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Bored Bluestockings and Frivolous Flirts: The Necessary Adaptations of Early Female University Students in Ireland

By Aoife O’Leary McNeice (@aolmcn)

Female students were admitted to Queen’s College Cork (QCC) – now University College Cork – Ireland in 1886. One might imagine that these women were innovative and progressive, as they challenged the boundaries placed upon their gender by entering the predominantly male space of the University. But despite their pursuit of higher education, their behaviour was also conventional, as these students sought to preserve their traditional femininity. For these first women students, the primarily male space of the university needed to be navigated carefully.

This dynamic played out in the College’s student magazine, QCC. In a satirical article published in 1908, an anonymous author presented caricatures of alleged female types. He depicted one woman who embodied the unsexed female ‘advancing decorously with nun-like gravity, … a tall, prim, very dignified-looking lady-student … presenting a general mixture of bluestocking, books and boredness’. He also described ‘the athletic girl stalking with thick, abnormal hands and feet and the hockey figure’. The writer even complained that female students’ ‘numbers appear to be a legion’.[1] As women made up only a small minority of the student body, this sentiment reveals anxiety towards their presence.

QCC also included a weekly ladies’ column. The column constructs a self-portrait of waif-like lady students, fluttering gracefully around campus. ‘Fairy footsteps’ is a phrase used throughout the ladies’ column in relation to the female students, as are descriptions of the ‘rustling’ and ‘fluttering’ of ‘bright dresses’.[2]  This strange self-portrait may have been the author’s attempt to assuage male fears of a threatening, un-sexed female competition on campus, whilst simultaneously emphasising their femininity. There are several articles in QCC that make this overtly clear. The lady students demonstrated their ability to cook and emphasised the fact that, along with performing well academically, they could also carry out the domestic tasks expected of their gender. In February 1908, at a Glee and Madrigal Society social the Ladies’ Column described how ‘The Lady Students … “fed the brute” with cakes made by their own fair hands. Let Mick White now stand forth and defend his malicious assertion that the modern bluestocking could not even cook a potato’. This assertion of femininity, however, was not the only characteristic of female self-portrayal in response to criticism. As well as being deemed un-sexed and un-feminine, the women were also accused of being unfit to study in a university environment because of their femininity. In the same article that satirises the bored bluestocking, we find another stereotype applied to female college students, ‘our frivolous, laughing, chattering, slangy girl…who babbles ceaselessly of theatres, dances, conquests, dress, and the latest scandals.’[3]

As well as asserting their feminine natures and talents, female students also needed to assert their right to study alongside men. The Ladies’ Column frequently celebrated female students’ academic successes: ‘At the scholarship examinations, held last October, the lady students were well to the fore. It is a consolation to remember that the members of our sisterhood are ever ready and willing to run a few paces with the sterner sex in the examination tilt yard’.[4]  This statement celebrated female academic achievements but acknowledged that the standard against which women judged themselves was male. In doing so, it asserted women’s right to compete against men.

These early students wished to be accepted and respected by their male peers. However, they were not necessarily groundbreaking pioneers of the women’s movement. For example, references to suffragettes in QCC appear mostly as insults, or as the butt of jokes. The female students seemed determined to distance themselves from the suffrage movement, and its taint of radical gender subversion.  One example from the Ladies’ Column reported a rumour

“that a contingent of ladies [are] intent to chain themselves … to the door of the Council room at the next meeting, not to demand “Votes for Women”, but something vastly more important … a full length mirror in the Ladies’ Room.” [5]

Although the extract above was obviously written in jest, it is in keeping with female students’ attempts to align themselves with the status quo rather than against it. In the early days of female university education in Ireland, the university environment was an ambiguous, unique space that could be classified as both private and public. Women could engage in activities that might be frowned upon in the completely public domain. However, because both men and women attended the university, women students were still criticised for bending and subverting gender roles, and as a result were presented as unwomanly. This led to a necessity to defend their femininity, which in itself resulted in charges of frivolity. The college space was an environment with new opportunities for women, but also one in which their presence was constantly questioned.

 

Image: University College Cork quad, photograph by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, 20 March 2012 (licensed via creative commons)

References:

[1] ‘Cherchez La Femme’, QCC, vol. V, no. 1, Dec. 1908.

[2]  ‘Aphroditiana or Ladies Notes’, QCC, vol. II, no. 2, Feb. 1906. ‘From the Ladies’, vol. III, No. 1, Jan. 1907. ‘Aphroditiana’, QCC, vol. IV, no. 2, Jan. 1908.

[3] ‘Cherchez La Femme’, QCC, vol. V, no. 1, Dec. 1908.

[4] ‘Aphroditiana’, QCC, vol. IV, no. 2, Jan. 1908.

[5] ‘From the Ladies’, QCC, vol. V, no. 1, Dec. 1908.

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