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Posts tagged ‘women’s history’

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)


[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.

Gowns for ‘Sweet Girl Graduates’: The Evolution of Academic Dress

By Georgia Oman

While academic dress has been around for a long time, it is only more recently that the wearing of it in Britain has been permissible for more than a small but powerful elite. Until the 1830s, there were only two universities in England, Oxford and Cambridge, and academic dress was a part of their students’ daily lives. Indeed, until 1965, undergraduates at Cambridge had to wear gowns when going to lectures, supervisions, or into town after dusk.[1] As Paul Deslandes notes, academic dress was about more than just wearing a fancy gown – it was a visible symbol of student identity, as well as university privilege, insider status, and masculinity.[2]

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Translation and Digital Democracy in the Feminist Archive South

By Elissa O’Connell (@ElissaOConnell)

As readers will surely be aware, 2018 has been a historically significant year for women’s history and archives. The centenary of some women gaining the vote has created many opportunities to celebrate women-led activism across the UK, as well as to reinforce the need to document and protect these herstories through archiving and heritage. 2018 also marks the 40th anniversary of the Feminist Archive South (FAS), established in 1978 to document the herstories of international feminist social movements active between 1960-2000. The need to celebrate these vital campaigns for democracy and women’s rights has raised important questions about imperialism in women’s movements more widely.

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Resistance in Russia: A Reflection on International Women’s Day

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)

This year’s International Women’s Day, on March 8th, was marked across the world with various marches, proclamations and campaigns highlighting inequalities and celebrating women. In the last two years, we have seen feminist campaigns in various institutions to challenge ongoing inequalities that disproportionately affect women, including sexual abuse, the gender pay gap and governmental policies. The earliest observance of a day for women was held by the Socialist Party of America on 28th February 1909 in New York at the suggestion of Theresa Malkiel. German Marxist Clara Zetkin initially proposed an International Women’s Day in 1910 with no fixed date. It had been predominantly celebrated by the socialist movement and communist countries until it was adopted by the United Nations in 1975. Many historical demonstration actions have occurred on International Women’s Day, including in 1981 a demonstration when French women marched under the banner of the Movement for the Liberation of Women (MLF).

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Marking the Women’s Suffrage Centenary in Cambridge

By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)

6 February will mark one hundred years since the first women in Britain gained the right to vote in national elections. The Representation of the People Act of 1918 enfranchised 40% of women in the UK and was the result of decades of campaigning by various organisations across the country. It was a key step towards women getting the vote on equal terms to men ten years later. To celebrate this milestone in women’s history, Cambridge University Library is displaying some of its collections on women’s suffrage for the first time. Read more

Newnham College Cambridge hosts Wikipedia edit-a-thon to mark International Women’s Day 2017

Know something about an eminent woman? Think it should be shared? Newnham College Cambridge are marking International Women’s Day 2017 by improving the gender balance of Wikipedia, and they’re looking for contributors. Read more

Marian Mason: England’s Trailblazing Woman of Fitness

By Conor Heffernan

Although sporting historians have long noted the importance of English women in the development of sport in general, few studies have devoted themselves to the study of gymnastic exercise systems such as callisthenics. This has done a great injustice to Marian Mason, England’s first female physical fitness instructor who, beginning in the 1820s, ran one of the most sought after training studios in all of England.

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Significant anniversaries in 2016: the Contagious Diseases Act of 1866?

By Carys Brown @HistoryCarys

2016 is to be a year of historical anniversaries: 950 years since the Battle of Hastings; 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare; 350 years since the Great Fire of London; 100 years since the Battle of the Somme. The list could go on. Marking anniversaries is a long established tradition in the UK that has been shaped our culture for better or worse. We need only look to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ vehemently anti-Catholic rhetoric in the yearly commemorations of the Gunpowder Plot to understand how anniversaries can serve to reinforce the ideologies of history’s victors. Read more

A Little Chaos (2014): A commitment travesty

By Anna Knutsson @annaknutsson

Anna Knutsson is an MPhil student in Early Modern History at the University of Cambridge. She is currently researching expressions of female involvement in medicine in Renaissance Florence.

Director: Alan Rickman

Cast: Kate Winslet, Stanley Tucci, Alan Rickman, Jennifer Ehle, Matthias Schoenaerts, Helen McCrory.

Lack of commitment is a constant complaint of many people in the modern west. Unfortunately for the period drama lover, this has now also extended into the glorious realm of hooped skirts and curvaceous furniture. Whilst A Little Chaos offers an appealing concept to its audience in the form of history from below, it fails to deliver. Following the gardener Sabine de Barra’s (Kate Winslet) work to create the renowned rock garden at Versailles, the film explores the role of women at work and the difficulties of getting over a personal tragedy, intermingled with a lacklustre love story and Louis XIV’s (Alan Rickman) search for freedom.

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