on 11 July 2015
When women first sought a university education, they were dismissed as strange eccentrics and harridans seeking to step in the hallowed halls that should be reserved for men. Mocked by some, reviled by others, thought to be damaging their uteruses and rendering themselves unfitted for their one socially-given function, to breed, the fight for the education women take for granted today was a long one. Even when first admitted to Oxford, Cambridge, and the other institutions of the day, they were shunted into dusty backrooms, and denied the right to an actual degree, even if they gained the highest score in the year (Cambridge shockingly continued to deny formal degrees to women until 1947).
"Bluestockings" tells the story of those first pioneering women to step into the universities against the opposition of society, the institutions, and often their own parents (one girl was offered a pony if she would agree to not go). It tells the story of their socially-stunted and often eccentric lecturers (one admissions' tutor's idea of an interview involved encouraging the potential student to copy the shadow puppets she was casting on the wall), and their often potentially-deadly pursuits (one girl, lacking the correct mountain-climbing equipment, made her own from an old pair of trousers).
This fascinating book will make you grateful for how far we've come, and will make you realise how much we owe these amazing women. Jane Robinson's style is well-paced and entertaining, full of anecdotes that really give you a feel for the period.
on 2 August 2012
Bluestockings tells the story of the first women to go to University in the UK, of their fight for that right, of the prejudices they faced, of the friendship an support that allowed them to succeed, of how they lived, what they learnt, and what they came to contribute to society. It is easy for us to take education for granted (forgetting that, in so many places in the world, it is still denied to both women and men), which is why it is so important to remember, through books like this one, that we owe our freedom to the sacrifices of the ones who came before us.
The women of whom this book speaks are inspiring true heroines who were driven by love of knowledge in a hostile world where they were, due to gender, considered unable to learn - in fact, pretty much unable to do anything but have children and take care of the house. The arguments used against them are both laughable and outraging: women's brains are lighter than men's; studying would make them infertile or hysterical or promiscuous... they proved them wrong by their extraordinary results and, later on, by the high participation and success of women in most areas.
However, this fight - which started in the 18th century but only gained momentum in the second half of the 19th century - was not a loud one. There were moments of resistance to these revolutionary women's ideas, most notably the 1897 riot of Cambridge students against the idea of awarding degrees to women (which, incredibly, Cambridge only did in 1948), but in general these women were quiet and very well-behaved. This strategy allowed them to prove that higher education for women has excellent results, thus silencing opposition and strengthening their cause. Soon enough, girls from all social classes were going to University, experiencing some measure of independence, expanding their minds, and forming strong friendships. The quaint, old-fashioned and rather sweet descriptions of their daily lives and the anecdotes related are great fun to read about.
Of course, not everything was perfect: there were women who did not adapt at all, others who faced conflicts with their families or economic hardship (and it is touching to read about how they helped each other), and all had a very restricted form of freedom. For example, if they wanted to go anywhere, they had to take a chaperon; for a man to go into a woman's bedroom, the bed had to be removed first and the door kept open (even if it was a family member). Initially, upon leaving University, they either married and had children or became teachers but, by 1939, women were starting to go into every career, inspired by the generations before them. Change is portrayed as a wave that keeps gaining momentum as it moves forward.
The evolution in the part women play in society has been extraordinary - which is why the book is written in the sunny tonality of winners - but we must not forget that there are still many challenges ahead in the struggle for an egalitarian society in which feminism plays an important role. This book does not cover those general changes: its scope is narrower, which allows the author to focus on individual lives, thus re-constructing in delightful detail the way of life of young 'undergraduettes' in British Universities during the late 19th/early 20th centuries (until 1939). The text is so fluid, the stories so touching and amusing, that the pages fly by; and the respect for education and for these extraordinary women is clear throughout.
Warm, funny, important - all in all, a delightful book!
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on 20 December 2009
A timely reminder of the journey that women have gone through to reach the position of equality, albeit incomplete, with men that they enjoy today. That women simply did not exist in the minds of many male academics less than 80 years ago is quite astonishing and the struggle for recognition that is chronicled in this excellent book is nothing short of inspirational. A must read for anyone wanting to understand what equal rights for women really meant, at a time when they had so few.
on 3 January 2012
I only recently heard the term, "bluestocking", and thought this looked like a promising start. This book is a riveting read comprising of contemporaneous narrative interspersed with historical facts.
It is quite shocking to read of riots in the streets of Cambridge, the result of a proposal that women be eligible to receive degrees. Oxbridge was anything but a pioneering education institution for women. By the start of the 1900s, only Oxford and Cambridge held out on crediting women graduates with actual degrees.
The road to equality in higher education is signposted by the amazing headmistresses, school teachers and pioneers whose unstinting support, imagination, perseverance and resilience to insulting and derogatory commentary enabled women to enter higher education institutions. They did not hold to the paradigm that a woman had "A fertile womb and a barren brain, or vice versa."
I have a heightened sense of appreciation for my own education now, and am enthusiastic to read more into the subject. Credit to the author, this is a worthwhile read for all.