A revolutionary proposal

Churchill

In June 1958, plans were under way to build a new Cambridge college. It would be a memorial to Sir Winston Churchill, and promote teaching and research in science and technology. A campaigning group called the Women’s Freedom League wrote to Churchill directly with a proposal (“you may regard as revolutionary”) that he use his considerable influence to make it Cambridge’s first coeducational college. “You already know that great efforts are being made in all schools and colleges to increase the number of women scientists.” Churchill, 83, thought this sounded like a perfectly sensible suggestion. “I see no reason why women should not participate,” he told his friend, the civil servant Sir John Colville. But Colville, in charge of raising funds for the proposed college, was convinced that donors in British industry would withdraw their support if they heard that Churchill College was planning to admit female students. It would be, he told Churchill, “like dropping a hydrogen bomb in the middle of the University.”

Although women had finally won the right to Cambridge degrees in 1948, they were still very far from being represented equally at the University in the 1950s. Numbers were capped, and for every eleven males there was just one female student: Cambridge still had the lowest proportion of female undergraduates of any university in the UK. To help correct this, a third “foundation” for women students, originally called New Hall, was established in 1954, with just sixteen students in a house on Silver Street. In 1962 New Hall moved to its permanent home on Huntingdon Road, thanks to the generosity of Ida and Horace Darwin’s daughters, Ruth Rees Thomas and Nora Barlow who donated their former family home The Orchard and its grounds so that a college for 300 students could be built. The house had to be knocked down, and most of what Gwen Raverat described in Period Piece as Ida’s “poet’s garden” disappeared beneath the rubble, but it allowed this much-needed third college for women to come into existence, and Ida surely would have approved. The gardens of  Murray Edwards College (as it is now called) are still imaginative and beautiful.

MEC

Churchill’s 1958 letter to Colville (on loan from the Churchill Archives Centre) is just one of the many fascinating items on display in the new exhibition, “The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge” at the University Library, which uses letters, costumes and audio-visual material to tell the story of 150 years of women at Cambridge. Today, all the formerly male colleges are fully coeducational, and Churchill College’s website boasts that it was “in the vanguard of dramatically expanding female participation in Cambridge University” as the first college to vote to admit women in 1972 (the same year that King’s and Clare also became coeducational). In her excellent independent blog, the current Master, Professor Dame Athene Donald (the first woman to hold this post at Churchill College) asks “How many ‘Firsts’ does it take to change a system?’.  She makes the point that, although in 2019 there is gender equality across the University in terms of students, women still hold only 20% of the professorships. “I am pleased to be part of the advancement of women in Cambridge”, Donald writes. “I am not pleased it is still so far from complete. Everyone – most definitely including male leaders – have a part to play in making the progression speed up.” One positive recent development is that out of Cambridge’s 31 colleges, there are now 15 female Heads of House, including the new Master of Jesus College, Sonita Alleyne, the first person of colour to head any college in Oxford or Cambridge. Hers is one of the 27 luminous portraits currently on view in the University Library’s Royal Corridor.

The “Rising Tide” curators Dr Lucy Delap and Dr Ben Griffin plan to add more archival items over the six months of the exhibition, which they describe as “a work in progress” – much like women at Cambridge, in fact. Professor Athene Donald will be speaking at the event closing the exhibition in March 2020, and my own talk “A club of their own: Cambridge women’s societies and associations 1883-1914” is on 5 December 2019 (tickets are free, but you’ll need to book here). And if you are in Cambridge visiting “The Rising Tide”, do go to Murray Edwards College to see the outstanding paintings and sculptures on view there; one of the world’s largest and most significant collections of contemporary art by women.

Overlooked lives

Now that spring seems to be edging slightly closer, I decided to write a brief round-up of some recent books, articles and blogs that throw new light on lives that have been gathering dust in the corners of history. The title is borrowed from the recent initiative by the New York Times that addresses the issue of ‘missing entries’ from the thousands of obituaries it has published since 1851. “The vast majority chronicled the lives of men, mostly white ones; even in the last two years, just over one in five of our subjects were female,” it admits. In its new ‘Overlooked’ section the paper promises to feature the lives of remarkable women that should have been acknowledged long ago. Entries to date include (amazingly) the writer Charlotte Brontë, the pioneering anti-lynching reporter Ida B. Wells, and Mary Ewing Outerbridge, the woman who introduced tennis to America in 1874. Readers are invited to nominate candidates whose lives and achievements should be written about here. It is certainly better late than never, and it would be wonderful if the London Times and others followed suit.

Illuminating books: One Cambridge woman whose achievements have been overlooked on this side of the pond is Mary Paley Marshall. In the 1870s she and her husband Alfred Marshall helped to establish the economics department of the newly founded University of Bristol, with Mary taking on the bulk of the teaching workload. She was an inspirational figure for the women students there (as well as in Cambridge, before and after her marriage), and I am very pleased that she features in The Women Who Built Bristol 1184-2018 by Jane Duffus.

IMG_5346Other promising new books I hope to read soon include The Century Girls, which celebrates the lives of six extraordinary women who were born in 1918 or before. They have all been interviewed by the book’s author, Tessa Dunlop, and together they tell the story of the past hundred years of British history from their own unique perspective. I am particularly looking forward to finding out more about the life of Joyce Reynolds, the Cambridge classicist who still works at Newnham College, and Ann Baer (née Sidgwick) whose great-uncle Henry Sidgwick did so much to promote women’s education at Cambridge – not least co-founding Newnham College itself.

In February I attended a day of talks about British and Irish women’s suffrage at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge. One of the most engaging speakers was the author Jane Robinson, who spoke with passion about the women from all backgrounds who took part in the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage of 1913. She can be heard on Radio 4’s ‘Start the Week’ here. The thousands of non-violent suffragists (male as well as female) have largely been forgotten about in the history of Irish and British women’s suffrage, so I’m delighted that her new book Hearts and Minds throws light on those overlooked lives. The Irish suffragist Mary Ward, a largely self-taught governess who became one of the first Cambridge women students, was one of the leaders of the 1913 Pilgrimage at the age of sixty-two.

lady sybilThe retired publisher Simon Boyd, one of this blog’s followers, became fascinated by his grandmother’s wartime exploits after discovering a battered old travelling trunk in a back room containing letters and diaries covering much of her life. His new book Lady Sybil: Empire, War and Revolution tells the story of how during the First World War she travelled to Russia to help to set up a British Red Cross hospital in Petrograd.

Blogs of others: Letters and diaries are not the only way of uncovering stories of the past. Another reader kindly drew my attention to this fascinating National Archives post by Sally Hughes about how objects as diverse as shopping lists, a scold’s bridle and dinosaur fossils can offer valuable insights when researching ‘unknown’ women’s lives. The British Library blog ‘Untold Lives’ is another very interesting and varied blog based on materials held in their collection. I have also enjoyed a wonderful new blog about (lesser known as well as famous) poets’ houses – many of them are in Cambridge – by John Clegg, a poet and bookseller at the London Review Bookshop. He has some requests for information here.

Reviews news: I recently wrote about two mothers of famous writers who have been not so much overlooked, as rather unfairly dismissed: May Beckett and Eva Larkin. My essay-review in the Dublin Review of Books was also featured on Arts and Letters Daily. Although Freud is hardly a forgotten figure, many of the people who first championed his writings after the First World War in Cambridge are. My take on an excellent new book, Freud in Cambridge, was published last week in the Times Literary Supplement; there is a snippet here. For repeating Lytton Strachey’s joke, I must apologize to Queen Victoria – a woman whose life was certainly anything but overlooked.

 

Copyright Ann Kennedy Smith 6 April 2018