The Value of Religion in Women’s History, Part 1: Identities

Prayer without end

 Old Woman saying Grace, known as ‘The Prayer without End’, Nicolaes Maes, c. 1656

Religious principles are a frequent theme in didactic literature of the long nineteenth century. Religion was vitally important to women and was often used in arguments to improve their position in their family and society.

It gave women a voice and was significantly valued by the women themselves – as religion formed their identities, as mothers, wives, and their relationship to their communities. For many women of this period, the Christian God of the Bible was a pre-eminent force in their lives, directing them by his providence and preparing them for an eternal future with him and other believers in an eternal home. Love and service for God – in whatever manifestation that presented – was supreme.

This three-part blog series will demonstrate the importance of understanding the religiosity of women in this period, highlighting how religion shaped identities, helps us understand debates over women’s position in society, reveals agency, offers opportunities and catalyses activism. This first post will focus on religion and identity.

While it would be remiss to suggest that all women in the long nineteenth century were religious (they weren’t), those who were eminently religious did not consider it a tangential part of their lives; religion was the axiom which underlay their other activities; whether political, family-orientated, or career-driven – religious experience was central.

The importance of faith is especially evident in diaries and letters of nonconformist women (Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians and Congregationalists) which I have examined from 1780-1850. Anna Braithewaite, a Quaker minister in the early nineteenth century, comments in a letter (in July 1823) to her husband how greatly she missed him and her children – and yet considered her love and service to God as the greatest priority:

“My mind was brought to a close sense of the separation between me and all who are dear to me… I felt to the full the reality and bitterness of the sacrifice, yet I desired to be preserved in a cheerful surrender of my all unto Him whom I love, and whom I feel utterly unworthy to serve.”

Another Quaker woman, Elizabeth J.J. Robson, noted that the greatest happiness could only be found in Christian religion, in her diary in 1844:

“I have thought that we cannot be perfectly happy, unless we be true Christians, self-denying, cross-bearing Christians.”

Jane Attwater, a pious Baptist lady, frequently wrote prayers in her diaries. In March 1782, she praised God for his goodness, and chided herself for being less than fully devoted to Him:

“How little alas can I do for such infinite goodness, o for a heart intirely devoted to thy service.”

Many women believed that they ought to love God, in light of all that he had done for them, and that this ought to manifest in obedience to his calling upon their life. Religion was not a peripheral part of life for these pious women – it was the centrepiece.

Faith provided happiness and purpose. Whether women found themselves committed mainly to domestic work, or active in the ‘public sphere’, religious women believed their lives were to be both directed by and towards God. Identity was found in their love and service to God, who was pre-eminent in their lives.

Angela Platt is a PhD student in Royal Holloway’s Department of History. Her thesis explores the lives of nonconformist families in England between 1780 and 1850. The next post will explore how concepts of ‘separate spheres’ and agency can be better understood through religion.


Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders? Opening the Professions to Women after 1919

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© Women’s Engineering Society and the IET Archives

On 20 February 2019, the Bedford Centre will be hosting a panel discussion on the history of women in engineering and we are delighted to be welcoming Jane Robinson as one of our speakers. Jane is the author of the forthcoming ‘Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders’ and, as a taster, she tells us about the book and what inspired her to write it. 

Embarking on a new book is terrifying. The one I’m working on now is about the first women in the traditional professions, including engineering, following the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act (the SDRA) in 1919. I wanted to write it because of two books I’ve written before: Bluestockings, about the first women to access a university education – which of course features Royal Holloway and Bedford Colleges – and Hearts and Minds, about the campaign for the vote.

Both are populated not by celebrities but ordinary women fighting for the right to live life on their own terms – and both beg questions. What did educated women do with their new-found education? And what did those seasoned by the suffrage campaign tackle next? Hence Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders, due for publication next year.

I should explain the title: when debating the admission of women to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), members came up with a definitive argument. Ladies can’t possibly be architects: they can’t climb ladders. Job done. (Some would argue women still can’t climb ladders, in terms of their careers.)

The SDRA should have been one of the most significant pieces of legislation in modern British history. Its wording was encouraging: ‘a person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function, or from being appointed to or holding any civil or judicial office or post, or from entering or assuming or carrying on any civil profession or vocation…’ It signalled at once a political watershed and a social revolution; the point at which women were technically recognised as competent as men.

But that ’technically’ is important; it was an enabling act rather than an empowering one. It enabled establishments like the Bar, like the Royal Colleges of medicine and surgery, architecture and engineering bodies to admit women. However, there was no requirement to admit them, no penalty for not doing so, especially if they were rash enough to marry which in many cases meant instant dismissal.

I said new books were scary: this is why. My fear is always that there’s not enough interesting material available. In the case of Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders there was one light-bulb moment when the fear was dispelled: I opened the digital archive of The Woman Engineer, the journal of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES). Running from 1919 to today it’s packed with fascinating information, illustrations, and personalities who burst from the page with good humour and high spirits. These people would be remarkable in any age; that they achieved so much in the face of the sort of prejudice you will hear about at the ‘Magnificent Women’ event, is inspirational.

© Women’s Engineering Society and the IET Archives

There was still prejudice, despite the SDRA. This was in many ways the worst time for women to think of entering the professions. Though they had won temporary respect and valuable experience by metaphorically donning bowler-hats and pinstripes or overalls and grease-guns during the First World War, priority was now given to returning servicemen while their womenfolk were expected to unfold their aprons and retreat to the parlour.

The economic climate of the mid-1920s hit everyone hard. Trained or educated women felt guilty for occupying positions which in the good old days before the war belonged exclusively to men. It took moral courage for male employers and female employees to stand up for the rights of a woman architect, civil engineer, solicitor, university lecturer or doctor.

And it’s a myth that either of the World Wars liberated women in the long term. Expediency meant that they were given the taste of an independent career, but socio-economic pressures ensured that in peacetime, the old order was reluctant to change. Lip-service was paid in the form of the SDRA, but the professional world was still hide-bound by precedent and, quite frankly, scared of competition.

After the passing of the SDRA the implication was that now there were no barriers left for women. Admittedly, only those aged 30 or above could currently vote, but optimists in the WES were sure that would change soon. Besides, having the vote was all very well; as one suffrage campaigner said, it’s what it led to that mattered. And yes, it was going to take a while for reactionary men to get used to working with women at the highest level, but that, too, would only be a matter of time. Wouldn’t it?

© Women’s Engineering Society and the IET Archives

Jane Robinson is a social historian, the author of 10 (and a half!) books including Bluestockings: the Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education, currently in development as a TV drama series, and Hearts and Minds: the Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote which is just out in paperback.

To find out more about the history of women in engineering and the current work WES is undertaking to promote gender diversity and inclusivity, please join us in the Shilling Auditorium at 6:30 on 20 February 2019.  Please register for free tickets here.

Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines: Women Engineers after 1919

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Eleanor Shelley-Rolls (1872–1961), a founding member of WES

On 20 February 2019, the Bedford Centre will be hosting a panel discussion on the history of women in engineering and we are delighted to be welcoming Henrietta Heald as one of our speakers. Henrietta is the author of the forthcoming Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines which tells the story of the foundation the Women’s Engineering Society in 1919. To mark the society’s centenary in 2019, copies of the book will be available in print from September. As a taster, here Henrietta tells us about the book and what inspired her to write it. 

This book began as the story of one intriguing, enigmatic and inspirational character: Rachel Parsons—daughter of Sir Charles Parsons, an inventive genius, and granddaughter of William Parsons, an Irish earl who in the 1840s built the largest telescope ever seen.  Rachel and her mother, Katharine, were the pioneering founders of the Women’s Engineering Society, of which Rachel became the first president.  During her presidency, Rachel met Caroline Haslett, an equally extraordinary woman of a very different kind. From a strict Victorian lower-middle-class background, Caroline went on to become the pre-eminent female professional of her age and mistress of the great new power of the 20th century: electricity.

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Rachel Parsons (1885-1956)

The idea of exploring the parallel lives of these two largely forgotten women was irresistible. What I hadn’t anticipated was the number of other amazing individuals who would clamour to get into the book because, as I found, the Women’s Engineering Society was a magnet for many ambitious and intellectual women in the 1920s and 1930s who sought to express themselves and earn a living outside writing or the arts.

At the same time, as well as securing the vote and the right to stand for Parliament, women were making progress in law, medicine and other areas.  However, those with technical, mathematical or scientific interests probably had a steeper uphill struggle. The Women’s Engineering Society and, later, the Electrical Association for Women, drew them together in a common purpose, opened new opportunities, and encouraged them to make alliances across boundaries of wealth, politics and class.

It wasn’t all plain sailing, of course. In a forerunner of today’s familiar assassination by social media, women who stepped outside the boundaries of ‘normal’ female behaviour were often subjected to ridicule and suspicion.  They reacted by ignoring such treatment or asserting their independence in diverse ways, with many remaining single or having same-sex relationships.

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Caroline Haslett (1895-1957), IET Archives

As now, engineering covered a broad range of disciplines but in 1919 it brought together those women who had contributed to industrial production and related activities during the war and felt angry and disappointed at being, as some put it, ‘thrown on the scrapheap’ afterwards. Some were trained in particular areas, others absorbed skills along the way, but all had had their eyes opened to the advantages of social and economic liberation.

Equal pay was a crucial goal and in the wartime munitions factories the positive effects of supporting female workers in all aspects of life had become clear. Special provisions were made for pregnant women and mothers of young children, including subsidised childcare schemes. Training and education for women had been implemented on an unprecedented scale, and they had shown that they could excel in many areas. Taken together, these elements might have been seen to prefigure a feminist utopia—until the war ended, when it all started to go badly wrong.

The magnificent women in my book called themselves engineers, but their revolutionary machines were more than mechanical objects such as cars and boats and planes. Through their achievements at work and their campaigns to promote women’s rights, they prepared the ground for a social revolution that would put fair and equal treatment of the sexes firmly on the political agenda. It amounted to a vibrant ‘wave’ of feminism that, until now, has largely eluded the attention of historians.

Henrietta Heald is the author of William Armstrong, Magician of the North, a book about the great Victorian industrialist who built Cragside in Northumberland, the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity. The book was shortlisted for two literary prizes.  To get a 10% discount on your pre-ordered copy of her new book, Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines, please visit and use the code WIE10.

To find out more about the history of women in engineering and the current work WES is undertaking to promote gender diversity and inclusivity, please join us in the Shilling Auditorium at 6:30 on 20 February 2019.  Please register for free tickets here.



Christiana Herringham: Artist, Collector, Campaigner

Photographer: Colin White.

Christiana Herringham, Portrait of a woman wearing a black bonnet with a pink and white bow, c.1900

On 14 January 2019, Royal Holloway opened a new exhibition on Christiana Herringham (1852-1929), the first exhibition dedicated to her in almost seventy years. It is co-curated by Michaela Jones, a PhD student at Royal Holloway whose thesis focuses on the Herringham Collection, and by Dr Laura MacCulloch, the college curator. It is the culmination of almost four years of research and aims to explore Herringham’s extraordinary and multifaceted achievements.

Christiana Herringham (from 1914, Lady Herringham) was a dedicated supporter of women’s rights, working alongside her friend Millicent Fawcett in the fight for women’s suffrage by organising petitions, donating money, and creating banners for the cause. Her independent wealth meant that she was also able to support other women artists, by commissioning and purchasing the work of painters such as Annie Swynnerton.

She was also able to establish herself as a successful artist and a noted authority on art. In 1899 she published a translation of Cennino Cennini’s Il Libro dell’Arte. Originally written around 1400, the work is a treatise describing how to prepare panels, grind colours, and apply gilding to paintings and frames. Herringham’s translation established her as a leading figure in the emergent British Tempera Revival; a position which was cemented in 1901 when she co-founded the Society of Painters in Tempera.

Herringham travelled extensively to Europe and beyond in pursuit of her art. She travelled to India on three occasions between 1906 and 1911, purchasing Indian art and undertaking an ambitious project to create a series of copies of the ancient frescoes in the Ajanta Caves.

In Britain, her legacy lives on through the work of the Art Fund. In 1903, she donated £200 to cover the initial start-up costs of the organisation; an achievement acknowledged by the Art Fund by their financial support of the exhibition.

Despite her numerous achievements, she was largely forgotten in the decades following her death. Her erasure from the art historical record seems to have been at least partly due to her admission to a mental asylum in 1911, following her final trip to India, and where she remained until her death in 1929.


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A rare photograph of Christiana Herringham taken in India, c.1906-11, RHUL Archives

The Herringham Collection forms approximately one-third of the fine art collection at Royal Holloway, and comprises both Herringham’s own work, and artworks which formed part of her own private collection. This collection, in addition to many of Herringham’s books and photograph albums, was originally gifted to Bedford College by her husband, Wilmot Herringham, who shared his wife’s interest in women’s education and served as the chair of the committee of Bedford College.

After the merger of Bedford College and Royal Holloway in 1985 many of the items, including Herringham’s photograph albums and a portfolio of 120 of her sketches and watercolours, were misplaced and forgotten. These items were not rediscovered until 2014.

The exhibition at Royal Holloway brings together many of these recently rediscovered works for the first time. Combined with research undertaken by Michaela for her PhD, it highlights both a significant aspect of the college’s art collections and the achievements of a woman who has largely been forgotten and is just now beginning to be restored to the historical narrative.

The exhibition is taking place in the Exhibition Space of the Emily Wilding Davison Building, and is open daily from the 14 of January to the 8 of March 2019. Admission is free, and a series of talks and events are being held throughout the exhibition’s run.

Michaela Jones is a PhD student at Royal Holloway, in the final stages of completing her thesis entitled ‘Christiana Herringham and the Art Collections of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College.’


Gender, Class, and Civic Pride: New Grammar Schools, 1880-1930


Staff at Southend Technical School pose for a photograph in 1905

The laying of Maidstone Grammar School for Girls’ foundation stone in 1887, and its opening in 1888, were both grand civic occasions. The Mayor, magistrates, aldermen and local MP processed to the school site, proceeded by the police and mace bearers and followed by ‘the Friendly Societies with 20 magnificent silken banners.’ The speakers at the event talked of the ‘lasting benefit… to the town’ and there was celebration rather than opposition to ‘the girls of Maidstone’ having the ‘educational advantages long denied them’.

I became interested in this area of research when I wrote the history of Southend High School for Girls for its 2013 centenary. As Head of History at the school, I had access to the archives and found the school magazines particularly interesting for the insight they gave into the messages the girls were being given. This led to an MA and a dissertation comparing the girls’ and boys’ schools in Southend. When I discovered how little recent work had been done on the modern grammar school, I applied to Royal Holloway to do a PhD.

I am currently researching the founding and development of the new schools and the extent to which class and gender shaped contemporary views of them. However, these issues are, of course, not merely consigned to history. In December, nearly 3,000 people signed a petition against proposals to boost the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds attending a chain of grammar schools in Birmingham, while government plans to expand the number of grammar schools last year was met with hostility.

If there was no opposition to the Maidstone girls’ school on grounds of gender, class was often an issue. On news of the proposed school, ‘some persons’ held a meeting ‘condemning the principle of giving money to the middle class and affirming the principle that it ought to be given to the poorer classes.’ This view of grammar schools as irredeemably middle-class institutions is shared by many historians., however both the Head Mistress and the local Maidstone MP expressed the hope that the school would become one for ‘all classes’, even if there was only one ‘girl from an elementary school’ in 1888.

The official opening of Chichester High School for Girls in 1911 appears to have been an even grander affair than in Maidstone, as it was presided over by the Countess of March with ‘public men from all parts’ of the county. However, ‘a large section of the population resented’ the school’s ‘very existence’ according to a local newspaper in 1922, and it was reported at the time that ‘business kept many city residents away’. The implication was that local businessmen and prominent citizens were boycotting what was a grand civic occasion.

Class and gender cannot be ignored as an explanation for the resentment towards the new school, as there were already two endowed boys’ secondary schools in the city. The local community was urged to ‘recognise the [new] boys’ school as their own and take it to their hearts,’ when it was finally opened eighteen years after the girls’ grammar school and it was stressed that ‘they had not got a kind of special school for poor scholars’. However, the county council records indicate that a ‘considerable contribution from the localities’ was expected and the  council itself delayed the building of a grammar school by pleading poverty. It was the Board of Education that finally forced the county to act.

It had been declared that ‘expense was a question that always came up’ when the new building for the Southend school was opened in 1902. Finance must also be recognised as an issue for Maidstone as well, as without money from the Charity Commissioners the girls’ school would not have been built in the 1880s. Since the rate-payers were not being asked to pay, the opening of the school provided them with an occasion for local pride.

The opening of a girls’ grammar school was a cause for celebration in Maidstone and for resentment in Chichester. Both were county towns so civic pride in the new foundations might be expected in both places, but opposition from ratepayers helps to explain the reaction in Chichester. Gender is not a sufficient explanation as the boys’ school was also resented. Taxation, and the effective financial redistribution it was perceived to create, illuminated barely-concealed class tensions in Chichester and highlights the intricate relationship class and gender had when assessing the reaction to new grammar schools.

Pam Mansell is a postgraduate research student in the Department of History at Royal Holloway.

Magnificent Women

A Panel Discussion on the First Female Engineers

Wednesday 20 February 2019, 6.00-7.30pm, Shilling Auditorium, Royal Holloway


After being side-lined after undertaking crucial engineering and technical
roles during the First World War, in 1919 a group of pioneering women
engineers banded together to found the Women’s Engineering Society
(WES). The society continues today to promote gender diversity and
inclusivity in engineering.

To celebrate the centenary of WES and 100 years of women engineers, the
Bedford Centre for the History of Women and Gender is delighted to present a
panel of commentators looking back at the historic roles of female
engineers, and to welcome Henrietta Heald, author of the forthcoming
Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines on the founders of the
Women’s Engineering Society; Nina Baker, engineering historian on the first
female electrical engineers; Jane Robinson, historian and author of Hearts
and Minds: The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won
the Vote and a forthcoming title on the opening of the traditional professions
to women in 1919 with the passing of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act;
and Elizabeth Donnelly, the CEO of the Women’s Engineering Society.

David Howard, Founding Head of Royal Holloway’s Electronic Engineering
Department, will introduce the pioneering work of Beatrice Shilling in the
new Shilling Building named after her. There will be time for networking
over refreshments and a chance to sign up to WES so do please join us for
what promises to be an engaging discussion of how the past can help shape
the future of women in engineering.

To register for free tickets please visit:

For more information email Katie Broomfield:

Social Scientist or Philanthropist? The Bedford Centre’s time-travelling interviewer meets Louisa Twining in 1859


Louisa Twining c. 1906

From the perspective of our time Louisa Twining (1820-1912) is a dull subject – a pious philanthropist, worthy but no longer relevant, and not a scientist of any kind.  There are probably a number of reasons for this. Neither of her memoirs, the first published in 1880 and the second in 1893, reflect the passionate concern and outrage on behalf of individuals which colour her early writings. Most scholarly references to her life and work are based on these. The name of the organisation which she founded – the Workhouse Visiting Society – does not convey today her revolutionary vision. She was a Christian Socialist, for some reason today not given similar credit to the atheist or agnostic varieties. The few visual images we have of her show a severe, unsmiling lady growing stout in retirement – enough said!

However, the issues she addressed so incisively in the 1850’s are still with us today in the social care scandals of the last twenty years. Let’s travel back 159 years, and meet the women in question:

Aged thirty-nine, Louisa is a woman on fire.  Over the last five years she has published a series of pamphlets containing searing critiques of our  approach to housing and feeding those who cannot earn enough to live outside the workhouse – the frail, disabled or demented old, the disabled, unskilled or unsocial younger people, and their children.  Last year she established the Workhouse Visiting Society to act as a national network for people engaged in improving the lives of workhouse residents, and has now become a recognised part of a national debate.

When we meet in Bradford she had just delivered her second speech to the recently-formed National Association for the Promotion of Social Science. Miss Twining’s comprehensive and incisive grasp of her subject was based, at the beginning of her career, on listening to workhouse residents, particularly women with age-related infirmities and unable to earn their living any longer and now (reluctantly) spending their final years in the infirm wards. She tells me that she was most struck by three aspects of the workhouse regime which together acted to demoralise and reduce the individual.

Firstly, if there is no-one in whom residents can confide, petty abuses of power on the part of the staff can quite quickly become regular and serious abuses.  She tells me of one lady who brought with her just one possession – a teapot – but was immediately told by the admissions officer no personal possessions were allowed, and he subsequently destroyed her beloved teapot.  Secondly, she says, imagine how people lose their faculties when there is no-one who calls them by their name, or recalls with them the events and celebrations of life outside the workhouse walls.  Both of these ills could be ameliorated by even the most amateur and approachable (female) visitor.

Lastly, boredom and lack of purposeful employment demoralise people – women as well as men – who have worked their whole lives in a trade which has kept them, and often a family too, in respectable lodgings. Why is it not possible, she asks, for people to be allowed to work at a bench, with their tools, even if they are no longer able to work sufficiently fast or accurately to earn a living? Or, I suggest, to be useful in some other way such as teaching the workhouse children a useful skill?  But such facilities are not provided and the management segregates residents by age, gender and class of resident.

Miss Twining’s ideas concerning workhouse visitors have taken a truly revolutionary turn:  visitors, she suggests, should be female because, yes, middle-class women can afford to undertake such activities at no financial cost to the taxpayer. They therefore have time to listen, to befriend and to encourage.  But they should be trained, and work in a co-ordinated manner, sharing information amongst themselves about the operation of the institution and its staff. Ideally they should work in partnership with a responsible management, to introduce small changes to the regime which will deter abusive staff and residents, and provide a more humane refuge. When I ask whether such a partnership might be in operation somewhere she says no, nor is she hopeful it will be in her working lifetime.  I tell her not in my lifetime either. We agree that the obstacles such as mistrusting reformists, defensiveness, dislike of hearing a woman analyse an issue and reluctance to adjust systems to suit individuals cannot be underestimated.

Once the Workhouse Visiting Society was launched, however, Miss Twining began to hear of the experience and initiatives of other ‘social workers’, mostly women, in her field and has turned her attention from this vision.  Her lecture today focused on the work needed to educate and protect children in the workhouse, and to prepare them for working life on the outside. She tells me of predatory employers prospecting the workhouses for female workers who are just about to leave for life outside. The girls, aged between eleven and thirteen, who are especially sought are those who have no friends or family to “give any trouble”.  Since the girls have no practical skills or experience of work, they are both vulnerable and liable to fail in these jobs. In a few years they are back in the workhouse, on the adult wards, and at risk. We can do better, she says, and one senses that this is where her energies will be spent in the next few years.

Louisa Twining’s earliest campaigning pamphlets from 1855 and 1857, published anonymously, have now been identified and accredited.  Pamphlets by other women are still unattributed, to which Twining referred to in her 1859 speech to the NAPSS.        

Johanna Holmes is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Royal Holloway.  She has a previous career advising government and the voluntary sector on social housing and youth homelessness.

Women in UK Higher Education: Visibility, Foremothers, and Role Models

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Edith Morley (pictured above) was the first woman to be appointed Professor in Britain in 1908, and yet more than a century later woman still have a visibility problem in UK Higher Education.

Although there is near gender parity at undergraduate level and a proportional dominance of women in postgraduate populations, women are subject to an impossible sliding scale: numbers diminish and visibility falls the higher the level of employment.

The proportion of professors who are women in UK universities has reached almost 25%, according to the latest statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). But the numbers of women professors is actually declining at some institutions.

This imbalance significantly increases amongst vice-chancellors or principals, where women constitute only around 18%. The exclusion of women from these prestigious and highly visible leadership roles makes it harder for women to follow. After all, if you can’t see it, how can you be it?

Women have been marginalised and omitted throughout history, and this trend extends to those pioneering women who were first to break through the ranks of universities as closely guarded male institutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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Scholar and suffragette Edith Morley (1875–1964), who became Professor of English Language at University College, Reading, was labelled ‘difficult’, and suffered gender-based discrimination throughout her career. Millicent Mackenzie (1863-1942, pictured right), appointed Professor of Education at what is now Cardiff University in 1910, was subject to a significant gender pay gap.

Our own foremother at Bedford College, Dorothy Tarrant (1885-1973, pictured below), achieved first-class honours in Classics at the University of Cambridge, but like many women at the time was not awarded a degree (pictured below). Tarrant taught at Bedford College from 1909 to 1950, becoming Head of Department and the first woman Professor of Greek in 1936. She was also the first woman President of the Classical Association, and the first President of the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies.

Victoria 3These women really were trailblazers, and yet our foremothers and their path-breaking achievements are nearly forgotten.

The importance of recognising the struggles and achievements of our foremothers and promoting positive role models is a central concern of the Women’s Classical Committee UK (WCC). Established in 2015, the WCC is an organisation dedicated to supporting women in Classics (broadly conceived), and promoting feminist and gender-informed perspectives within the discipline.

This type of women-centred promotion is essential on a gendered playing field that is far from level. All-male edited volumes, editorial boards, and conference panels are still common. A ‘manference’ held in March 2018 at Stanford University featuring thirty white men starkly demonstrates this imbalance.

But issues of visibility and representation can be more opaque. In Classics in the UK nearly twice as many men as women are employed as a professor. Nearly three times as many Classics Departments are led by a man rather than a woman. More than four times more men than women who are Head of Department are employed at professorial level.

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Our learned societies are not led by women. Since its inception in 1903, the Classical Association has had as many presidents named John as women (8). The Hellenic Society has had 38 presidents since 1879, three of whom have been women. Out of 93 Fellows of the British Academy for Classical Antiquity, 15 are women. This means that when we look up, we are not seeing women.

The WCC is dedicated to improving the visibility of our foremothers past and present, highlighting their struggles and successes for the benefit of successive women and men in higher education. We have achieved this through #WCCWiki, an initiative designed to reverse the gender bias on English-language Wikipedia. Wikipedia is the largest and most influential source of information in the world. It is the fifth most visited website in the world, and it is read by almost 500 million people every month.

But Wikipedia’s gender bias really bites: fewer than 15% of Wikipedia editors are women, and only one in six of its 1.5 million biographies are about women. That slant is even more apparent when it comes to Classics: an estimate in 2016 found that only 7% of biographies of Classicists featured women.

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#WCCWiki encourages people to come together to edit out Wikipedia’s gender skew. We’ve created or edited around 200 pages, including those for the pioneering American Classicist Grace Harriet Macurdy, Classical archaeologist Jocelyn Toynbee (pictured left), and more contemporary role models like Averil Cameron, Jennifer Ingleheart (below, left), and Donna Zuckerberg (below, right). #WCCWiki is an example of direct activism that is effective, instant, and accessible to everyone with an internet connection.

Rather than sitting on our hands and relying on the deceptive myth of progress, by remembering the struggles and achievements of our foremothers we can shine light on progress made so far, and areas that are yet to change.

Profile photo Olivette O (1) (1) (1) (1)History was made in 2018 when Olivette Otele (pictured left) was promoted to Professor at Bath Spa University; she is the first black woman Professor of History in a UK university. But equality in terms of race, gender and ethnicity in UK HE is far from being achieved.

By illuminating positive women role models that benefit everyone we can support the women following our foremothers, making higher education a fairer and more inclusive environment where women are allowed to succeed, and can be seen doing so.

By Dr Victoria Leonard

For Victoria’s research, see here and here. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @tigerlilyrocks. For more information about the Women’s Classical Committee (UK), see here, and follow @womeninclassics on Twitter.


Women’s Rights and Suffrage from 1866 to Today: New Online Course


Dr Mari Takayanagi, senior parliamentary archivist, discusses the Representation of the People Act with Citizens project officer Claire Kennan

The centenary of the Representation of the People Act in February this year, which gave some women the vote for the first time, has provided us with a great opportunity to look back at women’s struggle for rights and equality. Over the course of this year, these acts have been commemorated at local, regional and national levels. There have been exhibitions, lectures, and statues to celebrate the tireless work of women suffrage campaigners.

Royal Holloway has played its part too, delivering its own successful programme of events to celebrate the centenary and its own connections. The Bedford Centre’s summer conference entitled, Education, College Women and Suffrage: International Perspectives, formed part of the College’s activity and provided a welcoming forum for the latest academic thinking and research. However, as the centenary year draws to a close, opportunities to engage with and learn about the suffrage campaign remain.

On Monday 12th November, Royal Holloway’s free online course ‘Beyond the Ballot’ relaunches on FutureLearn, following its successful first run in February. Developed in partnership with UK Parliament, and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the course examines the history of women’s rights and suffrage from 1866 to today.

Over four weeks the course places the women’s suffrage campaign into the broader context of the fight for equality, both before the vote was granted and after it was partially secured in 1918. But the story doesn’t stop there! The course continues the narrative right up to the present day, finishing by asking current female MPs for their views on remaining barriers to equality.

We look beyond the familiar story of the Pankhursts and the militant campaign of the Suffragettes to give due attention to the peaceful, law-abiding efforts of the Suffragists and some of the forgotten organisations like the Actresses’ Franchise League. By the end of the course we hope that every learner will know their suffragist from a suffragette.

Learners will also get a chance to consider the position of the suffragettes within popular consciousness and see how this memory has been constructed. The subject of suffragette militancy is also covered, and we allow our learners to draw their own conclusions as to whether it could be classed as terrorism. And as Dr Fern Riddell reminds us: ‘we have to see our history in its totality…. a half-history serves no one.’

Beyond the Ballot isn’t your standard university course, it is a free open online course on the Futurlearn platform. As such it is designed to be accessible to everyone and we’ve taken steps to make the content as engaging as possible through documentary style interviews with experts, the chance to look at original sources, and fun features like polls and quizzes.

Participants can learn with experts in their field, including our very own Dr Stella Moss and Dr Alex Windscheffel and archivists, academics and curators from Parliament, The National Archives, and The Women’s Library Collection at the London School of Economics. It also gives learners the chance to explore unique documents and artefacts central to the story of women’s suffrage. The course is packed with links to extra content allowing learners to explore and research the topic further.

We hope the course will inspire people to find out more about women’s history, whether that’s taking another short course, visiting their local museum or archive, or attending one of the many fantastic events or exhibitions which are taking place across the country.

Finally, from the controversy over the pay gap to the #MeToo movement it’s clear from today’s headlines that women’s rights are a still a live issue. So, if you’re interested in learning more about the women’s suffrage movement or women’s fight for equality more broadly, please sign-up to ‘Beyond the Ballot’ and help contribute to this ongoing discussion.

Steven Franklin is a Citizens Project Officer. The Citizens project is led by Royal Holloway, University of London, and charts the history of liberty, protest and reform from Magna Carta to the Suffragettes and beyond.



The Great War and Women’s Sporting Emancipation


Convalescing soldiers play cricket at Harefield Military Hospital with English and Australian nurses, c. 1916 (Courtesy of Barts Health NHS Trust Archives)

As the Women’s World Twenty20 starts on 9 November, the first international cricket tournament since England’s remarkable victory in front of a packed Lord’s crowd last year, it also coincides with centenary commemorations for the end of the First World War. On first glance these two events appear unconnected. Historians have, quite rightly, widely celebrated the influence of the Great War on women’s political and legal emancipation, but these discussions have often overlooked the impact it had on cultural and bodily freedom. As women’s sport has been included in these commemorations, did it also contribute to women’s liberation during wartime and after?

If we look at news headlines, the rapid emergence of women’s team sports seems a recent phenomenon. Women’s cricket, for example, was in steep decline after the mid-1950s, but in the last ten years it has become one of the fastest growing sports in the UK. In 2013 there were nearly 600 clubs and over 60,000 women playing the game, figures that have certainly been surpassed since then, and this level of growth has been matched by other women’s sports. Twenty years after women were first admitted as members of the Marylebone Cricket Club, a deeply symbolic moment, England bowler Anya Shrubsole became the first woman to appear on the front cover of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, ‘the Bible of Cricket’, and the England side won the Sports Personality Team of the Year Award 2017.

However, this surge in participation is not without precedent. The First World War played an important role in encouraging – and allowing – women to play sport. Around 1.66 million additional women entered paid employment during the war, but they often entered the sports field too. Many employers promoted sport as a ‘moral’ pastime for their new workforce, and women were given new opportunities previously only available to men. Near Gretna in Scotland, the largest munitions factory in Britain organised regular football and hockey matches for its (mostly female) 11,000-strong workforce. Other factories up and down the country provided fields, equipment and facilities for netball, gymnastics, tennis, and swimming too. Sport became a defining feature of factory culture.


The most famous women’s football club of the interwar period pictured in 1921 (National Football Museum)

Women’s voluntary services also promoted sport, often playing with injured servicemen as ‘open-air treatment’ was believed to speed recovery and strengthen bodies. At Harefield Hospital in west London, limbless veterans played with nurses to alleviate boredom. Members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps were encouraged to play sports in France with convalescing soldiers as this was believed to have a good influence on morale following a mutiny in 1917. Lack of adequate equipment, space or clothing was no deterrent, and for many working-class women this was their first opportunity to play team games as an adult. Meanwhile, back in Blighty, public matches were regularly played to raise funds for wartime charities.

The war also had a lasting effect on women’s physical emancipation. Building on the efforts of hockey, lacrosse and cycling clubs before 1914, organising bodies for women’s athletics (1922), rowing (1923), netball (1926) and cricket (1926) were soon established. Women’s football was so popular that over 53,000 spectators watched a game at Goodison Park in 1920, which frightened the Football Association enough to effectively ban the sport a year later. Nonetheless, other physical recreations continued to flourish. Keep-fit classes proved incredibly popular, and by 1939 the Ladies’ Golf Union had 1,417 affiliated bodies and the Women’s Hockey Association had 2,100, including 200 leagues in the North of England.

The Great War had an egalitarian effect, too: sport was no longer solely accessible to wealthy women. Enthusiasts still faced staunch criticism, including accusations of being ‘unsexed’ (one Australian newspaper warned of the end of humanity if women continued to play cricket) or of abandoning their domestic duties, but as the interwar period progressed women’s physical freedom became less contested.

This relaxation of attitudes can largely be attributed to the impact of the First World War. The roughly one million ‘munitionettes’ had proved their physical worth and directly assaulted the myth of fragile femininity. As one member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service commented after the war: ‘up until then we were brought up in a very, very strict Victorian stilted youth, and it gradually got that you were free […] when I got back I got ideas, you know? I remember starting hockey, and cricket and tennis at my office.’

On the centenary of the end of the Great War, and as women’s sport increasingly gains public profile, academics researching the history of women’s public participation, citizenship, class, education, employment, and freedom – among other things – simply cannot ignore public displays of the female body or discuss emancipation through a narrow political framework. Thankfully, the historiographical landscape is slowly shifting and the role of sport and physical recreation in the cultural emancipation of women is gaining greater recognition.

Adam McKie is a postgraduate in the Department of History at Royal Holloway. His first book, Women at the Wicket, was published in May 2018.