It makes me very unhappy to see the Ladies’ Lectures, Ladies’ Educational Assocns, etc, spreading. It is an evil principle becoming organized, and gaining the strength which comes from organization.
As plans took shape in 1868 for the college that became Girton, Emily Davies confided her anxieties to close friends. In The Higher Education of Women (1866) she had made a case for access to university education in order to allow women to fulfil their potential and qualify for professional employment. What was emerging instead was ‘more of a system of separateness’: lectures for ladies, given by travelling lecturers from the universities and sponsored by local associations. London and Cambridge, rather than opening university examinations, introduced in 1868-70 separate supposedly degree-level examinations for women and lecture courses to prepare students for them. Might this put an end to all hope of equal access to undergraduate degrees? In practice, in an era of university reform and new foundations, it was a transitional phase. At Cambridge in the 1870s it proved possible to negotiate special permission for a woman to sit undergraduate papers, and in 1881 Tripos examinations were formally opened to those who had fulfilled residence requirements at Girton or Newnham. London’s women’s examinations lasted only ten years: in 1878 they were admitted to degrees and by 1900 over 30% of students graduating at London were women. By 1895 all British universities had opened their degrees to women except Oxford and Cambridge.
Those ancient, residential communities, with a history of preparing the sons of elite families for careers in church and state, found it easier to provide extramural forms of women’s higher education than to accommodate them as members. Proposals were discussed at both universities in 1896-7 for creating instead a new, independent, degree-giving women’s university, perhaps based at Royal Holloway College in Egham. They won sympathy even from some active supporters of women’s higher education. Mandell Creighton, for example, an idealistic young tutor at Merton in the early 1870s, saw his lectures to Ladies’ Associations as forwarding ‘the cause of education, of culture, in England’; he worked up a popular course on Dante and the Italian Renaissance in vacations for audiences in Clifton, Birmingham, Falmouth and Plymouth. Later, as Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge, he took Newnham historians for ‘conversation classes’ on historical method and on excursions to Ely and Audley End. But he did not support the admission of women to Cambridge degrees. That ‘would involve a fundamental change in the idea of the University’: Cambridge was ‘a corporation founded for definite purposes’. Creighton ‘would have preferred to see women free to devise their own educational system’. The path from ‘lectures for ladies’ to parity with Oxbridge men was not a straightforward one.
An Oxford lecture scheme for ladies was organized in 1873 by an informal committee of dons’ wives and sisters. Creighton’s wife, Louise and Matthew Arnold’s niece, Mary, recently married to the Brasenose tutor, Humphry Ward, were its first secretaries. An earlier initiative (1866) from Eleanor Smith, sister of the Savilian Professor of Geometry Henry Smith (and a Trustee of Bedford College, London), persuaded more professors to open their lectures to women. But a plan to get dons to give classes for ladies – Mark Pattison put on a German class, William Sidgwick (brother of Newnham’s founder Henry Sidgwick) a Latin class – petered out for lack of demand. As Mary Ward’s memoirs recalled:
In my maiden days [Oxford] was not… a city of young women. The Heads of Houses were married; the Professors were mostly married; but married tutors had scarcely begun to be.
By the 1870s, as college Fellows got permission to marry, this had started to change. In 1875 the Girls’ Public Day School Company opened its Oxford High School for Girls. By 1881 the Census showed that females outnumbered males in the expanding suburb of North Oxford by nearly 3 to 1. The University had (after some hesitation) opened its Local Examinations for schools to girls (1870). Three years later Annie Rogers came top of the list in the Senior examination. Her father, the economist J. E. Thorold Rogers, suggested that Oxford should now admit girls as undergraduates, although he refrained from pursuing the matter ‘from a natural dislike to invite the inevitable publicity to one’s daughter which the ventilation of such a case would involve’. But by 1876 the Delegacy for Local Examinations (DLE) had developed its own Women’s Examinations, corresponding to Responsions, and pass or honours final examinations.
The ‘Oxford Lectures for Ladies’ continued for six years, in a room in the Clarendon Building at the centre of the University. The programme for 1877 advertised French, German and Latin classes ‘in some cases directed at the Oxford examination for women over 18’; lecture courses given by dons on sixteenth and seventeenth century English history and literature, and on the ‘History of Gaul and France, Caesar to Louis XIV’; and a visitor from Cambridge, Mrs Fawcett, who lectured on ‘Certain points of Political Economy’. Tickets were sold at reduced rates for schoolgirls, teachers and ‘ladies preparing to be teachers’. Useful precedents were set by these lectures. The tickets admitted students to read in the Radcliffe Camera. Lecturers set ‘collections’ or marked written work for those who volunteered to be tested – evidence that this was no dilettante programme. But in 1879 it was placed on a more formal basis under an Association for Promoting the Higher Education of Women in Oxford (AEW). Lectures were now restricted to women working for examinations, except for one fund-raising course each year. These ‘popular’ lectures - sometimes given by women visitors (Millicent Fawcett again, Newnham classicist Jane Ellen Harrison) but more often by Oxford celebrities such as Max Muller, J. A. Froude or the poet and novelist Mary Woods (wife of the President of Trinity) – were still open to any woman, on payment of a guinea.
Until the university set up a Delegacy for Women Students in 1910, overall responsibility for women students in Oxford remained with the AEW, a body financed and run by university men and ‘ladies resident in Oxford’ (the headmistress of Oxford High School was ex officio on its committee). It had no official standing but was led by influential local figures representing a wide range of opinion, on religion, politics and university reform in general. Links with the women’s movement were weaker than the general commitment to education, especially university extension. The philosopher T.H.Green, the AEW’s first secretary, chaired a recently formed Oxford standing committee for extension. The secretary of that committee, A.H.D.Acland, became Somerville’s first Treasurer. Green had been an Assistant Commissioner for the Schools Inquiry Commission (1864-7); Mark Pattison, who gave the AEW £100, had given evidence to the Commission on women’s education, as had Eleanor Smith. Acland, son of the eminent educational reformer Thomas Dyke Acland, would later serve in Gladstone’s last ministry as vice-president of the committee of council on education. Oxford’s first extension lecturer, the chaplain of All Souls A. H. Johnson, was a don of a different sort - a keen sportsman, ‘a country gentleman in holy orders’, and an increasingly influential Modern History tutor. He had given the first lecture in the 1873 ladies’ lecture scheme and now became a regular AEW lecturer and tutor. Edward Talbot, Warden of Keble and founder with his wife Lavinia of the Anglican Lady Margaret Hall, represented another form of university extension – Keble had been founded by Tractarians to provide an economical Oxford education ‘on church principles’ for poor students preparing for ordination. Academic wives continued to play an active part in the AEW, notably Johnson’s wife Bertha, a long-serving secretary of Lady Margaret Hall and Principal of the Society of Oxford Home Students. As Lady Secretary to the AEW (1883-94) she worked closely with a third Sidgwick brother, Arthur, a former schoolmaster who became classics tutor at Corpus in 1879. The AEW’s secretary for twenty-five years, Arthur Sidgwick’s purposeful but pragmatic approach and genial diplomacy made their mark in the decades that followed.
The question of access to undergraduate examinations was not raised at first, much less admission to degrees. As Mrs Johnson later recalled, hardly any of the founders of the AEW thought of it: ‘their one idea was to enable women to obtain the best university education possible, and have that education duly tested by competent persons’. To qualify as a doctor a degree was needed, but Oxford as yet had no medical school. T.H.Green felt that those who could benefit most from the opportunities it offered were ‘young women…either having a special turn for studying or intending to become teachers’. For most prospective schoolmistresses Oxford’s examinations for women over 18 had more to offer (in principle, at least) than its degree courses, which were still dominated by the traditional classical common curriculum. Compulsory Greek in Responsions and some knowledge of the Greek New Testament in a qualifying examination on ‘Holy Scripture’ (known as ‘Divvers’) lasted - even for scientists and mathematicians - until 1919. A classical intermediate examination, Pass or Honour Moderations, was required for all Honour Schools until 1887. It was some years before some modern Arts subjects taught in all girls’ schools became available as honours degrees – the English School was first examined in 1896, Modern Languages in 1905. Yet in practice it soon became clear that the Oxford Halls would not attract enough capable students unless they could offer a qualification comparable to the Cambridge Tripos, if not the London degree. In 1883 the AEW petitioned, ‘considering the advantage to women of having their acquirements tested by a known and recognized standard’, for their admission ‘to some, at least, of men’s Honours Examinations’.
The outcome the following year was the opening of Honour Moderations and the Honour Schools of Mathematics, Natural Science and Modern History – but only after a stiff fight in Congregation and the correspondence columns of the press, and in Convocation on April 19 1884 one of the largest votes yet seen (464-321). This was the first public display of the strength of hostility to the encroachment of women on the university. Opponents, led by Conservative college Heads and churchmen of Edward Pusey’s circle, argued that this was the first step towards ‘complete academic equality’: Oxford would soon ‘be as full of women as of men’ and they would destroy its character as ‘a place of learning [and] a school of manliness’.For the women students and their sponsors it was however an important victory. That night Somervillians danced in the garden with Chinese lanterns, and for years afterwards the anniversary was celebrated with a college picnic. When the Honour School of Literae Humaniores was opened to women in 1888 the AEW’s Lady Secretary was among those who officiated at a bonfire on Boar’s Hill. By 1895 all remaining examinations for the BA degree had been opened. Yet it was done in such a way as to avoid any suggestion that women might achieve equal standing in the university. Oxford’s Statutes continued until 1910 to provide that only members of the university had the right to take its examinations. The DLE was merely allowed to make use of the papers, and for non-resident women candidates as well as students in Oxford. Access to professional examinations was not granted. A Faculty of Medicine was set up in 1886, but BM examinations were not opened to women until 1917. The BCL remained closed until 1918 and the BD and DD (which until 1919 could only be taken by Anglican clergymen) until 1935. The right to qualify for the BLitt and BSc, research degrees introduced in 1895, was withheld until 1913. And though women could sit undergraduate examinations after 1884 in the imposing new Examination Schools in the High Street, they did not wear subfusc. A Somervillian arriving there, chaperoned, for a viva in 1885 was asked by the porter, ‘What do you ladies want here?’ A message to the Home Students from their Principal in 1914 underlined the fact that they were still there on sufferance:
‘We have had a very tiresome complaint that the men examinees are disturbed by the way our students sit in their tight skirts and show their legs. We do not know who are at fault, but we are bound to warn all’.
The liminal status in Oxford of the early women students was never in doubt. From 1879 lectures provided by the AEW were given not in university or college premises but in rented rooms – at first above a baker’s shop beside Somerville (35, Little Clarendon Street), then for twenty years in two little rooms – a former Baptist chapel – off what is now Pusey Street, reached by ‘an obscure and narrow roadway, where the Corporation carts, screened from the public eye, could collect the rubbish from the back-garden gates of the St John’s Street houses’, and across a yard sometimes festooned with washing. It took the landlord, Pusey House, till 1898 to install heating. At first Association lectures – Arnold Toynbee on social history, Andrew Lang on literature, Henry Nettleship on Latin scholarship – were apparently ‘not given with a view to any particular Examination but what were considered good for us’. But later the quality of teaching provided for the DLE’s women’s courses could sometimes exceed expectations. Margaret Lee, reading English at St Hugh’s 1890-2, found her specialist lecturers ‘few but famous’ and their weekly lectures memorable – ‘they were all great men’. She mentions Joseph Wright and A. S. Napier for Language and W. P. Ker, E. K. Chambers and Owen Morgan Edwards for Literature: four of the five became early Fellows of the British Academy. In 1895 permission to attend AEW lectures was given to men reading the new English Honour School (on payment of the standard fee). The principle that women might attend mixed lectures – where the lecturer and college allowed it - had been conceded by the AEW in 1880, provided that they were chaperoned and sat at a separate table. Increasingly, as more degree courses were opened to women, this became the accepted practice - by 1897 only Magdalen refused to admit them to college lectures. Grouped together, often at High Table in college halls and behind the lecturer, sometimes required to enter by a separate door, women students were conspicuously set apart – especially when accompanied by chaperones who brought their knitting. But there could also, for the individual, be a vivid sense of inclusion:
‘One could sit, trying not only to watch the sunbeams on the rafters and the scarlet gowns of high-hung portraits, while Sir John Marriott stormed up and down, or Sir Ernest Barker drooped with melancholy humour at his desk… Or in a smaller lecture room in Balliol Mr. Urquhart would open a lattice window on the Catholic view of the Middle Ages… And at lunch one’s friends would return from lectures by Strachan Davidson or Lindsay, Sir Herbert Warren or Professor Ker’.
‘When I was a student I could imagine no greater misery than having to miss a lecture’, wrote Eleanor Lodge. The Oxford experience for women did become, from an academic standpoint, increasingly like that of an undergraduate, except that women were more likely (even as the numbers of women dons grew) to be ‘coached’ by specialist tutors – who might also be ‘great men’ - from a college other than their own.
By the 1890s the AEW was starting to look for formal recognition and get a foothold in university premises. Hebdomadal Council appointed a representative to sit on the Association’s Committee, two rooms on the top floor of the Clarendon Building were secured for use as an office (where Annie Rogers, now Lady Secretary, taught) and a lending library and, at the turn of the century, two nearby attics were refurbished as lecture rooms. The Annual Report for 1897-8 notes that the AEW science lecturer Miss Kirkaldy had begun to lecture at the Museum in a room lent by Professor Poulton. Formal university recognition of the existence of academic women resident in Oxford came with the Delegacy of Women Students, created in 1910 partly with a view to controlling their numbers. The colleges and the SOHS became Recognized Societies, students in residence were now ‘Registered Women Students’. The DWS office took over the job of entering them for examinations and women’s Schools results in the University Gazette were no longer published under ‘Unofficial Notices’.
What they still lacked, however, was an academic qualification certified by the university. The AEW had made pledges in 1884 not to agitate for admission to degrees. When the question of opening at least the BA was first tentatively raised with the University in 1895 the obstacles that emerged seemed formidable. Clerical hostility to the presence of women had waned with the passage of time but not opposition among traditional college men. There were university reformers, too – whether their aim was to democratise Oxford or develop it as a research university - who saw the women’s societies as a potential drain on resources. ‘It is to Germany rather than to America that we would look for a lead in organizing the university education of women’, wrote a spokesman for the research party. Popular as extension lectures were among women, the emphasis among Oxford extensionists was increasingly on reaching working men, even bringing them into residence as students. From the standpoint of women’s education, furthermore, there were still curriculum issues that complicated the picture. How would girls’ schools cope with preparing candidates for the degree course with its compulsory qualification – fiercely defended by traditionalists - in Greek as well as Latin? Some influential headmistresses, among them Dorothea Beale and the current head of Oxford High School, Lucy Soulsby, were fierce defenders of the focus in girls’ schools on modern rather than classical languages. Would the honours work – and the health – of women students suffer if they were subjected to the same regime and timetable for intermediate examinations as the men? That was an important consideration in Modern History, which was one of the last subjects to introduce its own preliminary examination: until 1914 history undergraduates took either moderations or the Jurisprudence prelim. History tutors argued that it was in the academic interests of future schoolmistresses to devote their time at Oxford to honours work. Yet the fact that women were not required to follow the undergraduate regime was seen by the outside world, and represented by the anti-degree party, as ‘a concession to inferiority’. One lesson learned from the degree move of 1895-6 was that – as Emily Davies had always maintained – special qualifications for women would never bring parity of esteem. The AEW now started actively to encourage students to follow the full degree course, with all its disadvantages; at Somerville that became compulsory in 1914.
A second lesson, when MAs in Congregation voted down a proposal to open the BA in 1896 by 215 to 140, was the need for extreme caution before reviving the question. It was only by the narrowest of margins (140 to 136) that a counterproposal was defeated - ostensibly a compromise but bound to be damaging to the women’s colleges - to introduce a university diploma for women that would be (like London’s degrees) open to non-resident candidates. The following year there were rowdy undergraduate demonstrations against a degree move at Cambridge, where the Senate voted against by a much larger majority (1707 to 661). Better to play a waiting game than risk making matters worse. The next degree move originated not with the AEW but with an interventionist Chancellor, a former Viceroy of India who believed he could save Oxford from investigation by a hostile Royal Commission by promoting ‘reform from within’. Assured by Arthur Sidgwick and Annie Rogers that all that was wanted was academic recognition – the BA – not the MA and a voice in university government, Lord Curzon came out in favour, pointing out the advantages a concession that professional women would value might bring.
‘So long as women are permitted to reside in Oxford for educational purposes, it is surely desirable that the best women should be encouraged to come instead of being driven elsewhere’.
That set in motion a process that, over the next ten years, established a consensus about the terms on which women could be allowed to graduate. In the aftermath of the War the ground was prepared for a settlement that was hailed as ‘all and more than all that we could have hoped’ - admission to full membership of the University.