So what happened next?
That’s the question I’m most often asked when I give talks on Bluestockings, my book about the first women to get to university. Once they completed their studies and were awarded their degrees, what did they do with themselves? The original hardback cover (left) pictures excited ingenues about to enter academe; how would they look a few years later, walking in the opposite direction towards a male-dominated world of work? Did their families claim them back, having had their fun, to resume domestic duties? Was the workplace ready for them? Did they marry, in defiance of the bluestocking stereotype? Perhaps they changed the world? Or was the whole experiment of educating young women merely an elaborate exercise in breeding white elephants?
Now that I have finished Hearts and Minds: Suffragists, Suffragettes and How Women Won the Vote (out next January, https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/1111210/hearts-and-minds/) I realise that similar questions arise in connection with enfranchising women. By the time the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed in December 1919, a minority of women were equipped with academic qualifications and with a vote – but what could they do with them?
My next book will attempt to find some answers. I’ll be celebrating the centenary of women’s lawful entry into the traditional professions in 2020, following the work and home lives of a handful of pioneers in each of the elite, crystal-ceilinged arenas of architecture, the church, engineering, law, and medicine – together with ground-breakers in academia and the media. I’ll explore what motivated them, what mattered to them, what their peers and the public thought of them, and what is their legacy for the working women of today.
It’s early days, but I’m already uncovering some wonderful characters. Maude Royden (1876-1956), for example, one of the founders of the campaign for women’s ordination. She was the youngest of 8 Liverpudlian children, a keen suffragist, inspirational public speaker and the first female Assistant Preacher at the City Temple in London. Enid Starkie (1897-1970) was a fantastically eccentric academic (right, ex. http://www.ndbooks.com), a specialist in French Literature who bewildered her students at Oxford by dressing as a matelot for tutorials. Debutante Victoria Drummond (1894-1978, below, ex. wikipedia.org) was so determined to become a marine engineer that she took the necessary exam 37 times before passing, and then went on to serve at sea as a Chief Engineer during World War Two. Barrister Helena Normanton (1882-1957) was the first woman to prosecute in a murder case; Irish architect Eileen Gray (1878-1976) inspired Le Corbusier… and so on.
These might be comparatively well-known names; I am always eager to write about the unsung heroines of history, however, so am hoping to focus on women who have eluded the limelight in the past. With that in mind, could you contact me if you think I should know about any alumnae in your family, your archival collections or field of expertise? If you’re in one of these professions, I’d love to hear about your favourite female role models of that era. I’m looking for strong (but not necessarily high-profile) characters and surprising achievements; inspirational women who qualified in the 1920s and who through their own efforts and determination helped to shape the family and working lives of us all.
You can contact me on email@example.com, or via my agent Veronique Baxter, David Higham Associates, 7th Floor, Waverley House, 7-12 Noel Street, London W1F 8GQ.
(right: no joke… ex. tashalaw.wordpress.com)