Bluestockings – a book of educating Women

Ever practice the gentle art of avoidance? I have several things that I ought to be doing, mainly writing my piece for my Creative Writing group, but I am feeling singularly uninspired. Never mind, here’s a post about a book which I enjoyed reading, despite the fact that it’s historical non fiction. It is really readable as well as tackling a big subject in an interesting way. Bluestockings by Jane Robinson is subtitled The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education.

As you can guess from the title, this book deals with the first women who sought, and managed, a degree level education is this country. Not that it was all called degree level; there is a lot here about the different certificates and pass levels that women first earned before they were allowed to formally graduate.

The book begins with the informal group of curious women (and some men) who got together to discuss intellectual matters. Gradually various houses and hostels were set up to allow women to attend lectures and even tutorials in various localities, notably Oxford and Cambridge. This book is not limited to those two cities, however, as some developments were actually led by London, Durham, Sheffield and Manchester. Cambridge didn’t even allow women to formally graduate until 1948.  Whoops! My old college, Selwyn, let women study there from 1976, but managed to muck up the formalities so that they had to get a retrospective Act of Parliament in the late 1980s to confirm all their degrees. Of course, the fact that all colleges in Cambridge now admit women isn’t covered in this book, as it really stops in the 1940s.

The great strength of this book is its anecdotal emphasis. There are hundreds of stories of cocoa parties, financial and other sacrifices made in order to learn, the realities of community life, the problems of those who struggled to learn and develop in the university system. There are accounts of the sympathetic and the unsympathetic men who forwarded and restricted the progress of women, the inconsistencies of women in encouraging and sometimes discouraging progress, and the limited choices open to even educated women in the early part of the twentieth century.

I found this book a good, informative read in many ways. I think anyone who is interested in the situation of women in the first half of the twentieth century will find this a good book with many careful references and accounts of what really happened.