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Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the…
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Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an… (2009)

by Jane Robinson

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As the title suggests, this book discusses the first women in Britain to attend university. Broadly covering from the mid-late 19th century up until the second World War, it describes the opposition faced by prospective students, including doctors who believed that education could cause infertility (!), the belief that men would not want to marry an educated woman, and the widely held belief that women just did not need to be educated, when their sole purpose in life was to marry and have children.

Rather than giving a chronological account of how universities came to accept female students (it’s worth noting that Cambridge University would not award degrees to females until 1948, although females were allowed to study there prior to that date – Oxford beat them by 28 years by finally agreeing to award degrees to women in 1920), it focuses instead on what university life was like for women during the period covered, such as when women could only talk to men when there was a chaperone present, people would be expelled for extremely minor transgressions.

The book is packed with personal anecdotes, and includes many excerpts from the diaries and writings of former students. As expected, there are some truly inspirational stories included, as well as some more sombre accounts of student life from those who were not happy with university life, and found themselves ill-equipped to cope with their new circumstances. There are tales of families who struggled against convention and lack of finances, to send their daughter(s) to university to get an education, and stories of others who found help elsewhere. It also makes the point that for a very long time, having a degree was not considered any advantage in looking for a career, unless you wanted to be a teacher – indeed it was practically expected that if a woman did pursue a career after her degree, it would be in teaching.

The book is inspiring and well written…definitely recommended. ( )
  Ruth72 | Feb 6, 2014 |
Cambridge University only started awarding degrees to women in 1948. For once, Oxford was more progressive. Women were allowed to graduate there already in 1920. This is the charming story of the first female cohort that started out to conquer academia which started in the early 19th century and is still ongoing if one seeks gender parity in full professorships. The book is filled with gems and nuggets about a strange and now lost Victorian world. As always in a British context, the class context is both present and ignored. Academic aspirations are a profoundly bourgeois idea. The aristocracy is not known for breeding and caring about intelligence. The peasants and workers simply could not afford this type of luxury.

"It was there that the Bronte sisters went, and where their friends became pupil-teachers, ploughed back into stony ground before they had a chance to flourish in the world" (p.28). Only medical progress made investment in female education a non-futile endeavor. Death in child-birth cut short too many a promising life. Convents were among the few places that invested in female education and given the longevity of nuns could reap its benefits. As only one out of ten of the first cohort of bluestockings married, an academic education had a similar secular effect. It would have been helpful to set this tiny number of female students (720+335 during a twenty year period in two institutions) in context to the total population to see that these were truly exotic pioneers. The shocking bigotry these women had to endure is truly breathtaking. One was denied time-off during the 1930s to give birth due to the reason that no man ever claimed the same benefit ...

Relying on personal recollections and letters, the book does not fully reveal the private life of the students. It is hard to reconcile the draconic regimented lifestyle told in this book with the general level of licentiousness as told in Simon Winchester's account about Joseph Needham's time at Cambridge during the 1930s. A saucier account might have tried to pry loose the stockings. ( )
2 vote jcbrunner | May 1, 2011 |
This is mostly about British women and university education, to be precise. I really enjoyed this book -- it focuses a lot on individual women and their experiences as told in correspondence and from interviewing relatives. Some parts were a little rage-inducing, but most of the time reading about these women was inspiring and/or hilarious. ( )
  tronella | Apr 20, 2011 |
I should read more history books - finding ones I like is the problem. This book is all about the experiences of the first women to attend English universities starting in the 1830s or so and running more or less up to the time that degrees were being granted to women by pretty much all universities, Cambridge being one of the last to permit that in 1948. As someone who grew up expecting to go to university and expecting that all opportunities would be open to me it was a bit of an eye opener. Even the author mentions that she was expected to go into a teaching career as a woman armed with a 1970s degree, something that was off the radar by the time I was getting my 1990s degree. I'm very glad that these women paved the way for me!

It's a fascinating read full of strong characters (not always the "undergraduettes" themselves) and happy endings but also the stories of those for whom things went wrong, who weren't in the right places, those who got educations they didn't want and those who didn't get the educations they wanted. I loved reading it and have a new perspective on things as a result. It's one of those things that you're aware of but hearing some more of the story is welcome. ( )
1 vote nocto | Apr 5, 2011 |
A very enjoyable, interesting and stimulating read about the first female university students in the UK. It made me want to know and read more about the inspirational women who paved the way to the opportunities so many of us take for granted.
  otterley | Jan 12, 2011 |
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They eye-opening and inspiring story of the young women who overcame all odds to get their education. Using the words of the women themselves, this book tells of their defiance and determination, of colourful eccentricity and at times heartbreaking loneliness.… (more)

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