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

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.

29 comments

  1. Welcome back, Rachel🙂

    I borrowed this from my library after Nymeth reviewed it but dropped the ball and had to return it unread; I think I’ll plump for the paperback at some point as I’ve been itching still to read it. A socio-historical fictional account of the women’s experiences would make a wonderful read.

    1. Thanks Claire!

      Oh you must read it – I know you’d find it fascinating, and it’s a brilliant springboard for reading further into the subject – the bibliography has given me plenty of other titles I can’t wait to sniff out!

  2. I’m dying to read this but can’t get hold of it anywhere! I checked out another book by Jane Robinson, about British women during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 – which looks interesting but is just not the same!

    1. Oh no! It’s on Book Depository – free delivery to the US!

      Yes I saw that – I want to read it after reading the E M Delafield short story about the Mutinies in Women Who Love. But it isn’t the same, not at all – and it’s so worth reading so I hope you can get hold of it!

  3. This sounds excellent, Rachel. Like you, I am “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.” I felt the same way after reading When Everything Changed, a history of women in America from 1960 to the present. I reviewed it last Sunday.

    1. It really is Laura! That book sounds fascinating – I really want to read up on American social history as I am woefully ignorant of it, so I am going to keep an eye out for that. Thank you for flagging it up – I’m off to read your review!

  4. The history of women’s education has always fascinated me, in no small part because I attended an all-girls school for much of my life where we were constantly being reminded how hard women had had to fight for any kind of education and how we could never take that for granted. This then lead to a mild obsession with Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night when I was sixteen. I received this one for Christmas and am really looking forward to it, but waiting for the right time (I do this with the books I’m really excited about – huge fan of delayed gratification right here). Sad to hear that there isn’t much focus on the personal growth of the women themselves, but I suppose that will just mean we have to search out more books to get that perspective (the details of her time at Oxford were among my favourite bits of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth).

    Glad to have you back!

    1. Oooh I think Gaudy Night was mentioned in Bluestockings – I’ll have to look it up. I’ll be interested to hear your views! Exactly – as I said to Claire this is a great book to read as a springboard onto others that go into more specific details about the aspects of women’s education you’re interested in. Thanks to you mentioning Testament of Youth I have finally picked up my own copy and started reading it this morning – I love it and can’t wait to read about her experiences at Oxford!

      Thank you!

  5. The subject is indeed fascinating, so I’m glad to hear it lived up to your expectations. I’ll have to put this one on my list. I haven’t read nearly as much nonfiction and women’s history as I would have liked to this year, but I have read more historical fiction than usual, so I suppose the imbalance comes from a good place. Thanks for the recommendation!

    1. You are welcome! It is a very interesting subject and one that I am now very keen to delve deeper into – women’s history endlessly fascinates me and education hasn’t been an area I’ve read masses on so I look forward to exploring it further. I hope you read it soon!

  6. A round of applause for Rachel. This is very well said. I enjoyed every bit of it. When I read the title, the feeling of gratitude for the women you are about to introduce struck me. Just imagine for a second, a life without education, confined to your own home with one sole goal of finding a husband!

    1. Thanks Lex! I know, I couldn’t imagine it – it would be unbearable for me! I think it’s so important for us to understand how hard our predeccesors fought for what we take for granted today and I loved how passionate these women were to make a change and take charge of their own lives.

  7. Great review. I have this in the TBR pile so happy to hear good things about it! Do try to hunt up a copy of Dangerous by Degrees about women at Somerville College, Oxford – Vera Brittan, Winifred Holtby, Dorothy Sayers, Margaret Kennedy, etc. Really interesting.

    1. Thanks Heather, and thank you for reading and commenting. I hope this inches up the TBR pile and gets read soon because it really is a fascinating book! That book sounds fantastic – thanks so much for the recommendation! I’m off to look it up now!

  8. Ooh, this sounds great! I have loved the term bluestocking ever since I first read it in a Georgette Heyer novel🙂 And this sounds like a really great thing to read before I start grad school, if I can find it!

  9. I liked your point about the number of women opposed to women’s education. I was surprised, when I read about the suffragettes, to learn how many of the opponents of votes for women were themselves women. Also — I went to a women’s college in the UK (Newnham) as a graduate student and was lucky enough to be in Cambridge in 1998 for the 50th anniversary of degrees for women. The most enormous number of women returned to the uni to celebrate and I don’t think that anyone who saw this could ever take their opportunities for granted again. The solidarity was tremendous.

    1. Hello bibliolathas, thank you for coming by! What a wonderful opportunity you had to experience the 50th anniversary of degrees for women- it’s so heartwarming to hear what an impact education had on the first women to take it up. I’d love to read more about the women who opposed suffrage – what their reasons were and why they didn’t want a more independent life. Perhaps a subject for my often contemplated future PhD!

  10. This sounds like such an intersting book that I must break my ‘no more book buying for a while!’ rule and try to get hold of a copy. I love reading about how women through the years have managed to make their voices heard. When I hear a woman say she’s ‘not going to bother voting’ it sends a chill through my spine when I think of all the women who have suffered so that we CAN vote. One of my favourite books is Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson, about how women managed without men after the First World War.
    As it happens, I’m a very happily married stay at home mother, but I had my college education and career before the children came along and feel it’s so important that all women should have a choice.

    1. Hi Penny – yes you MUST break the rule – it’s such an interesting book and just a genuinely good read as well, with some cracking photographs – how fashions have changed for the better!

      Singled Out is wonderful, isn’t it? I loved reading it!

      Yes I quite agree – the fact that we HAVE a choice is so important and those that don’t appreciate it should be forced to read what it was like before we had one – I’m sure they’d be rushing to the polling booths if they realised how little power women had just one hundred years ago.

  11. I anxiously awaited your review, Rachel. It did not disappoint.

    It struck me, as I read, that the right of women to an education is still being forged in many countries and how very sad that is for all of us. We are all better with an educated society, which has now become global. Your paragraph on women opposed to the education of other women in the late 1800’s grieves me – not because of your writing, or that of Jane Robinson, but because it still goes on. We hear it about our female news commentators and politicians and businesswomen as they are derided by their appearances instead of being judged by the content of their work and we hear it, still, by women.

    Bluestockings, and your review, has certainly generated interesting conversation by your readers. A job well done, Rachel, and a book that has sparked my interest.

    1. Thank you Penny. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post.

      That is so true and something that didn’t immediately occur to me, so thank you for raising such a pertinent issue. It is so important for us Western women to realise that as far as our society has come in its treatment of us, other societies are still actively oppressing women, and cultural differences aside, oppression is oppression, and should not be tolerated. I don’t know what I would have done without access to a proper, adequate education that has equipped me to live an independent life, and I feel so sad and angry for these women in other cultures who are forbidden from fully engaging in the world by the men who rule over them.

  12. This looks wonderful and has been on my wishlist for a while. I also love the term ‘bluestocking’ although I know that it didn’t have positive connotations before. A university education for me was taken for granted growing up. I know my mother had to fight for her right to go to university as it wasn’t thought ‘lady-like’ and doing so changed her life. Going to university is more than just studying, you are exposed to different people, culture and ways of thinking and I think you discussed this brilliantly in your review.

    1. it really is a terrific book and I hope you can get hold of a copy – the paperback is out so it must be in the library! Exactly – university makes you into an adult, and it’s that development from child to adult and the lessons you learn about yourself as a consequence that is, I think, the most important aspect of university, even more so than the academic knowledge you gain.

  13. Hmmm, you’re making this sound really, really interesting. I caught bits of it on Radio 4 (or Radio 7…one of them), and a friend of mine read it for a bookclub and they all hated it, saying it was too broad and neglected huge groups of female students and experience. But it still sounds like it’s a good place to wade in and get started. I may have to borrow a copy from one of the naysayers. Definitely sounds worthy of a read!

    1. It is, it is! It’s very wideranging and as a result does make sweeping statements and exclusions, but no one book can cover every experience and I think it’s a great springboard for further study. I am certain you’d enjoy it so do try and get hold of a copy!

  14. We were at our daughter’s graduation last week and looking at all the young women who were graduating at the same time made me more glad than ever that I’d ordered this book! It has arrived and I’m looking forward to starting it! Thanks for the recommendation!🙂 Now don’t recommend any more that I’m going to have to spend money on, please?🙂

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