The Higher Education of Women

The Higher Education of Women by DaviesUnsurprisingly , the books by women which we are currently publishing on the recommendation of the Orlando Project include a number of works by the pioneers of higher education for women. As an alumna of Newnham College who also spent some postgraduate time at Girton, I thought I was well-versed in the history of the women’s struggle for acceptance at the ancient universities, with its notorious flashpoints, such as the 1897 vote of the Senate House by which the university was ‘saved’ from the contamination of having women as full members by hundreds of non-resident MAs who hired special trains to get to Cambridge to cast their vote. The subsequent celebrations included the hanging of an effigy of a bicycling ‘lady student’ from the upper window of what is now the Cambridge University Press Bookshop, opposite the Senate House, a bonfire and fireworks, in all of which ‘the police were not called upon to interfere’. Or 1921, when (a year after Oxford had voted for the full inclusion of women into the university) another vote was lost, and the ‘young gentlemen’ celebrated by destroying part of the Old Hall gates at Newnham.

But I had not realised until we started working on the Women’s Writing series that the various women (and men) united in their efforts to open the universities and the professions to women had very different opinions on how to achieve their ends, and indeed on what their ends actually were.

Why, for example, was Newnham College founded in 1875, only two years after Emily Davies’s college for women transferred from Hitchin to Girton? There were of course practical issues involved – Girton had a Chapel, Newnham did not (and does not) – but also an underlying difference of philosophy.  Emily Davies wanted women to be educated under the same system, to the same timetable and using the same assessment process (i.e. the Tripos examinations) as men – though paradoxically it was at her insistence that her college was sited a long way out of town and up the only hill, to keep her students at a distance from improper encounters with male undergraduates. The founders of Newnham  were less dogmatic, and keener to subvert the system from within –  the college had its origins in a hostel organized by Henry Sidgwick for five women who wanted to attend the ‘Lectures for Ladies’ offered by the university but who lived too far away to commute daily. The theory was that by seizing every opportunity offered by the university, women would eventually and inevitably demonstrate by their performance that they had every right to be offered full membership.

This is of course an abridged (and oversimplified) version of a long struggle and a continuing debate. It mentions Emily Davies, but not Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, who is rightly considered, in terms of her energy, enthusiasm, influence, and (not least) her money as the co-founder of Girton but whose name is much less familiar. Bodichon, the illegitimate daughter of a Unitarian M.P. and a milliner, was a fascinating character, one of the ‘Langham Place Ladies’ whose advocacy of improved rights and status for women at every level of society was enormously influential. Her friend and colleague Bessie Rayner Parkes was also a close friend of George Eliot, and an important figure on the London literary scene in the 1860s and 70s. Our reissue of Davies’s The Higher Education of Women also includes pamphlets on women’s issues by Bodichon and Parkes, and we look forward to offering more books which reveal both the ferment of practical and intellectual activity and also the solidarity and close ties of friendship in the women’s movement in the generation before the Suffragettes.


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3 Responses to The Higher Education of Women

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