This impressively titled social history of the British higher education provision for women was absolutely fascinating, and a real pleasure to read. I have had a great interest in the history of women’s education since my own university days; I attended one of Britain’s first university colleges for women, Royal Holloway, a Victorian red brick chateau built by Thomas Holloway in the Surrey countryside in the 1880s for the purposes of giving women a degree level education. Nowadays it is coeducational, and much of the pomp and splendour enjoyed by the first women to study there is a distant memory, but its beautiful, colossal main building stands as a testament to the wonderful new world its doors opened to women. There is a fantastic section of the website discussing the history of the college here, if anyone would like to read it!
Bluestockings explores the stories of many pioneering women, who braved the public opinion of the times to pursue an education. The first women’s colleges in the UK, set up in London, Oxford and Cambridge, were formed in the late 1800s by intelligent, well educated women who were fed up with watching so many young girls with passion and intelligence go to waste. The idea of a small, residential community within which young women could learn and live independently was radical but also highly attractive, and despite heavy opposition from most of ‘civilised’ society, these colleges soon flourished, receiving academically minded girls from all backgrounds, eager to learn and get out of the limited sphere of the Victorian home.
Most of these women had a whale of a time; emancipated from the watchful eyes of their parents, they were free to make often passionate friendships, organise their own social lives, develop their own interests and sympathies, and follow their own course of study. There were frequently strict rules and timetables for the girls to follow; bells to wake them and send them to formal lunches and dinners, prayers, exercise hours, and so forth, but compared to the lives many of them had led before, this was a blissful freedom that they embraced and enjoyed to the full. Of course, however, compared to their male counterparts, life was much more restricted for these girls, who were still considered to be impressionable and easily corrupted despite their intelligence. Chaperones had to escort them everywhere, and any girl who wanted to speak to a man had to apply for permission and do it in the presence of a chaperone or tutor. As such women’s colleges were very much an all female, somewhat infantalised environment, where girls were kept segregated and innocent of the facts of life, developed crushes on each other and considered midnight cocoa parties in each others’ rooms a wild night out.
As women’s education became more commonplace, into the 20th century, life became a little less strict for them, but they still very much had a reputation to uphold, and prejudice to counter. There was also the problem of life after university; with most professions still denied to women, the opportunities were limited. Those students who didn’t marry or go into teaching left the halcyon days of university behind only to have to go back to the limited lives they had had before; this left them depressed and frustrated, with no outlet for the education they had received. The battle for women to have equal access to education was being fought, and fought well, by the early 20th century, but still, women found themselves up against many barriers to living the lives they dreamed of outside of their college walls. Cambridge University held fast against awarding women full degrees until 1948; evidence of just how prejudiced many men were against those women who wanted to learn and engage with the world in a more meaningful way than just being a wife and mother – this being just sixty years ago is hard to believe.
What shocked me the most were the amount of women against other women gaining an education; particularly in the 19th century. Queen Victoria especially disapproved, and there were plenty of high profile women who felt it was a woman’s duty to stay at home and a man’s to go out in the world, and subverting this was wrong and deeply unfeminine. Female academics were stereotyped as dowdy, socially inept, unattractive old maids, either asexual or lesbians; certainly not marriage material, and mocked by other women. Why was this, I wonder? Fear, distrust, perhaps even jealousy? It makes me also think of those many women, most, if not all, born to rank and privilege, that were against women’s suffrage. Why did these women want to keep their own gender down? Clearly it suited them to have lives of leisure funded by the work of their husbands, but what about other women who wanted lives of their own, to do with what they wanted, and who did not have the same material advantages? A subject for another book, perhaps.
Jane Robinson explores many different facets of women’s lives while at university, and features the stories of many wonderful individuals who, sometimes alone, and sometimes with the support of forward thinking parents, fought against the odds to make it to university. They were not all middle class girls; many came from working class backgrounds, and had the added pressures of financial hardship to contend with in their quest to become educated and forge careers. These young women were an inspiration to read about; they let nothing stand in their way, and succeeded beyond their wildest imaginations. The snapshots of these girls’ lives reminded me of my own university days; in some ways very similar, and in others, wildly different. I was encouraged to go to university by my parents from a very young age; coming from a working class background, they had both been forced to leave school at 15 and never got the education they had wanted. My sister had been to university before me, but she lived at home during her studies, and my brother left school at 16, bored with academia. Therefore, as the first member of my entire extended family to go away to university, I certainly felt like a pioneer when I arrived at Royal Holloway, and being there opened my eyes to a huge world beyond that of my London suburb. Not only did I get exposed to people from a variety of backgrounds and other countries, but I also became far more cultured, more politically engaged, more socially aware, and more questioning of what I wanted from my life. My three years at Royal Holloway were ones of independence, personal growth, and much excitement and adventure, and when I graduated, I really did feel that the world had become my oyster.
I suppose this is one aspect of Bluestockings that disappointed me; Jane Robinson doesn’t really explore the emotional growth and experiences of the girls to any deep extent. I wanted to know more about how their independence and exposure to different classes and opinions and having the opportunity to develop interests of their own outside of the influence of their parents had changed them and their outlook on life by the end of their three or four year degrees. For many students, this is just as important as their academic studies, and I felt this side of things could have done with a bit more elaboration. Considering how radical it was to have girls who were daughters of Earls and others who were daughters of blacksmiths living together and becoming friends, I wanted to know what effect this had on social mobility and personal ethics and morals. Other than that, though, this is a wonderful, engaging and illuminating study of an aspect of women’s history that has again made me incredibly grateful for the sacrifices so many of my foremothers made so that I could have the access to education and career fulfilment I do today.