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A bunch of feisty women

BOOK - BLUESTOCKINGS: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF THE FIRST WOMEN TO FIGHT FOR AN EDUCATION - By Jane Robinson - Viking - Rs 800

 
By Ketaki Nandy
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

imageIn 1860, two young women held a long discussion on their career prospects in the small southern English town of Hitchens. “I must devote myself to securing the higher education while you open the medical profession to women,” Emily Davies told Elizabeth Garrett Anderson.



Five years later Anderson started practising as the UK’s first woman doctor. Four years later, her friend Davies rented a house in Hitchens for herself and five young women who became the first to study for a degree in arts at an English university.

But the pioneers were not offered the degree in spite of clearing the exams. And in 1897, when Cambridge University voted on whether to grant women degrees, men students rioted. The motion was defeated. Only in 1948 did the university relent. Cambridge was the last English university to allow women to graduate.

imageHistorian Jane Robinson’s Bluestockings is a riveting account of the opposition women faced in college. The book takes its name from an incident during the 1897 vote at Cambridge. A mannequin on a bicycle, skimpily clad in underwear and blue stockings, was hoisted outside the university’s Senate House. When the women lost the vote, man students took down the mannequin, ripped it and poked it through the Senate’s gates.

At Manchester, philosopher John Ruskin sometimes refused to lecture to “bonnets”—“ they would occupy the seats in mere disappointed puzzlement”. And a student magazine from Manchester repor ted that one academic, finding his audience all women, said, “As there is nobody here, I shall not lecture today.” imageEven more intriguing is Robinson’s account of the lives of the women who got a university education. At Manchester the first woman students were given accommodation guarded by stuffed animals from the university museum. It could have been worse. At many universities chaperones accompanied women to lectures.

Bluestockings is a charming social history of gaining education amid tribulations. It’s a story of lifelong friendships while sharing the joys of learning for its own sake.

Ketaki Nandy is a sociologist in Kolkata

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