Women’s colleges/colleges for women

It’s International Women’s Day tomorrow, but there’ll be no Paula post as I’ll be under the surgeon’s knife (nothing dramatic).  In the run-up I notice particularly a major report from Warwick University analysing the salaries of 17000 recent graduates in full-time work (part-timers again slide out of the picture…).  It notes how persistent the gender pay gap is, but also how it varies, from 28% in law to 4% in education.   This is at the outset of their careers, remember – things will only get wider.

However I thought I’d write on something a bit different.  I’ve just finished Rosemary Ashton’s story of Victorian Bloomsbury.  I’m lucky enough to be a Bloomsbury resident, so this had a particular fascination for me.  It’s an especially valuable corrective to the idea that Bloomsbury is primarily interesting because of the eponymous C20 cultural folk.  Ashton’s richly detailed account of the previous century tells us much about how many of London’s major educational and medical institutions came about.  They grew (and sometimes died) within an extraordinarily small area, and were so often the brainchild initially of just a few people.

There is a particular PP relevance,  inevitably.  In 1864 Elizabeth Malleson founded the Working Women’s College, at 29 Queen Square.  This was in direct response to the establishment of the Working Men’s College 10 years earlier.    One year later the WWC had nearly 200 women enrolled, including, Ashton tells us,  Kate Appleton (telegraphic clerk), Jane Orris (tobacconist), Louisa Cook (bootmaker) and Ann Smith (domestic servant).  These were all in the Latin class taught by Arthur Munby, who besides this teaching role was a photographer of working women and lived with one, whom he kept secret from all his colleagues (shades of the protagonists of  two previous posts,  Charles Dickens and George Gissing).

There was soon a debate about whether women should be admitted.  The result was fission.  The original WWC became the College for Men and Women, but a splinter group founded the College for Working Women.  So we now had a situation which outdid Monty Python’s Judean People’s Front’s opposition to the People’s Front of Judea: a College for Men and Women, a College for Working Women and a Working Men’s College, all within close proximity.  An interesting challenge of market, not to say ideological, differentiation.

Single-sex education triumphed, at least temporarily, as the College for Men and Women faded and then closed in 1901.  The CWW carried on until 1966 – when it merged with the WMC.  Declaration of interest: I am a governor of the WMC – which still exists in rude health (and in Camden).  We claim to be the oldest continually-running adult education institution in Europe.

How did the women who enrolled in these various institutions  use their newfound competences?  Sadly, we don’t know what the education offered actually meant for them.  Good material for a future PhD.



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