Rising up the career ladder – voices from the past


What was it like to grow up as a girl in Victorian times? To study and work in a university at the turn of the last century? And how was life for women who wanted to advance up the university career ladder?

A new book, published for International Women’s Day, tells the story of Edith Morley, the first female professor of a UK university. The book, Before and After, is an edited version of a memoir left by Professor Morley, who died in 1964 and is published as part of the University of Reading’s 90th anniversary celebrations.

In writing the memoir, Morley’s aim was “partly to explain to young people what life was like for young women of her generation and class, and partly to chronicle her involvement in the issues of the time – more particularly, early feminist and socialist thinking and activities – and the people she met who were involved in them”.

It is a remarkable book – remarkable because it catalogues Morley’s struggles – and those of many women at the time – and provides the context for many of the issues women still face today.

Childhood and student life

When Edith Morley was born into a middle class family in London – the only girl among five children – she found the restrictions of being a girl difficult. “I did hate being a girl” she says on the first page. From the gloves and veil she had to wear to not being able to do cartwheels, climb trees or do team games she felt hemmed in and often disobeyed the rules. She showed an early interest in learning and, fortunately, backed by her “exceptionally intelligent” mother, was allowed to follow her interests in science and learning.

She was sent to a finishing school in Germany where girls were not allowed to do maths, science or Latin. Morley supplemented her education with voracious reading and became interested in the political and social reforms taking place at the time.

Her book chronicles her time at King’s College – which she only attended because her mother was worried she would be so bored and unhappy at home for the year before she ‘came out’ that she would start walking around the neighbourhood unescorted.

Morley was one of the first three students at King’s College Ladies’ Department to take a degree. She comments that young people of ‘today’ – she was writing after her retirement in the 1940s – cannot understand the struggles of women in those days or the “thrills of adventure” and the “comradeship of work and play” and of “kindred spirits in a common cause”. She describes, for instance, how the Department, which had no library, created a sense of community through activities such as the Hockey Club, one of the first London hockey clubs for women. Women in the team had to get permission from their families and dreaded a blow to the face in case their parents would then ban them from taking part. “It is quite impossible to make the present generation realise what their grandmothers derived from their initiation into the joys of athletic exercise,” writes Morley.

She describes the joys of belonging to a community and becoming independent of mind and spirit and how women were not just held back by social prejudice, but by their families. “It is comparatively easy, “ she writes, “to contend with mere unreason and antagonism, but extremely hard to fight those whose love is proven and unquestionable and whose only motive is obviously the promotion of what they believe to be one’s well-being. We hear a great deal nowadays of women’s earlier struggle against their opponents for their rights and their freedom. Less is said concerning the more painful and pain-giving necessity of contention with parents, brothers and friends about the countless little things which, in their sum, created a mountain of difficulty and repression.”

Despite opposition at home, Morley continued with her studies in English literature and took a job as a lecturer in Gothic and Germanic Philology at King’s, getting her first insight into university administration and policy discussion, which was unheard of in a British university at the time.

From King’s she was invited to teach at the fledgling University of Reading [then Reading College] in 1901, at first on a very low salary which she rejected. They doubled it without further discussion. Within two years she was promoted to lecturer and took on the organisation and teaching of the English faculty.

A few years later, when Reading was looking to reorganise along university lines, Morley was told the Heads of Department were to be given the title of Professor. She was young and relatively inexperienced so when she was told she was not going to make Professor she was not overly upset – until she found out she was the only lecturer in charge of a subject not to have been promoted. Even so, she says, she would not have been unhappy if the College had explained to her that, given she was a woman and young, they could not promote her. There were no other female professors in the UK at the time. Instead, they handled it badly. Not only did they deny her lack of promotion was due to her gender and youth, but several others who were granted a professorship were less experienced than her. She fought the decision and became the first woman Professor at a UK university – in English language, rather than Literature, which was her specialism. It was a compromise and she took it to secure her promotion.

Even so, she was made to feel bad about it and was subject to humiliation and perceived as a troublemaker. Moreover, because men were not allowed to serve under a woman, a Professor of English Literature was also appointed. This meant her Department was the only one in the University to have two professors, making it more expensive and meaning her post was sure to be abolished as soon as she retired. She quotes Swinburne about her feelings on retirement: “We are hence, we are gone as though we had not been there.”

The book recognises Morley’s vital role in women’s struggle for equality in higher education and shows the importance of remembering those individuals and their individual experience of pushing the boundaries and opening up possibilities for women.

Morley herself saw her promotion in those terms. Her book, however, does not just tell her own story, but includes an account of her political and social activities in the feminist and socialist movements – for instance, with the Suffragettes and with the Fabian Women’s Group – as well as her work with refugees during the Second World War, an equally pertinent issue today.

She recounts discussions about how society needed to change to enable ‘normal women’ to meet the demands of motherhood and work – a debate which continues today. There are discussions too around equal pay and maternity support.

Morley says of her activism: “Experience proves that the united influence of educated women can be exerted for the promotion of good causes both at home and abroad.”

The book highlights the paucity of women’s voices from the past – voices about the debates at the time from the viewpoint of someone involved, but also about the everyday experience of living at that time. It is an important record of times past and an inspiration for times present. Things may have got a lot better for women, but much of this book has a enduring relevance today.

*Before and After, edited by Barbara Morris, is published by Two Rivers Press on 8th March 2016, price £9.99. It can be pre-ordered here.

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