Professor Edith Morley: The Struggles of an Educated Victorian Woman

Congratulations to our second year student Erin Shearer on winning our undergraduate student blog competition! Erin nominated Professor Edith Morley for our Temple of Worthies. Her blog was the most read with 317 views at the closing of the competition on March 27! (many more since then!).

Many thanks to all students who took part!

 

Professor Edith Morley

By Erin Shearer (2nd Year History BA, University of Reading)

 

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Edith Morley

Who is Edith Morley? But more importantly, why do students and staff at the University of Reading know so little about her? Edith Morley was a suffragette, Fabian and the first woman ever to be awarded the title of professor at a British University, but not just any university, Reading University. As part of my part two module, Rebel Girls, I was asked to produce a bibliography on a radical women and Edith Morley grabbed my attention. Despite being titled Professor of English Language at Reading University in 1908, Edith was an unusual woman in her era. She was determined not to be seen as not just as a professor but as an equal to men in an age where education for women was limited, women did not have the vote, and women were barred from most professions. It was Edith’s belief that women should have an equal place in academia and society and this drove her to become an inspiring and motivating force for young people around her at that time and she remains a role model for young people today.

When we picture the Victorians, we immediately imagine Queen Victorian and Albert, the classic Victorian embodiment of perfect family harmony and respectability. However under this picturesque image, there is a darker side of a patriarchal society and the subjugation of women.

Born in 1875, Edith grew up in a male dominated society and recalls how she ‘did hate being a girl’ due to the substantial differences in the way she was brought up in comparison to her four brothers. At a young age Edith was already noticing the general Victorian attitude that women were seen as intellectually inferior compared to men, as she wrote in her unpublished memoir that ‘girls books were greatly inferior to those meant for boys’. Edith was also forbidden from playing team games or to ‘run about’ with her brothers. Her later account of the Kings College Ladies Department women’s hockey team describes how they were severely hindered by ‘long voluminous skirts’ which were measured regularly to check they were still of an ‘appropriate length’, lest they should taint their respectability by revealing too much ankle.

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Unlike many girls in the Victorian era, Edith received a very good education. Born in 1875, Edith was sent to a private boarding school and undertook a Cambridge Higher Local Course at King’s College Ladies Department in 1892, where her intellectual abilities were recognised and she was asked to read for a degree at the Oxford Honour School of English and English Literature. Despite this achievement, her father still insisted she learnt drawing, painting and cooking lessons, because although ‘not professional, they were accomplishments and therefore taught.’ The limitations of Edith’s education are still striking to read. ‘’Most of the younger girls, like myself, were taken to and fetched from the classes; we did not speak to one another without formal introduction and we had no common room or social life or societies of any kind. There was no provision for the study of any branch of science, or even the nucleus of a library.’’ Edith gained her Oxford Honours, but was awarded the ‘equivalent’ of a degree because she was a woman, and was not allowed the privilege of wearing a hood, which male students were allowed to enjoy.

The struggles Edith underwent to receive a higher education and her awareness of women being considered second class citizens in Victorian society, influenced her socialist political stance and she became a member of the Fabian Executive Committee 1914 and the Fabian Women’s Group. Edith’s involvement in the Fabain Society, allowed her to express her beliefs that marriage and motherhood should not be regarded as careers but were instead used as methods to suppress women, a radical statement in an era where women were still confined to the home and were suppressed by the ‘cult of domesticity.’

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Edith pushed the boundaries of Victorian society, as not only was she the first woman professor, but also one of the earliest female university students. Edith was certainly not afraid to break the glass ceiling. Edith retired from the University of Reading in 1940 and is noted to have been formidable academic presence, dedicated to her subject, students, and her cause. Reading University has also played its part in women’s rights for academic equality, being the first ever university to award degrees to women at the same level as men in 1945, two years before all other British universities in 1947. It is no wonder that in 2014 Reading University celebrated International Woman’s Day with Edith Morley and described her as the ‘female role model of 2014’. Thanks to Professor Edith Morley and a number of other influential women, women can achieve the same standard of education as men in Britain, and one would hope Edith would be thrilled to see so many women studying at the University of Reading. Edith is a member of academia that the university is proud of and it is only fair that her achievements should be recognised throughout the university.

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All sources can be found in Edith Morley’s Papers at the University of Reading Special Collections.

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8 Responses to Professor Edith Morley: The Struggles of an Educated Victorian Woman

  1. Jessica Sage says:

    This is a great write-up, thank you! I’m based in the English Literature department at Reading and trying to get funding for a Morley project; looks like I should be talking to the history department too!

    I’ve not seen this photo of Morley before – where did you find it? I’ve been trawling the Morley archives but only came across the 2 pics here (http://www.jessicasage.net/edith-morley.html).

    I’ll put a link through from my site to here – Morley online resources are few and far between and it’s incredibly heartening to find another mention of her. You might also be interested to know that there’ll be a piece in this week’s Reading Chronicle and there was an interview on Anne Diamond’s Radio Berkshire show last Wednesday.

    • erinshearer says:

      Im glad you enjoyed the blog and its very refreshing to find someone interested in Edith!! A funded project would be amazing and if you ever need a pair of extra hands I would be more than willing to help. I found it on the reading website, i’ll take a look to try and find the link for you.

      • Jessica Sage says:

        Thanks for keeping the discussion going! The Chronicle piece was delayed but we took a photo in the archive this morning so it should be in next week’s edition (out on Thurs 26th). If you’d like to keep in touch do drop me an email – j.sage at the usual reading email address suffix.

  2. Let’s not forget, though, in all our self-celebratory pride in Reading that here, too, it took for ages for Morley to get promoted to professor (even though her male colleagues who had become HoD, after Reading had been turned into a full University, had been given this honour pdq), and that she was made a professor of English Language rather than Literature (while the latter was her actual subject). I also heard the odd story that the University then deemed it impossible for men to work under female leadership.

    • erinshearer says:

      Thank you for reading my blog. Some would argue that Edith Morley being a Professor of English rather than English Literature was a benefit. Literature may have been her subject but English Literature was seen as a more ‘feminine’ subject and more ‘suitable’ for a woman to study as it was viewed as less taxing than English Language. If the university did promote the belief that men couldn’t work under female leadership then surely Edith Morley would not have been granted the position of professor. However I agree that Edith did have to put up a huge fight for equality in academia.

      • I refer you to Holt, The University of Reading pp. 88 ff. Zweigiger-Bargielowska (ed.), Women in Twentieth-Century Britain: Social, Cultural and Political Change p. 123, and R. Haas in J. Chance (ed.), Women Medievalists and the Academy, p. 101. I think the jury is pretty much in on this.

      • Jessica Sage says:

        Another reference for you in case you’re interested – look at the 1912 committee minutes by W Burroughs and the letters discussing the eventual appointment of a Professor of English Literature- in these, the claim is that Literature is too prestigious a subject to be led by a woman and that a male professor is necessary in any institution hoping to become a university. A shift from the way my subject is often (disparagingly!) viewed today.

  3. Jacqui Turner says:

    Well done Erin. Very proud that UoR appointed the first female professor!

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