Mrs Marshall

I was delighted to be asked to write a guest post this month for the excellent Neglected Books website (‘where forgotten books are remembered’). My article about two ‘forgotten’ but beautifully written books – allowing us to experience the lived experience of women at Cambridge during the late Victorian era is republished below, with kind permission of Neglected Books.

It’s not hard to think of fiction set in Cambridge, from E.M. Forster’s Maurice (written in 1913-14, published posthumously in 1971) to Dusty Answer (1927) by Rosamund Lehmann and, more recently, Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us (2015). But I’m convinced that well-written nonfiction can bring an authentic story to light in a way that no novel can. During my research into Cambridge’s first women students, university wives and college tutors I’ve discovered there’s nothing like hearing their own voices in the form of memoirs and biographies based on their letters and diaries. Here I focus on two of these books.

Mary Paley Marshall’s memoir What I remember was published by Cambridge University Press, 1947. It’s a slim volume – only 50 pages long – with a jaunty introduction by the historian G.M. Trevelyan who writes:

If people who knew not the Victorians will absent themselves from the felicity of generalising about them for a while, and read this short book, they can then return to the game refreshed and instructed.

What I remember begins, as many good stories do, with a happy childhood. Mary’s was spent in a rose-covered country rectory, where her father Reverend Thomas Paley encouraged his daughters’ education: ‘We had a father who took part in work and play and who was interested in electricity and photography’, she recalls. She moved to Cambridge in 1871 as one of the University’s earliest women students and one of the ‘first five’ at Newnham College; Girton College had begun two years previously. The idea that unmarried women could live apart from their parents and attend lectures was, as Paley Marshall said herself, ‘an outrageous proceeding’ at the time.

Soon after she arrived in Cambridge, she became fascinated by Political Economy because of Alfred Marshall’s lectures. He was ‘a great preacher’ who spoke passionately about the need for women’s equality in education and quoted from George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss. With his encouragement, Mary was one of the first two women to sit for the University’s final year exams in 1874 and she became Newnham’s first residential lecturer.

By the mid-1870s the Pre-Raphaelite era of colour in dress and house decoration had dawned all over England. As Florence Ada Keynes later wrote: ‘Newnham caught the fever. We trailed about in clinging robes of peacock blue, terra-cotta red, sage green or orange, feeling very brave and thoroughly enjoying the sensation it caused’ (By-ways of Cambridge History, Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons, 1956, first published 1947). The college room that Mary studied and slept in was, like those of her students, papered in William Morris designs and hung with Burne-Jones prints. At the age of twenty-five she was that rare thing in Victorian times, an unmarried woman who lived independently from her parents and earned a good income doing a job she loved.

Then she and Alfred Marshall married and accepted posts at the newly founded University College, Bristol, where they taught and together published a textbook called The Economics of Industry (1879). Their working marriage seemed the ideal of an intellectual partnership that Mary had dreamed of, and What I Remember describes the happy years the Marshalls spent in Sicily and in Oxford before returning in 1885 to Cambridge. Alfred was made a Professor and published The Principles of Economics (1890) and Mary returned to her post at Newnham, where her inspiring teaching would have a great influence on one student: Winnie Seebohm.

‘This is the true story of a young woman who lived in the later part of Queen Victoria’s reign,’ Victoria Glendinning writes at the beginning of A Suppressed Cry: Life and Death of a Quaker Daughter, her biography of Seebohm.

But do not be misled into thinking that because it is history it has nothing to do with you. 1885 is yesterday. It is probably tomorrow too.

The prize-winning biographer of Elizabeth Bowen, Edith Sitwell and Leonard Woolf, among others, Glendinning took as her first subject her Victorian great-aunt Winnie Seebohm, but the book is no less powerful for Seebohm’s obscurity. A Suppressed Cry was not much noticed when it was published in 1969 and it disappeared from view until it was reissued by Virago in 1995, with a new introduction by the author.

The issue at the heart of A Suppressed Cry is how a young woman from a close-knit Hertfordshire family rebelled against their loving claims on her and achieved her ambition to study at Cambridge. The Seebohms were linked to other Quaker clans in what Glendinning describes as ‘a tight genealogical spiral’ with banking and scholarly connections. Winnie’s father was the economic historian Frederic Seebohm, and she grew up with her siblings and invalid mother in an idyllic house called the Hermitage in rural Hitchin. Despite her obvious intelligence, Winnie was expected to be a ‘good daughter’, contented with flower-arranging and visiting her Quaker relations until a suitable husband was found for her. But she decided that ‘no woman (it is not my business to consider a man’s life) has any excuse for living a life that is not worth living’.

So, in 1885, at the age of 22, she took the gruelling Cambridge entrance exams and won a place at Newnham. A Suppressed Cry reproduces some of the touching letters and diary entries she wrote there. Winnie was thrilled with her college room, her new friends and the freedom to spend her days reading books and writing essays. She adored her tutors, particularly Mary Paley Marshall, who taught Political Economy ‘from a philanthropic woman’s point of view’. ‘She is a Princess Ida,’ Winnie told her sister, thinking of the heroine of Tennyson’s poem The Princess who founded a university for women.

She wears a flowing dark green cloth robe with dark brown fur round the bottom (not on the very edge) – she has dark brown hair which goes back in a great wave and is very loosely pinned up behind –very deep-set large eyes, a straight nose – a face that one likes to watch. Then she is enthusiastic and simple. She speaks fluently and earnestly with her head thrown back a little and her hands generally clasped or resting on her desk. She looks oftenest at the ceiling but every now and then straight at you.

Winnie wanted to become a teacher just like the marvellous Mrs Marshall, but her time as a student was heartbreakingly brief. After just six weeks at Cambridge, she fell ill and was brought back to the Hermitage to be nursed by her family. ‘How queer it looks to see everybody so leisurely here!’ Winnie wrote to her classmate Lina Bronner, confessing how she longed to return to Cambridge. ‘I imagine you lingering on dear Clare Bridge, and King’s spires will be looking grey and sharp against the sky.’  

Her kindly tutor Mary Paley Marshall also wrote to her. She was the only woman Winnie knew who seemed to have it all, combining fulfilling academic work with her role as a wife. ‘If she is the woman of the future, I am sure the world will do very well,’ Winnie wrote in her diary. It was one of the last things she wrote. She died after a severe asthma attack – though she may also have had undiagnosed anorexia – just a few weeks later. Expected from childhood to suppress her ambitions and put others’ needs first, Seebohm was, in Glendinning’s memorable description, ‘left stranded on the shores of the nineteenth century’.

Mary Paley Marshall’s married life was far from the ideal that Winnie perceived. In the early 1880s Alfred turned against the idea of women at Cambridge: ‘it is not likely that men will go on marrying, if they are to have competitors as wives’ he told LSE founder Beatrice Webb. He insisted that The Economics of Industry, the book he and Mary wrote together, should be pulped and in 1897 he voted against women being awarded Cambridge degrees. But unlike poor Winnie, Mary was a survivor and she had the final word. After Alfred’s death in 1924 she co-founded Cambridge University’s Marshall Library, and worked there for nearly twenty years; her portrait now hangs above the library staircase opposite his.  

What was left out of (or ‘forgotten’) in Mary Paley Marshall’s memoir What I remember is at least as interesting as what was put in; and the cheering counterbalance to Winnie Seebohm’s sad story is the continuing success of Newnham, which celebrates 150 years as a women’s college this year.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, May 2021, all rights reserved.

With thanks to https://neglectedbooks.com/

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 (physical) doors and welcomed its first visitors back into its reading rooms, book stacks and archives (during lockdown its librarians continued the UL’s online and book-borrowing services for readers). ‘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 challenges for her and all UL staff, as the continuing Covid-19 pandemic means that the reopened physical library will have to change. At the moment time slots will need to be booked in advance, and certain library services and spaces are limited. 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 U.L.’s ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibition and events in 2019-20, 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 U.L. is based in the spacious 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 using the university library 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 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 (who would become renowned later as the scholar and archeologist Ella S. Armitage). In 1871 she was one of Newnham’s ‘first five’ students who lived in the college’s earliest premises, a rented house in Regent Street. Because she was 30 years old, 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 UL and was displayed in ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibition of 2019-20, curated by Dr Lucy Delap and Dr Ben Griffin.  

(Ella Bulley, U.L. library card, 1871)

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 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 had now proved that their intellectual ability was equal to that of their male counterparts at Cambridge, 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 ‘non-members’ (which included 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 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 (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).

By this time Girton and Newnham had been established for over twenty years, and their academic success had been proven by the excellent exam results of their students, as well as the research record of their lecturers and tutors, who had published books and papers but 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 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 ‘some of us who have 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.


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

The letter was signed by 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 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, 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 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 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’ 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 as well as teach students.

The letter is also signed by E.E. Constance Jones, then a lecturer in Moral Sciences at Girton College, and would become the college Mistress (head) from 1903 until 1916. One of the two women who organized the petition was Girton historian Ellen A. Mc Arthur (Hist. Tripos 1885), who would become the first woman to receive a D.Litt. degree from the University of Dublin based on her academic publications (see my ‘Steamboat Ladies’ post here). 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. 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). Her An introduction to general logic would be acquired in 1892 and W. Cunningham and Ellen McArthur’s Outlines of English Industrial History in 1895. 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 degrees, the U.L. Librarian Francis Jenkinson confirmed that non-members’ access to the library would be limited 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 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 at the U.L. on the same terms as the men.

Like the UK’s other major research libraries, the U.L. 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