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)
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the general Victorian attitude that women were seen as intellectually inferior compared to men, as she wrote in her unpublished memoir that ‘girls books were greatly inferior to those meant for boys’.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.
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.’
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.