Jane Robinson's story of women's first forays in formal education is entitled Bluestockings. The word still rings out as pejorative, but after reading this delicately written social history, any woman who has been through the education system should come out proud of their forebears' legacy.
There are some delightful – even tear- jerking – anecdotes in it, not least one about Trixie Pearson in the early pages of the book. Despite having to look after a family of seven during the Depression, her mother was determined that her daughter should get an education, and against all odds, Trixie gained a place at St Hilda's College, Oxford. When her family became destitute, and Trixie felt she ought to leave college to work and support them, grants were found, even invented, for her, some paid from the pockets of her own tutors. This is not the only instance cited of a tutor funding a female student, such was the desire to see young women given opportunities to educate themselves.
After the foundation of Queen's College and North London Collegiate schools in the mid-19th century and the hugely popular Lectures for Women tour, the desire of young women to learn was proven. This led, at the end of the 19th century, to the formation of the first women's college, Girton in Cambridge, and newer universities opening their doors to women.
There was, of course, opposition to these "bluestockings". Christian and Victorian values questioned whether a woman was physically capable of the strain of academia – one commentator suggesting that education could mean her "becoming sterile" – and the very purpose of educating a woman who would only go on to become a wife and mother.
When it looked as though women might be made full members of Cambridge University in 1897, and verbal arguments were not strong enough, male students took matters into their own hands. The ballot turned into a riot, with fireworks lobbed at the windows of Newnham College, effigies of its founder Miss Anne Jemima Clough being burned, and anyone suspected of being a bluestocking was pelted with citrus fruits and bags of flour. One student thanked the gentlemen students for keeping them entertained that evening.
But these are small instances in a larger picture. The story is remarkable because it is so unremarkable. Unlike the high rhetoric of the suffragist movement and the militancy of the suffragettes, the fight for women's education is not marked by confrontation. Rather it is a story of tenacity. "Never argue with your opponents," one lady tutor advises. "It only helps clear their minds."
Stopping at the Second World War and sticking largely within these shores, the book makes no claim to address more current issues in women's education, such as those countries in which there still isn't any. But, as a British social history, it does well in finding the incidental anecdotes, through historical records and letters, that create a picture of college life with its late-night cocoa parties and beds out in corridors for male visitors. There is a sense of the women's freedom from home, their desire to learn, and their alienation. Though at times it feels as though the scope of the book is too large, and the evidence presented a little thin and polite, altogether Bluestockings is a warm and often funny social history which should be an education to us all.
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