Dorothy L. Sayers’s graduation day

100 years ago the first Oxford University graduation ceremony to award degrees to women took place; the future crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers was one of the first fifty celebrants. This post is about its lasting effect on her.

Today, 17 October 2020, marks Oxford University’s matriculation day, when students are formally welcomed as members of the University and its colleges. Due to the ongoing pandemic, today’s event was a ‘virtual matriculation’, with the Formal Welcome address delivered online this morning by the Vice-Chancellor, Louise Richardson. Lots of the new students, described as ‘in absentia’, dressed up in their academic gowns anyway, to celebrate the occasion as best they can.

Earlier this month, in her annual Oration to the University (delivered in the socially distanced Sheldonian Theatre) Professor Richardson reminded her colleagues that it was 100 years ago, on 7 October 1920, that women were admitted to full membership of the University: ‘It took a very, very long time, many hundreds of years in fact, for women to earn the right to an Oxford degree’. The first graduation ceremony to award Oxford degrees to women took place just a week later, as if to make up for lost time.

It was a pleasantly warm autumn day on 14 October 1920 when fifty women were presented with their Oxford University degrees in the grand surroundings of the Sheldonian. The women graduating that day included five heads of houses of the women’s colleges at Oxford as well as former students who had waited many years for their degree certificates; during the next academic year over 400 more women would take part in degree ceremonies there.

But the first one, on 14 October 1920, was a graduation day like no other. Never before had an Oxford Vice-Chancellor uttered the ceremonial Latin words ‘domina, magistra’ in the feminine gender at a degree ceremony, and the vast, high-ceilinged auditorium rang with the loud cheers of family, friends and supporters of women’s education. Twenty-seven-year old Dorothy L. Sayers was among the celebrants that day. Wearing her brand new academic cap and gown, she was awarded a first-class degree in modern languages. Sayers had completed her studies at Somerville five years before, but she was determined not to miss out on this historic occasion. She had requested a place at the October ceremony, she told her mother, ‘because I want so much to be in the first batch. It will be so much more amusing.’

The women’s success was celebrated at Somerville College that evening with a special dinner, presided over by Principal Emily Penrose (who since 1907 had made sure that all her students fulfilled the requirements for an Oxford degree) and attended by Somerville graduates Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby among others. The guest of honour was Professor Gilbert Murray, a classical scholar and strong supporter of women’s higher education. His Cambridge friend, Jane Ellen Harrison, a lecturer in classical archaeology at Newnham College, was jealous.  ‘I gnash my teeth when I think of all your Somerville young women preening in cap and gown,’ she told Murray. ‘So like Oxford and so low to start after us and get in first!’ The following year, a vote to award degrees to women at Cambridge would be defeated. The 1920 Oxford vote had given hope to Harrison and others at Newnham and Girton; but by 1921 the tide of gratitude towards women for their war effort had turned, and Cambridge would not confer degrees on women until 1948.

When Dorothy L. Sayers began studying modern languages at Somerville in 1912 it was still, technically, only an ‘affiliated women’s society’ within Oxford University. Somerville women were called ‘freaks’ by male students because of what was seen as their ‘unnatural’ – and threatening – devotion to learning. In her first term Sayers started up a literary society with a handful of other students, which they named ‘The Mutual Admiration Society’. Despite the jokey name, it was ‘a subversive community within an institution where women were constantly reminded that their talents were not wholly welcome’, as biographer Francesca Wade puts it (Wade, p.100). Sayers had a passion for writing but played down her talents (‘I write prose uncommonly badly, and can’t get ideas’). Only her close friends in the Mutual Admiration Society knew of her secret passion for ‘lowbrow’ crime fiction.

Sayers began to publish poetry and essays, but the possibility of actually making a living as a writer seemed as far-fetched as some of the plots in the novels she loved. During this period, the great majority of women students, no matter their subject of study, took up teaching after university: ‘all that she sees before her, unless she has exceptional talent, is teaching’ observed the economist Clara Collet in 1902 (Sutherland, p.26) Sayers wanted something different, but before her graduation day in 1920, she was not sure what that would be. So in 1916 she took a job teaching modern languages at a girls’ school in Hull, then returned to Oxford in 1917 to work for publisher and bookseller Basil Blackwell. But she soon found that, as Mo Moulton writes in The Mutual Admiration Society, ‘a single woman who was neither a student nor an academic had no obvious place in Oxford society’ (Moulton, p.79). Her landladies were suspicious of her wish to hold literary salons for Somerville students and, on one occasion, a respectable tea for wounded soldiers. One landlady told Sayers that she would rather have a badly behaved male undergraduate as a lodger than a ‘permanent woman’.

After her graduation day, Sayers decided that her life had to change. She moved to London, took on translating work and part-time teaching to make ends meet, then in December 1920 found an unfurnished room in Mecklenburgh Square on the eastern, unfashionable fringe of Bloomsbury. Her lodgings had the advantage of being cheap and close to the British Library, where, on her application form to use the reading room, she proudly wrote down her new academic status: ‘a Master of Arts at Oxford’. She stated that she was considering doing a postgraduate degree to work on her thesis called ‘the Permanent Elements in Popular Heroic Fiction, with a Special Study of Modern Criminological Romance.’

This may have been partly true. After her undergraduate studies Sayers had thought about staying on as an academic at Somerville, but decided that she was ‘too sociable’ to spend her life in a women’s college. She had always loved detective novels – she devoured the popular Sexton Blake thrillers – but knew that her secret wish to write such stories herself would not be seen as worthy of an Oxford graduate. Now in London, as she mixed with bohemian writers and artists and went to see ‘Grand Guignol’ plays near the Strand, she began to see crime fiction in a different light. In an unpublished essay, probably written in the British Library, she addresses ‘Miss Dryasdust, M.A.’ who ‘disapproves of my fondness for detective stories of the more popular kind’. Sayers tells Miss Dryasdust that she is wrong, and that crime fiction holds the same place in the contemporary imagination as Beowulf and the heroic epics of ancient Greece once did.

‘Miss Dryasdust’, with her prized Master of Arts degree, could be the alter ego of Dorothy L. Sayers herself, as the Oxford scholar who pursued her research interests at Somerville. Instead, in January 1921, Sayers began sketching out an idea for her first book, published in 1922 as Whose Body? It introduced Lord Peter Wimsey, the wealthy, athletic and intelligent protagonist of several of Sayers’s subsequent novels and stories who delights in solving mysteries for  his own amusement. He embodied the opposite of everything in her life at time, as she later recalled: ‘After all it cost me nothing and at the time I was particularly hard up and it gave me pleasure to spend his fortune for him. When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room I took a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered him an Aubusson carpet.’ 

In Strong Poison (1930) Sayers introduced the character who was much closer to herself: Harriet Vane, a successful crime writer and former Oxford student who lives in Mecklenburgh Square. In Sayers’s novel Gaudy Night (1935) Vane is invited to return to her former college (here named Shrewsbury) to help the women there to solve a series of hate crimes. As she hesitates, wondering how her former academic community will welcome her now, she realizes that these are the women who taught her to value her own intellectual ability and independence, and the three years she spent among them at Oxford enabled her to achieve the creative life that she wanted. ‘Whatever I may have done since, this remains’, Vane reminds herself, gathering her confidence, and her voice could be that of Sayers herself. ‘Scholar; Master of Arts; Domina; Senior Member of this University’.

©Ann Kennedy Smith, 17 October 2020 (all rights reserved)

Sources: Vera Brittain, The Women At Oxford: a Fragment of History (Harrap,1960); Ellen Brundrige, ‘Translations of Latin in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night’; Janet Howarth,'”In Oxford… but not of Oxford”: the women’s colleges’, History of the University of Oxford, ed. Brock and Curthoys, vol VII (OUP, 2000)  pp 237-307; Mo Moulton, The Mutual Admiration Society: How Dorothy L Sayers and her Oxford Circle Remade the World for Women (Basic Books, New York, 2019); Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night (Gollancz, 1935);How I Came to Invent the Character of Lord Peter Wimsey’ quoted in Barbara Reynolds, Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul (1997); Gillian Sutherland, In Search of the New Woman: Middle-Class Women and Work in Britain 1870-1914 (CUP, 2015); Francesca Wade, Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars (Faber & Faber, 2020)

Websites:

Vice-Chancellor’s Oration 2020: https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2020-10-06-vice-chancellors-oration-2020

Somerville College (with photo of Dame Emily Penrose & Gilbert Murray): https://www.some.ox.ac.uk/news/100-years-of-degrees-for-women/

Women Making History, 100 years of Oxford degrees for women: https://www.ox.ac.uk/about/oxford-people/women-at-oxford

Libraries for our times

‘Bodleian Library’ by A. Pugin, in Joseph Foster’s Oxford Men and Their Colleges (1893) https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Page:Oxford_men_and_their_colleges.djvu/601, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82456602

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’.

Screenshot of Dr Gardner’s Oxford Library 700 talk, 17 Sept 2020, by A. Kennedy Smith

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.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 24 September 2020

 

Locked out of the Library

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

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

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

Nowadays, the UL is based in the spacious Gilbert Scott-designed building that opened in 1934 in the west of the city. For centuries before then, it was situated in the ‘Old Schools’ building, by the Senate House. The old library was ‘a chaotic but atmospheric medley of disparate rooms, uneven floors and dark places for which readers could borrow lamps to light their way,’ as Whitelock writes in a Special Collections blogpost (with some excellent photographs). Her research shows how there were women readers at the university library even before the women’s colleges were established. These included a ‘Miss Henslow’, one of the daughters of Professor Joseph Stevens Henslow who had taught Charles Darwin in the 1820s. This was probably Frances Harriet Hooker, who in 1851 married Darwin’s friend Joseph Hooker; her translation of Maout and Decaisnes’ A General System of Botany, Descriptive and Analytical from French into English was published in 1873 and can be consulted in the UL’s Rare Books Reading Room (MD.40.65).       

Girton College was founded in 1869, Newnham College two years later. That year, following a vote by the Syndicate, the first woman reader’s card was issued to Ella Bulley (later Ella S. Armitage), one of Newnham’s ‘first five’ students who lived in the college’s earliest premises, a gloomy rented house in Regent Street. She was 30 years old, and so was permitted a year-long card (all of the library’s readers then had to be over 21). Three years later she became Newnham’s first research student and, after her marriage to Rev. Armitage, she continued her work, teaching at Owens College, Manchester and publishing several books on medieval history. Her library card was preserved by the UL and was displayed in ‘The Rising Tide’ exhibition of 2019-20, curated by Dr Lucy Delap and Dr Ben Griffin.  

(Ella Bulley, UL library card, 1871)

One of the other five students was Mary Paley Marshall (née Paley) who took charge of the small collection of books that students could borrow. She was, in effect, Newnham College’s first librarian. In 1874 she became the first of two women to take the Cambridge Tripos (final year exams) in Moral Sciences, along with Ella’s younger sister Amy, and was the college’s first resident lecturer.

By the 1880s, women at Cambridge seemed to be gaining ground. In 1881 women gained the right to take the Tripos exams on equal terms to male students (see my blogpost here), and in 1887 the University Library’s age restriction for readers was dropped, allowing women under 21 to use the library for the first time.

Coincidentally, this was also the year that a Cambridge female student made the national headlines. In 1887 Agnata Frances Ramsay (later Butler) of Girton College was the only student to be placed in the first class of the Classical Tripos. Three years later, Newnham College was in the spotlight when Philippa Fawcett, Millicent Fawcett’s daughter, outperformed all of the male students in the 1890 Mathematics Tripos. Their success in the two subjects that were traditionally considered as the preserve of men,Classics and Mathematics, caused a sensation. Women students had now proved that their intellectual ability was equal to that of their male counterparts, and conservative forces at the University became uneasy.

This was reflected in a tightening of the rules permitting access to the University Library. The hours that readers who were ‘non-members’ (i.e. women) could use it were reduced from 10 until 2pm (from 4pm previously), and in autumn 1891 it was proposed that a fee should be introduced. Non-members would be limited to use the library only from 10am until 2pm, and were restricted to certain areas. As Rita McWilliams-Tullberg points out in Women At Cambridge (1998), this restriction ‘was most hardly felt by the staffs of the women’s colleges who, whatever their degree of scholarship, could only use one of the world’s finest libraries on the same conditions as members of the general public’ (156).

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


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

It’s plain from the list of the signatories that their ‘morning engagements’ meant work: the letter is signed by lecturers and librarians, researchers and laboratory demonstrators, star students and scholars. They include the linguists Margaret Janson Tuke (Dame Margaret Tuke, D.B.E.), the Newnham lecturer who would later found Bedford College in 1907 (now merged with Royal Holloway, University of London) and Bertha Skeat, the first resident lecturer at the Cambridge Training College for Women Teachers (now Hughes Hall).

Scientists who signed the letter include Ida Freund, the first woman to become a chemistry lecturer in the UK; Dorothea F.M. Pertz, who had co-published papers on geotropism and heliotropism in plants with Francis Darwin; and the botanist and geneticist Edith Rebecca Saunders, who would work closely with Bateson after 1897. ‘Saunders had several years of independent research under her belt when she started to collaborate with William Bateson,’ writes Susannah Gibson in The Spirit of Inquiry (2019) ‘she was not a junior colleague, but very much his equal.’ Saunders conducted her groundbreaking plant experiments at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, and with Bateson co-founded the Genetics Society in 1919. Christine Alexander, librarian of Cambridge University’s Plant Sciences Department, has compiled a fascinating online collection about Saunders’ influential work.

The 1891 group also included Newnham’s famous recent graduate Philippa Fawcett (Mathematics tripos Parts 1 & II 1890-1) as well as one of the first women to sit for the Tripos almost 20 years previously, Mary Paley Marshall (Moral Sciences Tripos 1874). She had returned to lecturing in economics at Newnham after teaching male and female students at Bristol and Oxford Universities. The letter is also signed by two of her fellow Ladies’ Dining Society members and ‘sometime’ Newnham lecturers Ellen Wordsworth Darwin and Mary Ward; like Paley Marshall, they were active in promoting higher education and suffrage for women, and continued to research and write.

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

The 1891 petition offers a snapshot of twenty-four extraordinary women from two Cambridge colleges who had studied, researched, taught and published during the previous twenty years. Ironically, their books were welcomed by the UL even if they were not – including Paley Marshall’s The Economics of Industry (1879), co-written with Alfred Marshall, and E.E. Constance Jones’s Elements of logic as a science of propositions (1890) – her An introduction to general logic would be acquired in 1892. These and many more of their books and scholarly papers can be consulted there today.

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

Locked out of the University Library, staff and supporters of Girton and Newnham raised funds to build up their own magnificent college libraries, which today have around 100,000 books each. Tennyson, Ruskin and George Eliot were early supporters of Girton College Library, and there is more about the history of Newnham College’s library here.

In 1923, Cambridge women finally won the right to become readers on the same terms as the men. Two years later, Mary Paley Marshall, who had been Newnham’s first librarian over fifty years previously, co-founded the Marshall Library of Economics and worked there as librarian until her late eighties. On her death in 1944 she bequeathed £10,000 to the University “for the development and increased usefulness of the Marshall Library”. From the beginning it was equally useful, and accessible, to male and female readers.

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

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



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

SOURCES: My thanks to Jill Whitelock and Carolyn Ferguson for their generous help. Any remaining errors are my own. Christine Alexander ‘My Colleague, Miss Saunders’; E. Crawford, The Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 (1999); Susannah Gibson The Spirit of Inquiry (OUP, 2019) (see my TLS review here); Rita McWilliams-Tullberg Women At Cambridge (CUP, 1998); Jill Whitelock ‘M.R. James and the ghosts of the old University Library’, Cambridge University Library Special Collections blog https://specialcollections-blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=18923; more about Ellen McArthur in King’s College’s ‘Women At King’s’ online exhibition here: https://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/archive-centre/online-resources/online-exhibitions/women-at-kings

Women at Cambridge: Eileen Power

Power

In her essay called ‘Women at Cambridge’, published in February 1920, Eileen Power recalled being 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.’ In a recent Times Literary Supplement I reviewed Francesca Wade’s newly published Square Haunting (Faber, 2020) which 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 (my essay  ‘Cursed with hearts and brains: female intellectuals and muses of the twentieth century’ features on the TLS front cover of 17 Jan 2020).

Everything changed for Eileen Power in 1920, when she was awarded an Albert Kahn Travelling Fellowship which granted £1,000 to scholars for a year’s global exploration. Power, who had been a Fellow in History at Girton College Cambridge since 1913, was the first woman to win this international honour and she was surprised to get it, especially after one suspicious interviewer told her that “she might defeat the objects of the trust by subsequently committing matrimony.” Power travelled to China, Egypt, and India, where she was delighted, as a committed pacifist and Labour Party member, to meet Mahatma Gandhi. She was one of only six Europeans to witness the Nagpur Congress assembly vow to adopt Gandhi’s policy of Non-cooperation. When she discovered that the Khyber Pass was closed to women, she simply put on male disguise and made the crossing anyway.

Power’s easy charm and stylish appearance meant that she stood 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.’

220px-Eileen_Power,_1922_(2)
Eileen Power in 1922

While in India, Eileen Power received an offer of a lectureship in political science from the newly founded London School of Economics. She hesitated about leaving 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 position was originally intended as a readership, with a salary of £800, but when they offered it to Power they made it a lectureship and reduced the pay. Over the course of her academic career, even after she became a professor at LSE, Power was consistently paid less than her male contemporaries, despite the fact that she was a renowned scholar, invited on international lecture tours and awarded honorary degrees from respected universities. Her book Medieval People was published in 1924, and 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. In Testament of Friendship (1940) Vera Brittain describes how, when she and Winifred Holtby were giving up their flat in nearby Doughty Street, one horrified friend asked them, “Why are you leaving the neighbourhood of Tawney and Eileen Power for a place called Maida Vale?”

For most of her life Eileen Power was opposed to marriage as an institution, convinced that its 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 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 51, and after her death much of her work 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.

A recent episode of BBC Radio 3’s ‘Free Thinking’ called ‘Pioneering women at universities’ features Jane Harrison and Eileen Power, while ‘The Rising Tide: Women At Cambridge’, a free exhibition and events exploring the lives and work of women at Cambridge over the past 150 years, continues at the Cambridge University Library.

Sources: Francesca Wade, Square Haunting (Faber, 2020); Maxine Berg, A Woman in History: Eileen Power (1889-1940) (CUP, 1996); LSE website; Girton College website