Saturday, 4 September 2010

Bluestockings by Jane Robinson

Jane Robinson's book surveys the development of university education for women in England, from its earliest origins in the 18th century until the start of World War II.  Robinson focuses mainly on the period from the late 19th century onwards, and includes an account of development of formal school education for girls, which led in turn to a demand for the opportunity to study at a higher level.  She goes on to describe the founding of the Oxbridge colleges for women, the opening of provincial universities with no gender bar, and the gradual infiltration of women into institutions that were not always ready or willing to receive them.  All of this is illuminated by personal accounts, memoirs and diaries of the women who studied and taught in these institutions; these are usually inspiring, sometimes rather tragic, and often extremely funny.  I particularly liked the nervous sixth-former, arriving at at St Hilda's expecting a rigorous interview, only to find herself making shadow-puppets in the firelight with the English tutor.  Clearly she was good at it, as St Hilda's offered her a place.

Robinson is very good on the arcane rules of institutions, getting under the skin of what can seem like gratuitous regulation so that the reader understands the rationale, and gives a wonderful sense of what daily life could be like for the female undergraduate in the first half of the twentieth century.  The resistance to women students from institutions (particularly Cambridge) and families (one enterprising father offered his daughter a pony if only she would give up her idea of going to college) is also well-described, including the wider establishment's antipathy to the female scholar, who, it was thought, would damage her chances of producing healthy stock by keeping her nose in a book.  I was also interested to find how socially mixed interwar university students could be, with scholarships, contributions from schoolteachers, and occasional quiet waiving of fees all helping to get girls from poorer backgrounds into higher education.

Now women outnumber men in higher education in England and Wales, at least on undergraduate programmes, and there is no need to struggle to be taken seriously as an applicant because of your gender, except perhaps in some subject areas. Parents are much more likely to expect their daughters to go to university than to oppose such a plan.  It's good to remember the pioneers who bucked convention on our behalf, so that university education for women became a norm, not an exception, and Jane Robinson's book celebrates them in great style.


  1. I often wonder what it would have been like to live at that time. I was a very late child from a very traditional mother. One of her preferred insults was to call me a Bluestocking. Your review made me think of it. Thanks for an interesting review.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting, Caroline. What did you call your mother in return?

  3. Good question, well, at that time I didn't call her names. The surprising thing is that she did consider herself to be a feminist. I am reading "Click" by J. Courtney Sullivan at the moment. Gets me thinking.