In 1908, Edith Morley was appointed professor of English language at University College, Reading, thus becoming the first woman to be awarded a chair at a British university-level institution. Best known for a biography of the diarist and journalist Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867), Morley’s other publications included Women Workers in Seven Professions: A Survey of Their Economic Conditions and Prospects (1914). A supporter of women’s rights and a Fabian, she is barely remembered today.
Yet Morley, who experienced sex discrimination throughout her working life, did not wish to be erased from history. In 1944, four years after her retirement, she wrote a memoir. Although it was rejected by a publisher, three copies were placed in the University of Reading’s archive. It is fitting that her memoir, edited by former Reading librarian Barbara Morris, has at last been published this year as part of the university’s 90th birthday commemorations.
Born in 1875 to a surgeon-dentist father and well-read mother, Morley hated “being a girl” because of the restrictions that middle-class femininity placed on her. Nonetheless, she received a good schooling before becoming a student in the Ladies’ Department at King’s College London. Her talent was soon recognised and she was encouraged to read for the University of Oxford’s Honour School of English Language and Literature. Although she passed her examinations, as a woman she was awarded only a “degree equivalent”. When she began teaching at Reading in 1902, it rankled that she did not have “the same status as one’s male colleagues”.
By 1907, when plans were under way to reorganise the college along university lines, it was decided that the title of professor should be bestowed on all heads of department. But Morley, the sole lecturer in charge of English, was excluded from the list. She challenged the decision, “especially as there were some included in the new professoriate whose claims were considerably lower than my own, whether as scholars or teachers”.
Morley threatened to resign, and a compromise was reached. But there was a sting in the tail. Despite being a specialist in English literature, she was named to a professorship in English language. Further humiliations took place. Some of the college clerks refused to use her new title on official communications sent to her. When she appointed a young man to lecture part time, it was suggested that he should be responsible to the male dean rather than to Morley. When a full-time male lecturer was appointed in 1911, he was informed that as a chair in English literature would be instituted the following year, “he would not long be in the ignominious position of subordinate to a woman only”.
Writing in 1977 in The University of Reading: The First Fifty Years, historian J. C. Holt drew a hostile portrait of Morley, describing her as “provocative, disturbing, aggressive, intransigent…a very different sort of person from her male colleagues”; a woman who “frightened” even “the most extrovert of men”. Morley’s memoir presents a very different picture that challenges such misogynist views. She also writes about her active life after her retirement, when she set up Reading’s Refugee Committee and assisted Belgian Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.
Before and After is a poignant first-person account by a pioneering feminist who struggled for recognition in her academic life, and her story will resonate with many female academics today.
June Purvis is professor of women’s and gender history, University of Portsmouth.
Before and After: Reminiscences on a Working Life
By Edith Morley
Edited by Barbara Morris
Two Rivers Press, 120pp, £14.99
Published 10 March 2016