Cambridge Women: Twelve Portraits 
edited by Edward Shils and Carmen Blacker.
Cambridge, 292 pp., £30, February 1996, 0 521 48344 1
Show More
A Woman in History: Eileen Power 1889-1940 
by Maxine Berg.
Cambridge, 292 pp., £45, April 1996, 0 521 40278 6
Show More
Show More

You educate your women at the expense of their reserve fund; and after all you find they marry, and make very unsatisfactory and physically inefficient mothers ... You may think you have done no harm to her health by your training; and that may be true enough while she remains single; but have you done it positive good? Have you let it lay up that reserve fund of strength without which child-bearing is dangerous and (what is far worse for the community) inefficient? You can never tell till the time comes, and then many of your seemingly healthy Girton and Newnham Girls break down utterly.

So, according to Grant Allen, writing in the Pall Mall Gazette in the 1880s, higher education could damage your health. More to the point, it interfered physically (not just, that is, by opening up wider and more attractive horizons than motherhood) with a woman’s capacity to bear children. As so often, ‘nature’ was harnessed to the conservative bandwagon. Never mind the disputed politics of the case, never mind the long wrangling over the pros and cons of women’s admission to lectures and examinations that had gone on since Emily Davies set up the embryo Girton College (at Hitchin) in 1869; there were overwhelming physiological reasons for keeping women firmly out of universities.

The response to Grant Allen’s outburst was a surprising and little known episode in the history of higher education and Late Victorian science. In 1887, Eleanor Sidgwick of Newnham College set out to confront his claims with some facts and figures by submitting a medical questionnaire to all the women who had attended Newnham and Girton in Cambridge, and Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville in Oxford. They were asked to assess their state of health on a scale from ‘excellent’ to ‘dead’ (some forms were necessarily completed by the families of those who had not survived) at different periods of their life. Was it worse during their time at college? Did it improve or deteriorate after college? Other questions looked for significant correlations. How much exercise had they taken at college? Just walking, or callisthenics and dancing too? How many hours’ sleep had they had? Had they eaten regularly? The crucial issue was left till last: were they now married? How many children did they have? And what was their state of health? To provide a control group as close as possible in every way to the female students except in their education, they were, finally, asked to answer the same questions for their nearest sister or female cousin who had not attended university.

Almost all the questionnaires were answered and returned – an indication of the perceived importance of the issue, or maybe just of Late Victorian punctiliousness. And in due course the results were published in a minutely detailed hundred-page report which, though triumphalist in tone (‘we may say with confidence that there is nothing in a university education at all specially injurious to the constitution of women ... As mothers of healthy families the students are more satisfactory than their sisters’), had to resort to a good deal of special pleading. A majority of respondents had, in fact, reported that their health worsened while at college (Sidgwick deftly ascribed it to the newly independent girls’ ‘want of attention to well-known laws of health’) and only an embarrassing 8.55 per cent of students who had stayed the course had actually got married. By some elaborate statistical manoeuvring (incomprehensible to me), she managed to show that this was really no different from the marriage rate among their non-university sisters, and so a factor not of education but of the peculiar demography of the professional classes – the majority of whose women, according to Sidgwick, remained spinsters; and she rejoiced in the fact that, though the proportion of stillbirths among her students was higher than the national average, their live babies were measurably healthier than those of their sisters.

If this now looks like an unconvincing cover-up (as well as bad demography), it did not appear so at the time. Francis Galton, at least, was so struck by the report that he wrote to Henry Sidgwick (the philosopher and Eleanor’s husband, widely believed, ironically, to be impotent – at least they had no children) suggesting a scheme for getting more of these eugenically sound young women into the breeding stock: ‘I heartily wish it were possible,’ he wrote, ‘to institute a dower fund as an equivalent to Fellowships. It is a monstrous shame to use any of these gifted girls for hack work, such as breadwinning. It is as bad as using up the winners of the Oaks in harness work.’ Some of this eugenic argument seems to have rubbed off on Mrs Sidgwick. The Newnham College archive still holds some of the hundreds of specially printed records she later kept of members of the college, detailing their complexion, hair colour, physiognomical characteristics (‘ears: flat/outstanding; lobes: absent/present; cheekbones: inconspicuous/prominent’), height and weight (not anorexic waifs for the most part, but hearty eaters of ten stone or so), breathing power, strength (‘pull as archer, in lbs’) and eyesight. None of this material was ever published; it was presumably the start of a study designed to define yet more precisely the physical excellence of the female students.

These projects are more than a quirky sideline in the history of genetics. They also serve as a reminder that discrimination (whether sexual or racial, in universities or elsewhere) is a way of thinking shared in pretty well equal measure by its victims and its perpetrators; that it imposes itself on all kinds of choices, relationships and decisions, which apparently lie well outside its own area of operation. Eleanor Sidgwick was unquestionably a major figure in the campaign to reform the University of Cambridge and to win access for women to its teaching, examinations and privileges. Yet as part of that campaign, within her own college (and as its principal between 1892 and 1910), she was drawn into a relationship with students and ex-students in which she personally measured, assessed and filed away their bodily capacities, their eugenic strengths. In seeking to prove their physical ‘efficiency’, that is, she and her students inevitably colluded with their opponents in seeing themselves as breeding stock; they came, in part at least, to judge each other according to the discriminatory agenda they wished to contest.

Discrimination was integral to the whole experience of being in Cambridge. It was felt keenly, no doubt, by women who left (as they did for many years) without the title Bachelor of Arts, with no letters after their name, even when they had passed exactly the same examinations as the men. But it can hardly have been experienced less forcefully each time a new first-year was summoned to Mrs Sidgwick’s study and made to blow into a strange mechanical contraption that would measure her ‘breathing power’ in cubic inches.

The standard myth of ‘women at Cambridge’ goes rather differently, of course. It is a story of women pulling together (in league with a few sympathetic males) in a heroic struggle for acceptance; it is a story of obstacles put in the path of progress – and eventually removed thanks to dogged persistence and the sheer force of female talent. Newnham College still celebrates every year the anniversary of the University decision in 1881 to allow women formally to take degree examinations and to have their results published alongside, but separately, from the men’s (it was not until 1923 that women were allowed to use the title of BA, and 1948 that they became full members of the University); and Newnham students are still expected to cheer the achievement of Philippa Fawcett, who is said to have stunned the Cambridge establishment in 1890 by coming top of Part One of the Mathematical Tripos (as a woman she could not be given the usual title of Senior Wrangler; so, in an awkward compromise, she was declared to have come ‘above the Senior Wrangler’).

Girton’s equivalent of Philippa Fawcett is Agnata Ramsay, who in 1887 was the only examination candidate in Classics, woman or man, to be placed in the top division of the first class. It was an event celebrated in Punch, a regular supporter of women’s rights at Cambridge, with a cartoon showing Miss Ramsay, dressed in mortar-board and gown – garments that women were not technically allowed to wear until 1948 – escorted by Mr Punch into a ‘first-class, women only’ railway carriage. (Miss Ramsay was the eugenicist’s dream – promptly getting married to the Master of Trinity and producing three healthy, academic sons.)

This neat teleological fiction, with its romantic heroines and its happy ending (women did after all, eventually win most of the rights they thought they wanted), could have been designed to prevent us telling the story of Cambridge women in any other way. It tries to enlist us all in a single vision of pioneering struggle – and at the same time actively conceals the splits, paradoxes, dissents and subversions that have marked the experience of women (and men) in Cambridge for most of the last hundred years. In fact, as the story of Mrs Sidgwick’s obsession with her students’ bodies shows, it is all much more complicated than the standard myth would suggest. The women, for a start, did not all have the same aims. There was, in particular, a bitterly contested dispute between Newnham and Girton – Emily Davies at Girton wanting exactly the same opportunities, rules and regulations to apply to her students as applied to the men; the Sidgwicks at Newnham (most vociferously, Henry) wanting the rules adapted and relaxed to take account of women’s different educational backgrounds and aspirations. Nor were the camps (‘for’ and ‘against’ women’s admission to the University) as simply defined as we might like to think: shifting and temporary alliances cut across all kinds of personal and academic relationships. One of the very first Newnham students, for example, Mary Paley, married the economist Alfred Marshall, who in the 1890s led the opposition against allowing women to use the title BA (apparently changing his mind since the earliest days, when he had persuaded his future wife to sit the examination in Moral Sciences).

And even the most radical men could on occasion find the old rules of exclusion a useful weapon for settling personal scores with women. In the early years of this century Henry Jackson (Professor of Greek) was one of the most consistent, active and influential supporters of the campaign for women’s full membership of the University. The Newnham archive, however, preserves a letter from him to the University Librarian passing on the information ‘in confidence’ that Jane Harrison (a fellow of Newnham) had been seen at a lecture carrying two books from the University Library. As non-members of the University, women were not allowed to borrow from the Library; and Jackson concluded (correctly, no doubt) that Miss Harrison had suborned a man, illicitly, to borrow on her behalf. We do not know whether or not Harrison ever received the reprimand that Jackson obviously intended, nor what exactly lay behind the antipathy between them; but the incident shows how easily educational principles could be tossed aside when the old discriminatory rules were more convenient.

The story of Jackson and Harrison also shows how closely these women were observed, even by their political ‘friends’. In fact, we read again and again, in letters and diaries written by the first women students, how the college authorities insisted that they should be as inconspicuous as possible. And it was very much in this spirit that Henry Sidgwick is said to have lamented the ‘unfortunate personal appearance’ of his ‘little garden of flowers’, as he coyly (or predatorily) called the first five students at Newnham – meaning, apparently, that they were so remarkably good-looking that they would be bound to attract attention in the town. Even if the surviving photographs of this Famous Five make it hard to understand Sidgwick’s particular anxieties, he was, in a general sense, right. Women in Cambridge were the most conspicuous thing on the local horizon. And many of the institutions and rituals designed for the sake of modesty had the effect of drawing even more attention to them. Chaperonage, for example.

Until 1919, when the rules were relaxed to allow a woman to go unaccompanied into a teashop with a man, no meetings of any sort were supposed to take place between a Newnham student and a man other than her brother, except under the supervision of a suitable female chaperone. The students complained repeatedly of this restriction (presumably even finding a chaperone wasn’t always easy). Sadly, we have no account of it from the point of view of the chaperones, often younger fellows of the college, who must have been almost equally irked with the whole business – wasting hours in sitting through plays they didn’t want to see, or (not) listening politely to the inconsequential chat of a couple of undergraduates. But what happened as a result of this cumbersome institution was that women always hunted (and were hunted) in packs: at lectures, at concerts, at tea, in the street, you never saw a female student alone, but always in a conspicuous group – constantly in the male gaze and under male scrutiny.

By and large, the standard myth of Cambridge women obscures the divisions that existed between the women themselves and the paradoxes of their conspicuously inconspicuous place in the University. It has, however, always been told in two rather different versions. One stresses the fighting spirit that eventually won the day; Girton College still preserves (and, I am told, sings) a variety of martial songs – some going back to the 1870s – lauding the achievements of ‘The Girton Pioneers’ (sung to the tune of ‘The British Grenadiers’) or predicting a glorious victory in the struggle:

For Girton has shown us again and again
That her students can equal, nay distance the men;
And Cambridge perplexed says: ‘I fear it is plain
That we’ll have to cave in if she keeps up this strain’

– a song written to celebrate Agnata Ramsay’s First. The other version suggests instead that it was precisely by not making an aggressive nuisance of themselves that women eventually got what they wanted; that virtue and patience were ultimately rewarded.

The Introduction, by Edward Shils, to Cambridge Women, a collection of essays on the lives of 12 (dead) women more or less – and some pretty remotely – connected with the University, is an extreme example of this second approach. He praises the Cambridge women of the past, and of his own acquaintance, for their ‘hospitality’, ‘their selfless devotion to intellectual life’, and for their lack of complaints; and compares them favourably with the working-class, non-academic staff of the University – who had the nerve to make common cause in the (covertly political) University Assistants’ Association. The women, by contrast, he says, ploughed on, individually, in high-minded ‘devotion to learning, to their colleges and to the University which ... would not acknowledge them officially as members ... The only common cause they made was in the pursuit of truth about their respective intellectual interests.’

This romantic (and reactionary) nonsense finds a perfect match in the Preface to the book, by Carmen Blacker, the co-editor who oversaw the final stages of production after Shils’s death in 1995. Characteristically, she concludes her opening paragraph with a statement about these women that could be taken as the book’s motto: ‘The fact that they were not acknowledged as members of the University in no way dampened their passion for knowledge, their intellectual distinction and their powers of original and creative thinking.’ Of course, different female scholars must have responded differently to their position of disadvantage; for some, marginality to the University might have been more a prompt to ‘original thinking’ than a dampener. But to say confidently that in each of the 12 cases discussed in the book exclusion from the institution around whose margins the women were working ‘in no way dampened’ their intellectual zeal must be untrue.

The essays that follow are little better. There is an excellent account of the work of the Newnham classicist, Jane Harrison (best known for her books on Greek religion, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion and Themis), by Hugh Lloyd-Jones – who starts his essay trenchantly with the claim that ‘the lives of scholars do not always throw light upon their work, and are often too uneventful to make interesting reading.’ This warning is aimed at recent biographers of Jane Harrison (such as Sandra Peacock and Tina Passman), who have attempted to embroider her life into something much more exciting and flamboyant than he thinks it really was; but it is a warning that might well have been heeded by some of his fellow contributors to Cambridge Women.

Two other essays are worth reading: Adam Kuper on the anthropologist Audrey Richards and Maxine Berg on the medieval historian Eileen Power – who was apparently only too happy to leave a rather dreary Girton in the Thirties for the much more exciting territory of the LSE. This essay is a distillation of Berg’s lengthy monograph on Power, A Woman in History, and most readers – other than those with a specialist interest in the background to Power’s study of medieval English nunneries – will find in this shorter version all they need to know. Most of the other contributions are rather twee bits of hagiography: Helen Fowler on Eleanor Sidgwick (praised for giving Newnham ‘the feeling of a great country house’) and Frances Cornford, the ‘active, serene and productive’ wife of the philosopher Francis Cornford, and included here largely no doubt by virtue of being a member of the Cambridge Darwin dynasty; and Jennifer Glynn on her sister Rosalind Franklin, who was in Cambridge for just four years, before spending most of the rest of her working life in London, where she was integrally involved in the discovery of DNA. None of these essays shows much understanding of the complexities of women’s images, roles and alliances in what was essentially a male Cambridge; none gives much sense of the people whom the essays celebrate as anything other than saintly and devoted scholars. You have to read pretty attentively to realise that adversity and discrimination might not always have brought out the best (or at least the charm) in these heroines.

This naively uncritical approach is part of a much bigger biographical problem which affects even the best essays in the collection: in fact, almost any study of the history of women in Cambridge. Not one of the contributors appears to have given any serious thought to how we know what we think we know about these women, how far the ‘source material’ we have at our disposal is already mythologised, and by whom. We can see the force of this particularly clearly in the case of Jane Harrison. When she left Cambridge in 1922 to live in Paris, Harrison burned almost all her personal papers, letters and diaries. Her life is best known to us now through her archly elegant autobiography, Reminiscences of a Student’s Life, published in 1925.

It is this book, with its fey charm and its self-regarding anecdotes, inevitably putting its author centre-stage (Harrison meets and impresses Gladstone; George Eliot admires Harrison’s wallpaper; Harrison reflects wistfully on love in old age), that has in large part fed the recent explosion of interest in Harrison and her circle. Lloyd-Jones is right in one sense to reject the glamorisation of Harrison, and the cheap psychology it entails, but in refusing to recognise that the glamorisation was Harrison’s own work, he, like everyone else, is now compelled to see her as the heroine of her own myth.

Harrison went one day to speak on Greek art at Winchester College; after the lecture one of the boys was asked if he had liked it. ‘“Not the lecture,” he said candidly, “but I liked the lady; she was like a beautiful green beetle.” ’ Lloyd-Jones tells this story to illustrate Harrison’s idiosyncratic power as a lecturer: what he does not mention is that this anecdote is told by Harrison herself in her Reminiscences – so instantly transforming what might have seemed like nothing more than candid observation into a piece of self-mythologising. The point is that Cambridge women have been busy promoting their own myth from the moment they first arrived. It is harder than it might appear, even for the formidably sharp Lloyd-Jones, to do more than scratch the surface of that mythology.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 18 No. 19 · 3 October 1996

Mary Beard (LRB, 5 September) rightly denounces too cosy and introverted a reading of Cambridge women’s lives. It is a pity, then, that by confining her interests to Cambridge she fails to make more of the career of one who got away. Eileen Power left Cambridge for good in 1920 (not the Thirties) for the more mixed and cosmopolitan environment of the LSE. But even here, in a university where women were accepted in large numbers and made academic careers alongside the men from the time it opened in 1895, they were undermined. They were paid less than the men and their careers were held back, as attested to by Lilian Knowles’s trenchant disputes with the administration, and by Power’s treatment at the hands of Jessy Mair, the secretary and companion to the LSE’s director, William Beveridge.

Beard seeks to disentangle myth from reality in Cambridge women’s lives. Had she read more about Power, she might have found positive evidence to the point. Power’s life as recounted after her death was that of the exemplary female scholar in whom personal qualities and gender took priority over scholarship and vision of a discipline. She became the ‘learned lady’. But the myth was not simply perpetrated by male academics. There was a sense in which Power conspired in it. She assumed a personal style which would express the aesthetics she admired in a certain type of historical writing. Her glamour and political integrity also made her an attractive role model to a generation of female students and academics, and she used these qualities to further her aims of making economic and social history central to the historical disciplines. She paid the price for this, for she was afterwards remembered as the female scholar rather than for the history she wrote and the discipline she helped to found.

Power’s life also provides the counter to Hugh Lloyd-Jones’s claims, endorsed by Beard, that the lives of scholars are irrelevant to their work. Power’s feminism and her internationalism, as well as her decision to leave Cambridge to teach medieval history among the social sciences at the LSE, did change the content of her writing, the subjects she wrote about and the zeal with which she promoted her discipline – economic history.

Maxine Berg
University of Warwick

If Mary Beard had bothered to discuss the second of the two books she was ostensibly reviewing – Maxine’s Berg’s intriguing biography of Eileen Power – she would have provided Power’s answer to the question attributed to Beard’s article on your front cover: ‘Should Blue-Stockings Breed?’ Power’s view, according to Berg, was definitely in the affirmative.

Power spent much time in the late Twenties and early Thirties overseas at British colonial outposts looking for a husband and was for a time engaged to a prominent British imperial activist in China (played by Peter O’Toole in the film The Last Emperor). Finally she had to settle for her former graduate student, Michael Postan, ten years her junior, who (according to Berg) was said by Power’s housekeeper to ‘know how to get to her’. Relative to the breeding question, Power wrote to Postan just before their marriage expressing her regret that she was too old to give Postan a child.

Power’s father was a convicted white-collar criminal: this certainly depreciated her prospects in the middle-class marriage market and forced her and her sister to become career women. Whenever Power got a good fee for an article, she would immediately head for the airport, fly to Paris and buy a new dress.

Norman Cantor
New York University

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences