This post came about because I have been reading a couple of biographies at the same time: one about the Crimean heroine Mary Seacole (Jane Robinson) and the biography of Louisa May Alcott (Martha Saxton) that I mentioned a while back. While thinking about the role of women in the nineteenth century as a result of this reading, I remembered that I had another book by Jane Robinson tucked away. This one is a fascinating account of the long struggle for the right of women to be educated. Robinson is an engaging writer on various aspects of women’s history and I thoroughly recommend her work. I read Bluestockings over a year ago and wrote a couple of short posts on the topic for a student site. I’ve dug them from the archives:
Bluestockings: the story of female undergraduates
I’ve recently been reading an excellent book about the early years of women’s university education in England, Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to fight for an Education by Jane Robinson. It is still shocking to realise that women were at one time not considered to be capable of serious study. And worse than that, the (male) medical profession of the Victorian era thought that women would lose the use of their wombs (atrophy would set in apparently) through the effect of all of that dreadfully tiring brain activity. It would be just too much for the poor things. Early women students also really had to fight hard to be taken seriously and accepted as equals by male academics who didn’t think that women could produce work of a comparable standard. Though to be fair, some women also held similar views, believing that women’s place was in the home and that women had more to lose than to gain by trying to attain an education and a degree. Apparently no man wanted a clever wife, so an educated woman risked throwing away her chances of marriage and children. And of course this was at a time when many professions were still closed to women.
Robinson’s book deals with the struggle that females had to get into universities (and on equal terms) in England, but at one time the picture in Ireland wasn’t much better either. Apparently Trinity College Dublin fought hard against the monstrous regiment of women undergraduates and only finally gave in and admitted them in 1904. Even then however there were many restrictions governing their conduct and access to various parts of the university which lasted well into the twentieth century. A Danger to the Men? A History of Women in Trinity College Dublin 1904-2004, edited by Susan Parkes gives a fascinating picture of women’s life in the realms of higher education here in Ireland. It makes you fully appreciate how far women have come when you read of the determination that the early female students needed to prove that they really could stay the course (sorry about the pun). And naturally they still needed to be full of the womanly virtues at the end of it all.
Maybe every college and university should have one day in the academic year where the previous cohorts of women students are honoured for the courageous trailblazers that they were (with or without blue stockings). What do you think?
More Shades of Blue
In this follow up to my first blog I want to mention a few of the heroines (and heroes) of the fight for women’s education on both sides of the Irish Sea. It’s such a big subject with many people playing a part that it’s difficult to pick out names, but here goes. In Ireland one woman at the forefront of the struggle was Anne Jellicoe who was to become founder of Alexandra College, Dublin. She was a pioneer of women’s education, who along with Ada Corlett began the Dublin branch of SPEW, the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women in 1861. The society, which was renamed the Queen’s Institute gave classes to women to help them get jobs in offices or as sewing machinists. The emphasis was on helping to equip women who had to earn a living to find ‘respectable’ employment. Later on, there was more focus on girls’ higher education as the college forged strong links with Trinity College. I did mention heroes at the beginning, and so an honourable mention goes to one man who was involved in women’s education in both England (Queen’s College London) and in Ireland. Anglican Archbishop of Dublin Dr Chenevix-Trench was a prime mover in the establishment of Alexandra College (1866), enlisting Anne Jellicoe to help develop the college. In 1879 the Royal University of Ireland was created, which awarded degrees to women right from the start (Trinity didn’t crumble until 1904) thanks to robust representation by a committee set up by Isabella Tod. She had previously successfully campaigned to have the new Intermediate Exams opened up to girls in 1874, which paved the way for university education. The fight to open Trinity College to women was a long one, assisted by the first women graduates from the RUI such as Alice Oldham and Mary Hayden. For anyone who wants to know more about women’s education, the two books I have mentioned provide a wealth of information and some fascinating personal accounts.
Originally I posted the previous articles up on Campus Dig (a student web site) on 8/1/2011 and 18/1/2011.