What role do libraries play in society today? And tomorrow? Last week I was fortunate enough to attend an online conference asking these questions, marking 700 years since the founding of the first purpose-built central library for the University of Oxford (you can see three excellent short videos on the past, present and future of the Bodleian Libraries on their website here.) Over the three days of the ‘Oxford Library 700’ conference there were fascinating talks by librarians, archivists and authors as well as specialists in the world of media, science and communication on the role that libraries have played and continue to play in our global society. Recordings of talks by Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden and others will be available soon via the website: meanwhile, I have listed a few of my own personal highlights below.
In his keynote speech, ‘The library as wishful thinking’, the writer and former Director of the National Library of Argentina, Alberto Manguel asked why libraries around the world are often seen as outdated institutions. ‘How can things have gone so wrong?’, he asked. Libraries are as powerful as the use we continue to make of them, and can be reduced to mere adornment if a nation perceives them as irrelevant. ‘Any cultural institution entails both the possibility of learning and of imaginative change’ he argued, ‘and also the duty to understand the use we make of these tools of survival.’ According to Manguel, if we want to make libraries and the information they hold relevant to people again, we should ‘encourage civil disobedience, behave badly, make the government do their job.’
The novelist and FT columnist Nilanjana Roy gave us a heartening glimpse into how people are continuing to access books in India, even after the coronavirus pandemic has caused so many public libraries to close. Roy is a founding member of PEN Delhi, and has spent time tracking the ‘pavement libraries’ that sprang up during the recent citizens’ protests in New Delhi. Most of these makeshift libraries were assembled by women who wanted to pass their love of reading on to their children and others in their neighbourhoods. ‘We saved the books,’ one woman told her, ‘and among ourselves, we still read.’ Roy reminds us that, wherever we are in the world, our libraries should invoke a similar ‘magical foundation of trust’, and the simple invitation: ‘come sit and read’.
Dr Sandra Collins has been Director of the National Library of Ireland (NLI) since 2015. Her talk began movingly with a treasured photo of herself as a child with her late mother, followed by a snap of W.B. Yeats with his family, to illustrate the role of a national library as a ‘memory keeper’ for all of its citizens. She showed us a photograph of John F. Kennedy’s visit to Ireland in 1963, and told us that a man had recently written to the library to say that he was the overawed young boy, seen with his mother at Dublin airport. Since the NLI joined the image-sharing website ‘Flickr’ it has had over 8 million views, Collins said, with other ‘citizen detectives’ coming forward to enrich the national collection with their memories of their past.
What will happen to our contemporary memories, she asked, now that there are so few written letters and so much that is ‘born digital’? Collecting and curating is not neutral, she explained, and told us how, as well as guarding the nation’s treasures, the NLI’s mission is to collect ‘the ordinary and the superficial’ that will help to tell Irish people’s stories in the future. This includes capturing websites and other data in a way that embraces the diversity of modern Ireland. ‘How we collect today will shape our country’s memory in future,’ she said. ‘In this way, the ordinary becomes extraordinary’.
Dr Jessica Gardner is University Librarian and Director of Library Services at the University of Cambridge. Her talk ‘Owning the past, seizing the present’ also addressed the question of how she and her colleagues might approach the past while striving to make a library that is fit for present and future challenges. Referring to the 700th anniversary of Oxford Libraries, she said: ‘we should celebrate such momentous occasions, but we are always in a state of becoming.’ The role of libraries today should be ‘challenging the past, illuminating the present’, and she wants libraries to be places of ‘conversation and activism’.
As an example of challenging the past, Gardner drew attention to her ‘Behave Badly’ badge, which coincidentally echoed Alberto Manguel’s words in his keynote address. The badge is a replica of one handed out by the renowned historian Lisa Jardine (Jesus College’s first female fellow) in the 1970s and ’80s, encouraging her women friends to pin it under their jackets if necessary. It featured in the University Library’s recent ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibition, marking 150 years of women at Cambridge, and Gardner said that wearing it reminded her of the struggle that women at Cambridge had to gain equal membership of the university. She praised Dr Jill Whitelock‘s excellent archival research into the historical University Library as a ‘contested space’ that symbolized and reinforced privilege, and I was delighted that she also mentioned my recent blog about the 1891 petition, when 24 women lecturers from Girton and Newnham colleges politely requested access to the University Library. As Gardner says, ‘whilst their books were welcomed on the library shelves, their access to the library itself was severely restricted’.
Gardner urged her colleagues around the world to enable more people to make use of their libraries: ‘We should make our content as open and accessible as possible, for as many people as possible.’ Although access to public spaces has to be limited during this uncertain time, all of the talks I listened to last week reminded me that the future of our libraries will be to welcome more readers through their doors, and to be able to access their extraordinary collections digitally. Cambridge University Library has recently joined Google Arts and Culture so that it can share its treasures freely and openly with many more people.
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.
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.
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 inThe 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.
A young woman wearing a red blouse leans against a balcony railing. Her head is tilted and her brown eyes are pensive, and there’s something resolute about her expression. In the background is a landscape that has become familiar to viewers of last year’s BBC drama series Normal People: the light-filled west of Ireland coastline. As a small child Lettice Ramsey’s English parents moved to Rosses Point estuary in County Sligo where her father Cecil managed an oyster farm. When he died suddenly, her mother Frances Baker took her two young daughters a few miles south to live in the town of Ballysadare. Baker had trained with Gwen Raverat at the Slade School of Fine Art, and she opened a small shop in the town; her paintings were also displayed and sold in exhibitions in Ireland and the UK. She painted this portrait of here seventeen-year-old daughter in 1915, when Lettice was about to travel to England to board at Bedales, the progressive co-educational school in Hampshire, before going on to study at Newnham College, Cambridge.
This beautiful portrait, which now belongs to Newnham, seems to suggest Lettice’s feelings of sadness at leaving her home in Ireland, and her determination to succeed. In 2019 it was extensively restored by conservator Polly Saltmarsh before being displayed at Cambridge University Library as part of its 2019-2020 “Rising Tide” exhibition. 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.
Yet it’s probably fair to say that these days Lettice Ramsey might be still better known for her famous husband than for her pioneering contribution to portrait photography. Frank Ramsey was the brilliant mathematician, philosopher and economist who, as an eighteen-year-old student at King’s College Cambridge, helped to translate Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus into English in 1921. Lettice (née Baker) was five years older than him and Newnham’s star student when they first met in 1920 at a meeting of the Cambridge Heretics society, where she was Treasurer. Frank gazed at her, too overawed to speak. He wrote in his diary that Miss Baker was “very beautiful and rather nice.”
They began their love affair in 1924, when he was a King’s fellow and she had returned to Cambridge to work at the Psychological Laboratory. They married in August 1925, had two daughters and a relationship that was happy if unconventional (neither believed that love meant exclusivity, and Lettice thought jealousy about sexual matters was reprehensible). Tragically, Frank died of liver disease in 1930, aged just twenty-seven. Cheryl Misak, the author of a new biography Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers(OUP 2020) is convinced that he caught Weil’s disease while swimming in the River Cam in what was an unusually warm October. There’s an excellent discussion about Ramsey’s life and work in this episode of BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking with Shahidha Bari and Cheryl Misak – and it has a delightful recording of Lettice’s voice halfway through.
After Frank’s death, Lettice Ramsey was left to bring up their two daughters alone. In 1932, her then lover Julian Bell invited her to his family home at Charleston in Sussex to meet his parents, Vanessa and Clive Bell. Ramsey brought along her new portable camera and took informal snaps of Virginia Woolf playing with her young niece Angelica Bell in the sunshine; Woolf in turn took a photograph of Lettice standing in her summer dress and one of the distinctive necklaces she often wore, holding what looks like an early Leica camera (see Maggie Humm’s Snapshots of Bloomsbury, 2005). The National Portrait Gallery in London has most of these portraits, and in 2012 put on an exhibition of a selection of them.
On a summer holiday in Dorset with her daughters later in 1932 Lettice met Helen Muspratt, ten years her junior, who owned a small photographic studio in Swanage. It was a life-changing meeting for them both, and may have given Ramsey an idea. Her own mother Frances Baker had earned a living as a single parent in Ireland by selling her paintings; perhaps Ramsey too could support her young family by combining her own artistic and business skills. In her book Face: Shape and Angle (2016), Helen Muspratt’s daughter Jessica Sutcliffe describes how Ramsey, almost on the spur of the moment, asked Muspratt to join her on a new venture. The photographic studio of ‘Ramsey & Muspratt’ (note the ampersand) opened on St Andrews Street in Cambridge later that year. The owner of their main professional rival, Palmer Clark, the town’s photographer since 1867, predicted that “those two ladies won’t last six months.” But Ramsey & Muspratt was so successful that after a couple of years Lettice and Helen bought Palmer Clark’s studio on Post Office Terrace for £600 and established their own premises there.[i]
The two women turned what was little more than a collection of old sheds in an overgrown yard into a purpose-built studio and shop, while the various outhouses were using for developing and printing. Lettice asked her friend Wittgenstein for advice on painting the studio’s woodwork, as he had helped to design his sister’s house in Vienna in 1925. “If it is good paint it white,” he told her. “If it is bad paint it black.” Thanks to his advice, Ramsey and Muspratt’s studio became a stylishly modern space. In 1937 a student journalist in Cambridge’s Granta magazine said it was “like one of René Claire amid Paris rooftops” which reflected Lettice Ramsey’s personal style. “Hers is the photography of originality… She does not need the old-fashioned curtained room, heavy arc lamps and elaborate watch-for-the-dickybird camera.” [ii] There is a rare photograph, probably taken by Helen Muspratt, of Ramsey in the Cambridge studio here.
Ramsey and Muspratt worked as an equal partnership, and as Granta wrote, “They prefer to take people naturally” taking turns to work in the studio and the darkroom. They always signed their portraits democratically as “Ramsey & Muspratt” even after Helen opened her own separate studio in Oxford in 1937. “Helen had the know-how and I had the connections,” Ramsey modestly recalled of her fashionable Bloomsbury set. Throughout the 1930s many of the undergraduates photographed by Ramsey and Muspratt in Cambridge and Oxford would become very well known: Dorothy Hodgkin who in 1964 won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (she is still the only British woman scientist to be awarded a Nobel) and Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who would later become infamous as Soviet spies. In 1932 Lettice Ramsey photographed the ‘Apostles‘, including Sir Anthony Blunt. “All intellectuals in Cambridge were Communists at the time”, Ramsey recalled. “We had great hopes, but then were gradually let down.”[iii]
Many of these portraits are now in the National Portrait Gallery’s extensive Ramsey & Muspratt collection, which can be seen here. From the beginning, both women were also keen to push the boundaries of photography as an art form, and were fascinated by Man Ray’s photographic experiments (it seems they were unaware of Lee Miller’s similar work during this period). They discussed solarisation techniques in the studio’s darkroom with their Cambridge scientist friend, J.D. Bernal, and experimented with different styles, as Sutcliffe describes in her book. Their 1935 portrait of Eleanor Singer shows how imaginative their collaboration was (on Peter Loft’s website here).
Ramsey & Muspratt gained an international reputation during this time, and featured regularly in Photography magazine, whose editor praised the duo in 1936 for not following the lucrative route of becoming London society photographers: “Though they are too modest to claim it for themselves, Ramsey & Muspratt hold an important place in photography. For they are forcing the new idea, the modern spirit to the fore”. As Ramsey told him, “We are fortunate in having Cambridge as a field, as we get a lot of young people to photograph: undergraduates, who like experimenting in light and treatment.”[iv]
Helen Muspratt and Lettice Ramsey had a close friendship that lasted a lifetime, across two university cities, that continued long after their professional association ended in 1947. After Muspratt married and settled in Oxford, she was also her family’s main breadwinner, so their experimental photography of the 1930s was abandoned for the “bread and butter” business of wedding and university photography after the war. This might explain why Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes so disliked their 1956 “official” wedding photos taken by Ramsey, which Plath complained resembled “passport shots without imagination or sensitive lighting” (see my blog post here.)
In the 1960s Lettice Ramsey often returned to the west of Ireland, where this photograph was taken (a rare appearance – she was usually behind the camera, her grandson Stephen Burch recalls). “We had a number of family holidays there in the 1960s, the first of which in 1963 marked the start of my interest in birding” Burch writes. A selection of Ramsey & Muspratt portraits and family photographs, along with other information, features on his website here.
In 1969, at the age of 71, Lettice Ramsey took her camera to Phnom Penn and Siem Reap, unconcerned about the threat of war in Cambodia. When she was forbidden to enter the country as a professional photographer, she simply obtained another passport in which she described herself as a housewife and carried on taking photographs undaunted (“I took hundreds,” she told friends). A year later, she climbed the scaffolding on King’s College Chapel to photograph the stained glass windows, and remained unconcerned when she was accidentally locked in overnight.
Lettice Ramsey reluctantly retired on her 80th birthday in 1978, and sold her Cambridge studio. She had hoped that it would continue as a working studio, her grandson told me, but the next owner’s business was not successful, and he sold the studio and extensive archive of photographic plates to Peter Lofts (who now owns the copyright to almost all Ramsey & Muspratt’s photographs). In 1978 the two women were photographed in their respective Oxford and Cambridge studios by John Lawrence-Jones for a Sunday Times magazine article called ‘The Photographers of Golden Youth’ by Francis Wyndham. This was the first time since the 1930s that their work had been recognized in the national media, and the magazine featured a range of their most famous (and infamous) subjects.
Lettice Ramsey died in 1985, so she did not live to see the recognition belatedly given to Ramsey & Muspratt’s achievements as women photographers: a selection of Helen Muspratt’s photographs were exhibited at Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries in 2020. Their photographs also featured in a Channel 4 programme, ‘Five Women Photographers’ in 1986 when Muspratt’s work featured in a major exhibition at the Bradford Museum of Film and Photography, reassessing the work of 20th-century female photographers, which toured the country for two years. In 2015 the portrait photographer Jane Bown went to Dorset to take Muspratt’s photograph for the Observer. It was a shame, as Jessica Sutcliffe writes, that Lettice Ramsey was not around to enjoy their renewed fame. “She, of all people, would have enjoyed the attention, appreciation, and, most of all, the accompanying parties”.
SOURCES: My warm thanks toStephen Burch, Laura Dennis, Maggie Humm, Peter Lofts, Sara Rawlinson and Polly Saltmarsh. Thanks also to my helpful Twitter contacts in tracking down Lettice Ramsey information: Paul Bird @singleaspect; Dr Barbara @adoptanovel; and ArtUK’s Julia Abel Smith @jabelsmith.
“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.
In 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.
Today, 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.
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)
In her essay called ‘Women at Cambridge’, published in February 1920, the economist Eileen Power recalled the occasion when, as Director of Studies at Girton College Cambridge, she was asked by a male Fellow for a ‘woman’s perspective’ on a problem. She argued that “a women’s outlook on art and science has nothing specifically womanly about it, it is the outlook of a PERSON.” Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting, out now in paperback, throws new light on the work and lives of two women who began their academic careers at Cambridge: Jane Ellen Harrison of Newnham College and Eileen Power at Girton (see my TLS review of last year, ‘Cursed with hearts and brains: female intellectuals and muses of the twentieth century’). In this post I look briefly at Power’s life and work.
Eileen Power began her studies at Girton in 1907, where she was taught by the influential Dr Ellen McArthur, a scholar who did much to establish the teaching of history in the early twentieth century. Power herself became a Fellow in history at Girton in 1913. During the First World War Power taught economic history at both Girton and the London School of Economics, but after the war she failed to get the permanent position in Cambridge that she longed for. Everything changed in 1920 when she was awarded the prestigious Albert Kahn Travelling Fellowship, which granted £1,000 to scholars for a year’s global exploration. Power was the first woman to win this international honour and she was told by one suspicious interviewer that “she might defeat the objects of the trust by subsequently committing matrimony.” Power defied her critics, and travelled alone to China, Egypt, and India. As a committed pacifist and Labour Party member she was delighted to meet Mahatma Gandhi, and she was one of only six Europeans to witness the Nagpur Congress assembly vow to adopt Gandhi’s policy of Non-cooperation. She was unfazed by obstacles; when she discovered that the Khyber Pass was closed to women, she simply put on male disguise and made the crossing anyway.
When she was a lecturer at Cambridge, her easy charm and stylish appearance had made her stand out against the more sombre hues of the university world. “I certainly feel there is something radically wrong with my clothes from an academic point of view”, she told her sister Margery during her time at Girton. Male historians, enchanted by Power’s looks and personality, habitually underestimated her work, but they changed their minds after reading her books. As Wade comments, “Power saw no reason why an interest in clothes and a sense of humour could not be combined with professional rigour.”
While in India, Eileen Power received an offer of a lectureship in political science from LSE. She hesitated about leaving her beloved Cambridge, as she told a friend, “because it would mean a lot more teaching than I’ve done before & the screw is only £500 – but I want to be in London for a bit.” The LSE job was originally intended as a Readership, with a salary of £800 (for a man), but when they offered it to Power (a woman) they made it a lectureship and reduced the pay. Over the course of her academic career, even after she became LSE’s Chair in Economic History in 1931, Power would consistently be paid less than her male colleagues, despite the fact that she was a renowned scholar, invited on international lecture tours and awarded honorary degrees from respected universities. Her books include Medieval English Nunneries (1922), Medieval People (1924) and Medieval Women (reissued in 1975). She co-wrote children’s history books with her sister Rhoda Power, gave public lectures, and presented a World History series for the BBC in the 1930s.
From 1921 until 1940 Power lived in Mecklenburgh Square on the unfashionable eastern edge of Bloomsbury, as did the economic historian RH Tawney, her LSE colleague and friend. Under his influence, Power’s medieval historical research took an overtly political turn. She and Tawney co-edited a book, Tudor Economic Documents, published in three volumes from 1924 to 1927, and were both founding members of the Economic History Society, an international alliance of scholars. Power edited its influential journal the Economic History Review. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s there were regular gatherings of political leaders, journalists, theorists and writers, including Hugh Gaitskell, Evan Durbin and Hugh Dalton at both Tawney’s and Power’s rented flats, yet as Wade observes, today RH Tawney has a blue plaque in Mecklenburgh Square while Eileen Power does not. Yet during her lifetime she was as famous as he was. In Testament of Friendship (1940) Vera Brittain describes how, when she and Winifred Holtby gave up their flat in nearby Doughty Street in the 1930s, one horrified friend asked them, “Why are you leaving the neighbourhood of Tawney and Eileen Power for a place called Maida Vale?”
“I like people to be all different kinds,” Power told a friend in 1938, explaining why she had not applied for a prestigious history professorship back in Cambridge. “I like dining with H.G. Wells one night, & a friend from the Foreign Office another, & a publisher a third & a professor a fourth.” Power valued her independence, and for most of her life was opposed to marriage as an institution, convinced that domestic binds were incompatible with a woman’s public ambitions. The ideal wife, she suspected, “should endeavour to model herself on a judicious mixture of a cow, a muffler, a shadow, a mirror.” When in 1937 she finally decided to marry her former student and LSE colleague Michael Postan, ten years her junior, it was a balance of head and heart. Sadly, just three years later she died suddenly of a heart attack, aged just 51.
After her death much of her work in economic history was gradually forgotten, while the reputation of Postan and Tawney grew. To keep her memory alive, Eileen Power’s sister Beryl Power endowed a dinner at Girton College in her memory – “because men’s colleges had feasts and why should not women’s?”. Leading historians gather for the ‘Power Feast’ every ten years; the most recent Feast took place in January 2020, almost exactly 100 years after Eileen Power’s ‘Women At Cambridge’ essay.