When women invaded the ivory towers

An engaging, insightful history of the women who fought for the right to be educated reminds us how acts of perseverance and rebellion can transform society.

Nathalie Rothschild

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‘It takes true conviction to break the mould’, writes Jane Robinson in her engaging and heartfelt book, Bluestockings, which recounts the remarkable story of the first women to fight for an education in Britain.

By the end of the nineteenth century, ‘bluestocking’ was used pejoratively to describe frumpy, humourless women. But the very first bluestocking was a man: the naturalist and writer Benjamin Stillingfleet, who belonged to a group of mainly female, eighteenth-century intellectuals who cultivated the art of conversation in London salons. One evening, the eccentric Stillingfleet showed up at the Mayfair residence of the wealthy patron Elizabeth Montagu wearing cheap, blue wool stockings. From then on, Mrs Montagu’s fashionable clique became known as the ‘blue stocking philosophers’.

Robinson’s historical overview – which is based on correspondences, interviews, Victorian scrap books, letters and diaries, as well as material from historical archives – ends in 1939. By that time, being a ‘graduette’ was quite the fashionable thing. By the start of the Second World War, every British university except Cambridge awarded female students degrees, and bluestockings had been known to enter professions as diverse as journalism, property management and mining engineering.

But the road had been a long one – and there was still much to be accomplished by way of women’s equality at universities and in society at large. In the mid-1930s, Robinson writes, ‘academia was breeding white elephants’, as the majority of women graduating from university found their degrees did not count for much when it came to seeking careers outside of those traditional female professions of teaching and nursing.

Pioneers like Mary Wollstonecraft, whose 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman was a passionate denouncement of gender discrimination, and the Ladies of Langham Place, a group of intellectual feminists who campaigned for social and political reform in the late 1800s, bravely paved the way for generations of women to claim political rights and independence.

In 1869, one Langham lady, Emily Davies, founded Girton College for women in Cambridge. Nine years before, during an evening chat by the fireside with her friend Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Davies had declared: ‘It is clear what has to be done. I must devote myself to securing higher education while you open the medical profession for women. After these things are done, we must set about getting the vote.’

Some men, too, displayed admirable forward thinking and helped further the cause of women’s education. Professor Frederick Denison Maurice, for instance, instituted and delivered the Lectures to Ladies in 1847 – a radical idea at the time – and later opened Queens’ College in London. Maurice’s intention was, Robinson writes, ‘to produce a new generation of students: girls who enjoyed high academic achievement and who appreciated the value of high expectation, in themselves and of others in them’.

While Robinson duly acknowledges and pays homage to such pioneers, the bulk of Bluestockings is based on the firsthand accounts of those early women students who at times overcame great personal, social and financial obstacles to pursue higher education. At university, ‘work doesn’t seem work, but rather some delightful form of amusement’, one bluestocking enthusiastically remarked. Another felt that ‘studying is really the nicest kind of work one can do; the only difficulty is it might become a little too absorbing’.

While some thrived and extolled the joys of learning, others did not adapt as well to the routines and unwritten social rules of university life. The shy, ugly, overly earnest or academically challenged, explains Robinson, often found it hard to fit into any of the ‘sets’ that filled college societies. There was the country set who kept terriers and went riding on their own horses before breakfast; the religious set who prayed for their fellow graduettes’ conversion; the unladylike sporting set; the brainy medics and the aloof aesthetes.

Robinson describes in vivid detail the routines and regulations at universities and college residences around the country that were designed to instil certain attitudes and behaviour. Through to the 1920s, chaperones would follow graduettes around to guard them against moral and physical digression. At Langwith Hall, Manchester, bells rang nine times in the 1930s, for waking, prayers and meals. The final ring for lights-out was referred to as the ‘morality bell’. Students’ rather innocent-sounding favourite pastimes included midnight cocoa-parties and fancy-dress dances.

While Cambridge was the first college to host women students in 1869, it was the last to award them degrees. It would take until 1948 for the dons of Cambridge to allow women to leave the college’s hallowed halls with official certificates in their hands. Back in 1897, however, a poll on whether or not women should be allowed full membership of Cambridge university had descended into a riot, with some students pelting anyone suspected of supporting the bluestockings with oranges, lemons, eggs, bags of flour and exploding fireworks.

Of course, the pioneers of female emancipation were widely derided and feared. During Emily Davies’ time, medics believed women’s brains were smaller and weaker than men’s – weighing, on average, 150 grams less, to be precise – and that menstruation sapped women of lifeblood. Hence, a woman should wear out neither brain nor body, one physician warned, ‘for it would be an ill thing, if it should so happen, that we got the advantages of a quantity of female intellectual work at the price of a puny, enfeebled, and sickly race’.

It was not just men who warned against the personal and societal breakdowns that university access for women would cause. After the riot in Cambridge, one young student wrote a letter to her mother explaining why she was glad the university had voted against granting women degrees: ‘We are very well satisfied with our present position.’ Fifty years before, Queen Victoria had regarded the drive towards further education as part of the ‘wicked folly of “women’s rights” with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex is bent, forgetting every sense of womanly feeling and propriety’.

Considering the hostility towards women amongst some members of academia, it is no wonder that Jessie Emmerson, a student at St Hugh’s, Oxford, concluded it was best to keep her head down and obediently follow the rules: ‘So greatly did the responsibility of keeping up the honour and dignity of my sex press upon me 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.’

That was perhaps the hope of the Cambridge professor who, upon walking into a lecture hall filled with women, declared: ‘As there is nobody here, I shall not lecture today.’

Luckily, there was also plenty of goodwill around, as the touching story of Trixie Pearson testifies. As the financial situation of the Pearson family grew more and more desperate, Trixie’s tutors at St Hilda’s College in Oxford invented grants and bursaries to help her stay on.

University was also a kind of melting pot where girls from the provinces might encounter lesbians, communists and atheists for the first time, and where the daughters of clergies, academics and builders forged friendships.

The fact that, today, we take it for granted that women should receive an education is no bad thing. But Bluestockings reminds us that this is no coincidence, or the result of some natural evolution. It is thanks to the women who challenged received wisdoms and prejudices of their time, who campaigned for equal rights or who simply enrolled in university and paved the way for generations of women to do the same. Reading Robinson’s book one cannot but feel gratitude for women like Jessie Emmerson, who ‘felt that the responsibility for the future admission of women rested on my shoulders’.

Today, universities are being opened up to everyone in the name of ‘diversity’ and ‘social inclusion’, but what the masses find at university is wildly different from what the bluestockings experienced. Education today is regarded as a panacea to all sorts of social ills and is widely seen as a process of skills-appropriation; it is valued in practical terms, as a means to an end. While vocational courses for women abounded in the latter part of the nineteenth century, ‘only at university’, Robinson points out, ‘could a girl really explore learning for its own sake, or as one student put it, distinguish what she knew from what she did not, “which is the beginning of wisdom”’.

Robinson’s book reminds us of a time when academia was a place for meaningful study and the idea of the university was intimately bound up with the edifying pursuit of knowledge. This is what the bluestockings yearned to be part of. Their story reminds us why it was worth fighting to enter the ivory towers; not for the sake of feeling ‘included’ or to ‘gain skills’, but for the opportunity to broaden the mind, to transform oneself – and possibly society.

Bluestockings is a witty and absorbing book which gives due respect to the bravery, gumption and determination of women who had the courage to break the mould. And it does so in engaging prose that is never lecturing yet contains many valuable and inspiring lessons.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education, by Jane Robinson, is published by Viking. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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