Pull as archer, in lbs

Mary Beard

  • Cambridge Women: Twelve Portraits edited by Edward Shils and Carmen Blacker
    Cambridge, 292 pp, £30.00, February 1996, ISBN 0 521 48344 1
  • A Woman in History: Eileen Power 1889-1940 by Maxine Berg
    Cambridge, 292 pp, £45.00, April 1996, ISBN 0 521 40278 6

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.

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