‘Inferior to us God made you, and our inferiors to the end of time you will remain’ was the observation that Dean Burgon of Chichester Cathedral made to a gathering of Oxford academic women in 1884. This is merely one example of the overt prejudice and ignorance which Jane Robinson notes in her spirited, and oft-times moving, history of the first ‘bluestockings’ to fight for a university education.
Admittedly, some professed more charitable motives for keeping the ‘little ladies’ from becoming ‘undergraduates’. Women’s brains were supposedly 5oz lighter than the average man’s, which called into question their capacity to even learn, and of course it was well known that education bred female sterility. Ridiculous though these objections now seem, it was these infuriating ‘little obstacles and inconveniences’ which prevented women gaining degrees on the same terms as men until the 1890s.
‘Bluestockings’ by Jane Robinson tells the story of the tenacious campaign, led by likes of Emily Davis and Constance Louisa Maynard, to open up the first colleges for women and, eventually, degrees for women. Unlike the more fevered political movements in this period, the pejoratively termed ‘bluestockings’, choose to adopt a quieter but still persistent approach. As one female tutor put it: ‘Never argue with your opponents. It only helps clear their minds.’
As you would expect with any history of student life, there are nostalgic accounts of coco parties, student rags and shenanigans, but what makes ‘Bluestockings’ stand out from other drier works is Robinson’s seamless blend of history alongside the first-hand accounts of the students on the ground. Through their letters, diaries and memoirs, Robinson illuminates how these vivacious and clever women from wildly different backgrounds paved the way for all the female students to follow.
From reading their accounts, the answer seems to be through sheer determination. The perseverance of the first female students was remarkable. Take, for instance, one Cambridge professor who on walking into the lecture hall to find only women present, promptly left saying: “As there is nobody here, I shall not lecture today”. Even the very pioneers of female education sometimes proved unequal to the task of caring for their charges, with the apparently unworldly Elizabeth Wordsworth, the first principle of Lady Margaret Hall, recommending her students to keep ‘something meaty by the bed’ as a remedy for nocturnal low spirits.
Robinson limits her subject to the British Isles and the years between 1860 and the second world war, and I personally would have been interested in exploring what happened to female students during the conservative 50s and the second wave of feminism. But for all this, ‘Bluestockings’ manages to do what many others have failed to do: to remember and appreciate the trailblazing students, as well those forward thinking teachers and parents who encouraged and sacrificed for them to get the education they richly deserved.
Most importantly, it reminded me of what I had frequently forgotten in the course of my degree: the sheer joy and value of education itself. One student recalled: ‘I remember many a winter evening with a little roaring fire … a vast lexicon lying on me middle and a play of Aeschylus or what not in my hands. The silence, the being along and knowing everyone else was at it in the same way seemed to give a great push on.’
Originally published 19th August 2016