“Inferior to us God made you, and our inferiors to the end of time you will remain.”
Dean Burgon of Chichester Cathedral made this observation in a sermon to the academic women of Oxford in 1884. He would have been appalled to learn that British women have now overtaken men at all levels of educational achievement.
Here is a little about life as a Bluestocking in the 70-year fight for education rights in England. The fight started in 1860 and ended with degrees for women in 1948 at Cambridge University. Our play Bluestockings is based on the true events surrounding a vote in 1897. While most of our play’s characters are fiction, they are modeled after real women. The fight for women’s education happened everywhere, At schools in England and the U.S.
Men’s monopoly over university education was first challenged in Cambridge. A “College for Women”, later Girton College, was founded in 1869, but it was not until 1948 that Cambridge granted full membership to women.
The prospect of further education for women was alarming to many eminent Victorians of both sexes. The Queen herself, who saw it as part of the “mad, wicked folly of ‘women’s rights’ “, was reported to be “so furious” on the subject “she cannot contain herself”. Where would it end, wondered Walter William Skeat, the philologist: “Even the BA would enable them to take 5 books out of the University Library . . . I am entirely opposed to the admission of women to ‘privileges’ of this character.” The year before he made this anguished appeal, Skeat’s daughter, Bertha, got a first in modern languages from Newnham, Cambridge, but like her fellow “undergraduettes” she was not awarded a degree or allowed to borrow any books. In 1939, the year that Jane Robinson’s sprightly and original account of the battle for educational equality finishes, women still had nine years to wait before Cambridge would accept them on equal terms with men.
A student, Bessie Macleod described a day at Girton Women’s College in 1881, evokes a hectic round of Latin prose, cocoa and, just when she was looking forward to a quiet evening’s Greek, fire drill. Girton, like every women’s college, had its own student fire brigade, who were photographed surrounded by ladders and hosepipes, ready, despite their bustles, to tackle any emergency.
The conventions imposed on female students were as crippling as the corsets. They were escorted everywhere, the clicking of chaperones’ knitting needles a regular accompaniment to lectures. In the rare event of a man – even a father or brother – needing to come into a woman’s room, the bed was removed and the door propped open. These constraints reflected not so much the prudery of the women as the prejudices of the outside world which were, like all prejudices, illogical. According to various objectors, higher education would make women frigid or promiscuous, dull-witted or overexcited. The eminent psychiatrist Henry Maudsley was convinced it would make them infertile, and an anxious male student at Leeds complained that long skirts spread germs. Female medical students at Manchester University in 1899, for example, obliged when asked to eat their lunch in a far corner of the dissecting room so as not to distract “the ‘real’ doctors”.
Jessie Emmerson, a student at St Hugh’s, Oxford, made it clear that silence was key to survival.
“So greatly did the responsibility of keeping up the honor and dignity of my sex press upon me,” she confided, “that I hardly dared address a word to anyone around me. One false step and for all I knew they would never allow another woman student.”
One marvels at their perseverance. One Cambridge professor, on walking into the lecture hall to find only women present, promptly left the room. “As there is nobody here,” he said, “I shall not lecture today.”
Supporters, luckily, were as determined as opponents. Mothers such as Trixie Pearson’s, a widow, endured real poverty to educate their daughters. A touching number of “grants” and “scholarships” that suddenly materialized were found only later to have come from teachers’ own pockets. The nuns at the convent school where Daphne Hanschell was a pupil in the 1920s decided to put her in for Oxford, telling her nothing until the day of the exam, when they promised that “the Holy Ghost will fix it”. It did. Edith Wood’s father, who refused permission for her to take up a place she had been awarded, was summoned to an interview with her headmistress, after which he did as he was told.
The women who arrived at colleges by way of such random circumstances were a more socially mixed group than existed perhaps anywhere else at the time in Britain. The first female graduates from King’s College London, included, among students from professional families, a laborer’s daughter, a shopkeeper’s daughter reading classics and, top of her year, a hatter’s daughter from Crystal Palace. The experience was new for everyone, and not always easy; illness and homesickness, as well as women who were simply bored or, could not fit in. They were a minority. For most, at a period when the only alternative was to be at home until they married, education offered intellectual companionship and personal privacy. Katie Dixon at Newnham remembered lying by the fire reading Aeschylus:
“I remember many a winter evening with a roaring little fire… a vast lexicon lying on my middle and a play of Aeschylus or what not in my hands. The silence, the being alone and knowing everyone else was at it, in the same way, seemed to give one a great push on.”
That fusion of independence and camaraderie was crucial. Bright young women could make their own way with confidence because they were no longer isolated. They have been forging ahead ever since.