Monday, March 14, 2011

{review} bluestockings

Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education

This is a delightful book of the 'social history-lite' genre. That is not a criticism - books such as this one are a brilliant introduction to a subject and - as this one has a very nice bibliography too - enable one to seek out more information if one so desires. Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education is written in a lively style and is filled with just enough facts to balance the well-chosen anecdotes and other pertinent authorial observations.

I was drawn to this book because I attended a women's college in England as a graduate student and I was in college in 1998 when Cambridge celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the granting of degrees to women in 1948. Fifty years: that is a shameful fact. SHAMEFUL. Even the 'other place' (Oxford) had cracked by 1920. And, as this admirable book makes clear, women were able to take degrees from many other institutions before this date.

Robinson builds up her picture of the early women's colleges by looking at the precendents for women's education (the bluestocking group around Elizabeth Montagu in the 18th century), the growth of academically-minded girl's schools (such as Cheltenham Ladies) and the remarkably rapid development of the first women's colleges in the later nineteenth century. A girl's teachers remain as important now as they did then in terms of promoting young women's access to higher education. 

What form did the opposition to women's education take? The best known objection is that which suggested that studying atrophied the womb - destroying the "muscles of motherhood". And what use was an educated woman from one of these "petticoteries" anyway? She was a "white elephant" educated beyond (indeed, out of) her natural level for no certain purpose. One is reminded of Samuel Johnson's thoughts on this:
A man is in general better pleased when he has a good dinner upon his table, than when his wife talks Greek. 
Robinson quotes Ruskin being 'mischievous':
I cannot let the bonnets in, on any condition this term. The three public lectures will be chiefly on angles, degrees of colour-prisms (without any prunes) and other such things of no use to the female mind, and they would occupy the seats in mere disappointed puzzlement.
Robinson draws a lot of material from Oxbridge (this book's purview does not lie beyond Britain) but other far more innovative and welcoming universities and colleges provide much interesting material, particularly in terms of the broader social spectrum encountered outside Oxbridge. Certainly it is the Oxbridge colleges which provide the most eccentric anecdotes. Consider Elizabeth Smedley who came to St Hilda's College (Oxford) for an admission interview to read English:
My interview with Miss Rooke was... agonising. She sat in a dim light, by the fireside, making the shadows of different animals appear on the wall by manipulation of her hands. I was full of carefully prepared brilliant thoughts on Shakespeare etc. and was utterly taken aback on being urged to try and make a rabbit or an elephant appear beside hers.
What happened to these educated women? Robinson offers the thought that one might consider that educating women did lead to sterility, of a sort - since so many of these educated women did not marry and procreate. The stats from an 1895 survey are interesting:
Of the 720 students who attended Newnham College between 1871 and 1893, 16 died, 37 were foreigners who returned to their original countries, 155 married, and 374 (52 per cent) went into teaching. Of the rest, 230 were living at home (of whom 108 were married), five did medical work, two were missionaries, one was a market gardener, one a book-binder, and the remaining handful worked for charities or did secretarial work.
I thought there were a few areas that could have had a bit more work. I would have liked to have known more about the breakdown of subjects undertaken by these pioneering 'undergraduettes'. My own college, for instance, built its own science laboratories on the college grounds since women were not permitted to use the university's facilities. I also thought that Robinson did not really get to grips with the women who went to co-educational institutions rather than the single sex Oxbridge colleges. Did they face a situation like that encountered by Phillipa Fawcett who topped the Cambridge Mathematics Tripos in 1890 but was not granted the honorary title of 'Senior Wrangler' (because only men could hold this) but was listed (on the separate women's results) as 'above the senior wrangler'?  Fawcett had some strong role models in her family: her aunt was Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to qualify in medicine in Britain. In a way the Oxbridge examples, being so much more extreme in their misogyny, may not necessarily mirror the experience of women elsewhere. They make much better copy though.

One should never take the luxury of education for granted. As Robinson so rightly notes, "University turned villagers into citizens of the world, passivity into proactivity, and predictable little girls into strong, surprising women." My own experience was no different.

Rating: 7/10. I also enjoyed this review.

Best acronym? S.P.E.W. (Society for the Promotion of Employment for Women). 

Worst cocktail? 'The Bluestocking': one tbsp gin, one tbspn blue curaçao, 3 tbsns clear apple juice, a fat blue cherry. A blue cherry?!

If you liked this... Victoria Glendinning's A Suppressed Cry: Life and Death of a Quaker Daughter (1969; reprinted as a Virago): the very sad story of a young woman who goes to Newnham College in an attempt to escape a stifling Victorian home-life. I was surprised not to see this in Robinson's bibliography.

Suppressed Cry: Life and Death of a Quaker Daughter

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