‘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

Glass ceilings and graduations

Professor Linda Doyle, Irish Times, 2021

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.

Steamboat Ladies: women at Cambridge & Dublin

 

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’.

Steamboat ladies

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.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, all rights reserved

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/

A Cambridge photographer

Portrait of Lettice Ramsey by PAL Brunney, c.1970 (J Brunney family photographs)

I’m delighted that Frances Baker’s beautiful 1915 painting of her daughter Lettice Ramsey (1898-1985) features in Newnham College’s current ‘Newnham portraits’ online exhibition to mark the college’s 150 year celebrations. As I wrote in my blogpost ‘Woman with a camera: Lettice Ramsey (1898-1985) last year, ‘the determined-looking girl in the painting studied moral sciences at Newnham from 1918 until 1921, worked in Cambridge University’s first Psychological Laboratory and would later pick up a camera to become one of the leading women photographers of the 1930s.’

Along with her photographic partner Helen Muspratt (1907-2001), Ramsey was indeed one of the leading women photographers not just of the 1930s, but of the twentieth century. The women’s creative partnership began when they opened their first studio in Cambridge in 1932, and their business expanded to Oxford after Muspratt married and opened a studio there in 1937. My own interest in Lettice, and the Ramsey & Muspratt business, was sparked by seeing their luminous portrait of Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who gained her PhD at Cambridge before taking up an academic appointment at Oxford. Ramsey & Muspratt’s portrait was displayed side by side with Frances Baker’s 1915 painting of Lettice Ramsey in the Cambridge University Library as part of their ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ exhibition of 2019-20.

Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries are to be congratulated in recently securing Helen Muspratt’s photographic archive, and last year put on an exhibition of her work. As Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden says, by doing this they have ‘put a flag in the sand’, to say that the history of photography, and the history of the city of Oxford, needs to take Muspratt seriously as a photographer.

It’s not surprising, perhaps, that Lettice Ramsey’s early contribution to their professional partnership, Ramsey & Muspratt, is downplayed in the Oxford exhibition: in the video on the Bodleian’s website, Ramsey is described as a sociable Cambridge widow ‘who needed something to do’ rather than a creative artist with a work ethic and brilliance that matched Muspratt’s. Oxford’s understandable wish to claim Muspratt as one of their own overlooks the studio and developing room work that the women did collaboratively in Cambridge in the 1930s and 1940s before they continued their work separately in both university cities from the 1940s onwards.

After all, it’s impossible to say which of the two photographers took their acclaimed solarised photographs, as well as the aforementioned portrait of Nobel prizewinner Hodgkin (see below), because all of their portraits of the time were signed democratically as Ramsey & Muspratt. Both women considered their work in the darkroom to be as important a part of their artistic process as what they did behind the camera; and both women should be equally acknowledged as the groundbreaking photographers and creative partnership that they were.

Dorothy Hodgkin, by Ramsey & Muspratt, bromide print, circa 1937; NPG P363(13)

In 1987 Ramsey’s daughter Jane Burch donated many Ramsey & Muspratt portraits to the National Portrait Gallery in London, and in 2012 the gallery put on an exhibition about Ramsey’s friendship with Julian Bell. But Lettice Ramsey deserves to be be celebrated not just for her associations with the Bloomsbury Group, but in her own right as a pioneering Cambridge photographer. Her portraits of Virginia Woolf, the ‘Cambridge Spies’ and Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes are reproduced all over the world, yet she herself remains comparatively unknown.

The original glass plates and prints that Ramsey stored in her Post Office Terrace studio remain in private ownership, and their future is uncertain. It would be wonderful if Cambridge’s University Library followed in the footsteps of the Bodleian and secured this unique archive for the nation, as it did with the Stephen Hawking archive recently. Then the great twentieth-century photographer Lettice Ramsey might at last be given the recognition – and the Cambridge exhibition – that she deserves.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 3 August 2021, all rights reserved

1915 portrait of Lettice Ramsey (née Baker) by Frances Baker © Newnham College, reproduced with kind permission of Newnham College.