A revolutionary proposal

Churchill

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

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

MEC

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

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

‘Militant, cussed and determined’: Women at Cambridge

download copy‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ opens on 14 October 2019 at Cambridge University Library, and runs until March 2020. Curated by Dr Lucy Delap and Dr Ben Griffin, this free exhibition marks 150 years since women were first permitted to attend lectures at Cambridge University. As well as letters, portraits and petitions, fascinating objects on display at the UL will include a green Newnham College tennis dress (closely buttoned to the neck and wrists) as well as fragments of the eggshells and fireworks used in violent opposition to female students being awarded degrees in 1897.

To accompany the exhibition, there will be a wide range of events about the past, present and future of women at Cambridge. The curators are taking an inclusive and imaginative approach, telling the stories of different women who since 1869 have studied, taught, worked and lived in Cambridge, “from leading academics to extraordinary domestic staff and influential fellows’ wives” as the University’s website puts it. This includes the struggles of,  in Lucy Delap’s words,“militant, cussed and determined” women, who fought for gender equality in the University, as well as the way in which female students and other women joined forces to share knowledge and bring about change in wider society.

This is the subject of my forthcoming talk ‘A club of their own: Cambridge women’s societies and associations 1883-1914’ which takes place on Thursday 5 December 2019, 5.30pm- 6.30pm at the Cambridge University Library (admission free, booking required). It’s about some of the women-led groups that sprang up in the 1880s and 1890s and gave female students, lecturers and townswomen the opportunity to meet, debate issues of the day, learn about professional careers and forge important networks. These groups were, perhaps uniquely for the time, genuinely “town and gown” in their structure. The largest association was the Cambridge Ladies’ Discussion Society, formed at Newnham College on 17 March 1886 “to bring together ladies who are interested in the discussion of social questions… hearing papers read and discussing subjects arising”.

Originally connected to the (all-male) University Society for the Discussion of Social Questions (USDSQ), the Cambridge Ladies’ Discussion Society (CLDS) later became an independent women’s association but kept in step with the University’s terms and organisational principles. Newnham and Girton students were encouraged to join, with a reduced membership fee, and were among the large numbers who attended talks by a range of speakers including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (pictured above) on ‘The medical professon for women’ and Beatrice Webb on ‘The expediency of regulating the conditions of women’s work’. Active founder-members of the CLDS included Kathleen Lyttelton, Louise Creighton and Eleanor Sidgwick. Together these friends would form a much smaller discussion group, the Ladies’ Dining Society in 1890. In 1913 the CLDS amalgamated with the National Union of Women Workers, and in 1918 became known as the National Council of Women (NCW), which is still active today.

Despite the difficulties and delays in obtaining full membership of the University (degrees were not awarded until 1948), active and determined Cambridge women have always worked together, helping to create the University that exists today. It is worth remembering that their work, like that of the male dons and students, was enabled by an army of (mostly female) domestic staff, and it is right that ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ recognizes their contribution. I will also be discussing the Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls founded by Ida Darwin and Kathleen Lyttelton in 1883, which aimed to help local girls by giving them training opportunities as domestic servants.

Ann Kennedy Smith, 29 September 2019

The full programme of ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ will be available soon, and I will post a link and booking details here when it does.

‘My Past Is a Foreign Country’ review

downloadMy Past Is a Foreign Country by Zeba Talkhani (Sceptre, 2019): a moving and compassionate memoir with an emphasis on a daughter’s difficult relationship with her mother. One of a series of my occasional reviews of recent biographies and memoirs with Cambridge connections.

As a young girl growing up in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, Zeba Talkhani was fascinated by her elegant, rather mysterious mother. “I was obsessed by Mama’s every move and watched her like a hawk,” she recalls. As a result, her mother became ever more secretive around her small child, warning friends of her daughter’s ‘antenna’ and speaking to Talkhani’s father in a language from their native south-west India. But somehow their bright, curious daughter was always able to understand them.

Talkhani’s father worked for a large company in Jeddah and spent much of his time travelling. Living so far from their Indian relatives meant connections to their fellow expatriates were important. Large weekend gatherings were the norm, and it was her mother’s job to provide a generous array of food for twenty or more families. “Looking back, it feels as though Mama spent her twenties and thirties cooking for people she did not know,” Talkhani recalls. On one occasion she witnessed a kitchen accident and her mother “wailing and withering” in pain from her bloody injury. A few hours later, ‘Mama’ seemed a different woman: beautifully dressed, smiling graciously and presiding over the party as if nothing had happened. “It was the first of many times that I was in absolute awe of her ability to perform the role that society had forced upon her,” Talkhani observes. “I still feel a sharp sting when I ask myself why the party was not cancelled that day.”

Keeping up appearances was important to her mother, and there were countless unspoken tensions living under Saudi Arabia’s patriarchal laws. Both at home and at school Talkhani was taught that “bad things happen to girls who are not “good Muslims”‘. As she grew into a teenager and questioned why women were treated as they were, she was often scolded by her mother, whose natural protectiveness often shaded into bitter reproach. “I felt that Mama held my joyful hope against me,” Talkhani writes. “I wanted a mother who could see me for who I was and not worry about how I would be perceived by our society”. Their relationship became more strained when, at the age of fourteen, Talkhani began to suffer from hair loss, and her mother feared this would mean the end of her daughter’s marriage prospects.

The memoir charts Talkhani’s progress into adulthood as she moves away from the family home and the restrictions of this society. She began her studies at Manipal University in southern India, where she found greater freedom and awareness of wider political issues. Under Saudi Arabia’s strict censorship laws of the 1990s and 2000s she had no access to modern culture, and an extremely limited overview of history: she had never heard of the Holocaust or the impact of slavery in America. (In this, her book is reminiscent of Tara Westover’s Educated, another excellent recent memoir with a Cambridge connection.) Talkhani’s university education involved more than attending classes and reading set texts. She became absorbed in magazines, going to the cinema, watching popular American TV series and discussing ideas with friends. But it was the university’s well stocked library that made her see the world, and herself, through fresh eyes. “I realised that I did not subscribe to the tyrannical, homophobic and misogynist Islam I was exposed to in my early years,” she notes. “I was only just embarking on my feminist journey and I was keen to marry Islam with it.”

A central part of Talkhani’s feminist education was understanding why her mother behaved in the way that she did. In Manipal, reading Sylvia Plath for the first time helped her to understand “the conflicted reality” of motherhood: “I saw my mother in her words.” She studied in Germany, then in 2012 followed in Plath’s footsteps to Cambridge, where she began studying for an MA in Publishing at Anglia Ruskin University, the “tiny university on the wrong side of Parker’s Piece” as she puts it. Although at first it seemed a cosmopolitan city, it soon became apparent that her fellow students struggled with the idea that she could be both Muslim and feminist. With her mother increasingly fretting about her marriageability, where did she fit in? Then, in a Cambridge café one day, Talkhani overheard an older woman resembling “a ghost from my future” blaming all her failures in life on her mother. At the age of twenty-three she decided that she must take control of her own life.

This original and insightful memoir is a testament to a young writer’s experiences of gaining a meaningful education for herself in very different places. It is beautifully paced, with a touching freshness and honesty that makes you want to keep reading. Like the inquisitive child she once was, Talkhani is able to tune into things that are both said and unsaid around her, and as she grows up, gradually works out her own story. Her growing self-awareness brings her closer to her mother, and the two women begin to trust one another: “It felt like we were fighting our demons together.”

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 26 August 2019, all rights reserved

 

The 1881 vote

Women at Cambridge

On the 19 February 1881 Ida Darwin sat down in her home in Hills Road, Cambridge to write an urgent letter to Henrietta Litchfield, her sister-in-law. They had been friends for years, long before Ida had married Henrietta’s brother Horace just over a year before, and often wrote to one another. But this letter was different. It was not about either of them, but about women’s rights in the future. ‘There is great excitement at Newnham & Girton about the voting which is to take place next Thursday’, Ida told her,

which will decide the fate of women up here for some time to come. I have sent a circular about it to Frank [Darwin] who says he will come up if he can. Could & would Richard come too? If the women do not get the certificate granted to them this time, their position will be worse than it has been, as they will lose the privilege of being examined by the University examiners.

Ida was referring to the Senate vote – about to take place on 24 February 1881 – on whether Cambridge University’s final year Tripos examinations should be opened to female students by right, not by favour as had been the case until then. Every M.A. (male graduate) who could attend the vote counted, so Ida was attempting to round up as many of the Darwins’ extended family as she could.

Since 1874 twenty-one women had been granted special permission to take the Tripos, and all had succeeded, with four being placed in the First Class. By 1881, even though there was still no question of female students being awarded degrees, pressure had been building on Cambridge to give some sort of formal recognition to its female students, particularly since London University had opened its degrees to women three years before. In 1880 a petition known as the Newcastle Memorial had obtained over eight thousand signatures from across Britain calling for Cambridge University to grant ‘to properly qualified women the right to admission to the Examinations for University Degrees’.

The Memorial had come as a surprise to the leaders of both of the women’s colleges, but Newnham College’s Henry and Eleanor Sidgwick and the college Principal Anne Jemima Clough felt that the time was right to move forward. Emily Davies at Girton argued that the proposal did not go far enough, but reluctantly accepted that Girton had to support it. She knew that if the vote was defeated it might mean the end of the women’s colleges’ tentative relationship with the University.

Ida Darwin had made many friends at Newnham, including Helen Gladstone, the Prime Minister’s daughter and Ellen Crofts, a young lecturer in English. Horace’s mother Emma Darwin knew Anne Jemima Clough well, and his sisters Henrietta and Bessy attended lectures at London University. Before she married, Ida had longed to study at the newly founded Somerville College at Oxford; now that she found herself in Cambridge as a wife, not a student, she wanted to help others, and was determined that more doors into higher education should be opened to women in the future.

On 24 February the Senate House was packed with about 400 M.A.s and Henry Sidgwick was pleasantly surprised when it dawned on him that almost everyone there was in favour of the women’s vote. ‘Ultimately, with great trouble, I discovered the enemy seated in a depressed manner on a couple of benches in one corner, about thirty in number,’ he later wrote. The Graces allowing women students to take the Tripos were passed by 366 votes to 32: Ida and others’ efforts to round up supporters had worked. In Kent, Charles and Emma Darwin rejoiced when they heard the news. ‘You will have heard of the triumph of the Ladies at Cambridge’, Charles told his son George. ‘Horace was sent to the Lady’s [sic] College to communicate the success & was received with enthusiasm.’

But in their celebrations of February 1881 neither the Darwins nor Ida and her Newnham friends could have known that rather than the beginning, this vote represented the end of something. The optimistic belief that women were slowly but surely making progress towards equal membership of the University did not last. From 1881 on, votes began to be blocked by ever more stubborn resistance by the forces of reaction in the Senate who feared that the status quo would be changed. The photograph on the cover of Rita McWilliams-Tullberg’s book above shows the thousands who gathered in 1897 to defeat the Senate’s vote to allow women degrees.

By then women at Cambridge, both in and outside the colleges, had discovered that they would have to rely on themselves, not votes at the Senate. From the 1880s on they formed women-led associations and societies to work together towards the better future that they all wanted.

© Ann Kennedy Smith 1 July 2019

Sources: Ida’s letter to H. Litchfield is Add.9368.1: 5977, C. Darwin’s letter is DAR 210.1:103, both from the Darwin Papers held at Cambridge University Library; other quotes are from Rita McWilliams-Tullberg’s chapter ‘1881 Admission to Examinations’ in her excellent Women At Cambridge (CUP, 1998) (pp 70-84). See also my post ‘The Ascent of Women at Cambridge’.

Figuring Out Popova

 

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If you picked up a copy of Figuring in something as old-fashioned as a bookshop and had never heard of Maria Popova, it would be hard to fathom exactly what you were looking at. It’s a hefty book with a bright yellow cover adorned with a mysterious flower-trumpet-diagram. On the back, instead a snappy blurb, there’s a meandering quotation from the book’s introduction that leaves you none the wiser. A glimpse inside gives few clues to the book’s contents, with lower-case chapter titles like “unmastering” and “that which exhausts and exalts”. It’s a disorientating experience, but the message is clear: Popova wants readers to abandon their preconceptions and simply dive in.

In my review of Figuring for this week’s Times Literary Supplement I did place it in a category, describing it as an unusual form of group biography (there’s a snippet of my review below – the rest is behind a paywall, but there’s an excellent essay by Ruth Scurr in this special ‘life writing’ TLS, free to read here.) My view of Popova’s book reflects my own interest in the stories of the women she describes (Margaret Fuller, Maria Mitchell, Rachel Carson) and the author herself might disagree with me about labelling it as a biography. She’s a Bulgarian-born writer who lives in New York and is the author of a popular blog ‘Brainpickings.org’ that has been covering a wide range of subjects for 13 years.

Brainpickings

Paradoxically perhaps, the Brain Pickings website is an up-to-the minute format that goes against what Popova sees as the Internet’s tendency to place a high value on everything new. “It suggests that just because something is more recent, it’s more relevant,” she says, “yet, in culture, the best ideas are timeless, they have no expiration date.” (Guardian interview, 30.12.12)

Popova’s new book Figuring also aims to spark interest in what links a wide variety of ideas and people over a period of four hundred years. She tells the intermingled stories of individuals who refused to conform and passionately defends their choices. It’s a “cosmos of connections” with Popova as the astronaut author-pilot and personal guide. Fasten your seatbelts, readers.

©Ann Kennedy Smith (27 April 2019)

Cosmos of connections