Unseating the seats of male power

No Distinction of Sex
September 8, 1995

Writing in 1957, Janet Sondheimer, historian of the British Federation of University Women, noted of early 20th-century academia that "faculty and university boards were solidly male, professorial chairs, apparently, were designed to accommodate the masculine frame". In 1990, according to the Hansard Society's report, "Women at the Top", the masculine bottom still occupied 86 per cent of full time tenured academic positions and 98 per cent of professorial chairs. The report concluded that it was "wholly unacceptable that British universities should remain bastions of male power and prestige".

Histories of women in higher education have largely focused on Oxbridge, and are usually cast in two phases: the work of "pioneer" feminists (1870-1902), followed by a period of "consolidation" (1902-39). Carol Dyhouse, however, turns to what were then the new universities, those universities outside Oxbridge founded and chartered before the Second World War. The new universities, unlike Oxbridge, needed to attract women undergraduates in order to consolidate their newly established departments, and they frequently advertised themselves as making "no distinction of sex". In her thoughtful and very readable study, Dyhouse sets out to examine this claim. Her study of the lives and careers of women students, tutors and academics, complicates the story of pioneers and consolidation. She argues that, although by the 1930s women academics and their students were established within the universities - with their own networks, federations and histories - they were still extremely vulnerable. Thus during the economically difficult 1930s, when parents and local education authorities had less money to spare, much of the work of consolidation was undone.

The early experience of women in higher education was highly segregated. University authorities, much preoccupied with social propriety, built new colleges and hostels, and created a new and separate labour market of "tutors of women", "lady supervisors" and wardens. But then, as now, the debates over segregation were fierce: many academic women saw segregation as an opportunity to build communities where women might live, away from domestic cares and social pressures, in an atmosphere imbued by feminist ideals; other academic women, however, believed that segregation undermined women's claims in what should be, and might become, a meritocratic system. Moreover, while some students embraced the Oxbridge-inspired ideal of "a room of one's own" (or at least a cubicle), "emancipated", and less wealthy, students resented the genteel codes of the first women's colleges and hostels.

The gradual abandoning of social and academic segregation in the early part of the century did indeed make women vulnerable. Histories of women in higher education are usually enlivened by tales of redoubtable upper-middle-class feminists with sharp (and entirely necessary) senses of humour. No Distinction of Sex? has its fair share of such women, but Dyhouse has also uncovered less public and more painful stories. Edith Morley, professor of English language at Reading and the first woman in Britain to occupy a professorial chair, was profoundly isolated and in perpetual conflict with her colleagues, who considered her "disturbing". Margaret Miller, a lecturer in commerce at Liverpool, conducted a highly public and successful campaign to prevent her vice chancellor from instituting a marriage bar against women staff. She won, but was not reinstated, and by the following year she was applying for jobs in insurance.

Given the incorporation of the latest "new universities", No Distinction of Sex is a timely reminder of a difficult history. Nearly 130 years after they first entered academia, women remain concentrated in the lowest-grade academic posts, and sexual inequality (on a scale which clearly horrified the Hansard Society) is, apparently, only too acceptable in British universities.

Fiona Russell is a research fellow in the school of cultural studies, Leeds Metropolitan University.

No Distinction of Sex: Women in British Universities 1870-1939

Author - Carol Dyhouse
ISBN - 1 85728 458 5 and 459 3
Publisher - UCL Press
Price - £35.00 and £11.95
Pages - 288

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